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.

Asylum Seeker Policy and Christian Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

Yesterday (Friday, March 21, 2014), a couple of my good friends were arrested in (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s electoral office.

As people of deep Christian faith, they held a prayer vigil in Mr Morrison’s office (as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience), praying for asylum seekers (and asylum seeker policy), and for Scott Morrison personally. When asked to leave, a number of them (peacefully and politely) refused and were subsequently removed by police officers. You can read about the action in this SBS article, or in this article from the Bible Society. Greg Lake (former Australian Immigration Officer and whistleblower) wrote an excellent blog post about the action that you can find here.

I wonder how you feel about it all.

I make no claim to speak on behalf of the group—I was not involved in the action on the day, and have not been appointed as spokesperson—but I wanted to offer a couple of reflections on what happened on Friday.

Firstly, I’ve noticed a little bit of commentary emerging asking the question as to why these protesters popped up now and not while Labor was in government.

The truth is that they didn’t just ‘pop up out of nowhere’; they’ve just not gained as much attention until now.

I know a number of people in the group very well, and I know for certain both that they opposed Labor’s harsh policy measures towards asylum seekers while Labor was in government, and that the plans for nonviolent direct action began well before the 2013 federal election. In regards to the first point, these people have been perfectly consistent in opposing bad asylum seeker policy from both major parties. They do not have a chip on their shoulder against the Coalition specifically (or Mr Abbott or Mr Morrison personally), but have consistently opposed dehumanising policy no matter from where it emerges. In regards to the second point, I know that planning for nonviolent direct action on this issue was in process well before the election because I was personally present at meetings where it was discussed. (As just one example, a group of us ran an information evening ['From Despair to Action'] at Paddington Uniting Church in April, 2013, discussing many possible responses to attempt to fight against the ever-growing despair about asylum seeker policy, including a discussion of NVDA possibilities.) Though it could very well be argued that asylum seeker policy has hit its lowest point ever as a result of the 2013 election, it has been suggested that nonviolent direct action on this issue has been justifiable for quite some time now.

The line being run here (that they must be partisan hacks who fail all measures of consistency) is simply not true.

Secondly, I wanted to note that the action, at its core, was intended to be redemptive.

The action, from the outset, was specifically (and stringently) nonviolent , and the pray-ers/protesters were not only praying for vulnerable people caught in these harsh policy measures, but they also prayed for Scott Morrison himself. This was not done in a condemning or judgmental way, but as Christians praying for one of their elected leaders as well as praying for the redemption of their brother. Scott Morrison has consistently spoken of his Christian faith (including in an extraordinary maiden speech in parliament), and these pray-ers were praying for him too. The dehumanisation of others has the effect of dehumanising us all, and Scott Morrison is directly responsible for the dehumanising policy on this issue. As I have previously suggested, nonviolent action in this area must include a redemptive focus on Scott Morrison himself, and this action certainly included that idea as a central element.

Thirdly (and finally), I wanted to speak about the ‘success’ (or otherwise) of the action.

It is too early to tell how ‘successful’ the action has been. There has already been a few predictably negative reactions, but I have been pleasantly surprised at some of the favourable endorsement/soft endorsement of the action.

In regards to any action regarding asylum seeker policy, I guess the true measure of ‘success’ is as to whether or not it changes things for the better for the people caught up in the harsh, dehumanising measures. (This must be the goal, rather than media attention for the sake of media attention—or, worse, for nothing more than the self-seeking promotion of people involved.)

This could either be direct change (as in, making life better for asylum seekers through direct contact and/or direct measures), or indirect change (through ‘changing the conversation’ or helping move attitudes towards a more compassionate place, which ultimately leads to better treatment of asylum seekers in a ‘direct’ sense).

Obviously, the aim of Friday’s action is the latter.

As I noted above, it’s too early to tell what the outcomes will be, but there are some good early indicators that it has been reasonably well received in many quarters. This was the first act of civil disobedience on asylum seeker policy in Australia in a long time, and it has made its point in a firm but gentle way. There was no violence. There were no angry people yelling and screaming. There was no personal condemnation of Scott Morrison. In addition to this, the people involved have been consistently seeking to keep attention very much on the issue, rather than themselves.

It’s also important to note that the strategy of nonviolent action is not to convince everyone of the position. The aim is to shine a light on an unjust situation (allowing people to see the crisis for what it is, perhaps for the first time) and, hopefully, to move people from where they are to being a little bit closer to a more just position. Some people will never be convinced but, again hopefully, the majority of people of good will can recognise injustice when it is in front of them and adjust their own position, perhaps only slightly, to a more compassionate one.

Single actions on their own cannot really do this is full, but many small actions might, over time, work towards achieving this goal.

The action may have ‘succeeded’, then, at one level, simply by making space for many conversations this week about how best to resist the evil that is our current asylum seeker policy while not dehumanising those responsible for the (dehumanising) policy. There are moral and strategic questions that need to be discussed in order for change to happen, and at least some space for those conversations to happen has been created due to the action of those on Friday. Interestingly, there have been at least a few reasonably positive affirmations from people who have not previously been in the ‘NVDA camp’.

Finally, in regards to the issue of the ‘success’ of the action, I’m reminded by one of my mentors in the spirituality and practice of nonviolence that

We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.*

This in no way undercuts the fact that strategy and outcomes need to be very carefully considered, but it is good to hold the two in firm tension.

Perhaps this action has opened up (even in a small way) the possibility for more people to see that something must be done, that ‘regular’ people can do something, and that Christians (I believe) have a significant responsibility to stand alongside the vulnerable in our world. Perhaps it will ignite many more small movements towards shining a light on the current dehumanising policy and inspire creative acts of justice and human kindness towards vulnerable people. Perhaps these small movements, over time, can see policy change for the better.

This, at least, is my prayer.

If you have been inspired by this action and are wondering how you might get involved, I list just two of many opportunities here:

1) If you are interested in Christian nonviolent direct action, there is an opportunity on Easter Saturday (2014) to join with other Christians and people of goodwill for a peaceful prayer vigil outside Villawood Detention Centre (in Sydney), which will include an ‘act of prophetic witness’ which may include civil disobedience (though you certainly don’t need to be involved in the civil disobedience part to nevertheless join with the peaceful prayer vigil). You can find the details here. ***Update: Due to developments concerning the Villawood Detention Centre, it has been decided that this action will not go ahead as planned. Please see the link for more information.***

2) If you are interested in getting involved ‘directly’ with making life better for asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, see the wonderful work of Welcome to Australia. For churches, see the Welcome to My Place for Dinner website for how this might look for a church or for individual Christians during Refugee Week 2014.

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* Often attributed to Mother Teresa.

Intersecting Thoughts Roadmap for 2014: Missional/Nonviolence/Permaculture

I’ve set myself the goal for 2014 of centering my thinking specifically around three spheres of thought, and the possible overlaps between them.

These spheres of thought are missional thinking and practice, the spirituality and practice of nonviolence, and the principles of permaculture. Things always look more interesting in Venn diagrams, so I’ve included one here:

missional_nonviolence_permaculture

I’ll blog more about the ideas that are emerging from this study in other posts, but I just wanted to outline here some of the reasons why I’m interested in these areas, and also to list a few of the influences on my thinking in each area (and, ideally, to gain more input into this!).

In regards to missional thinking and practice, I’m captivated by its incarnational and holistic nature. I’m also energised by the almost limitless possibilities in regards to what missional communities look like (far removed from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach).

I’m reading books like David Bosch’s classic Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, through to authors like Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost with their The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (and Frosty’s excellent The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church). I’m also including in the mix titles like Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, and Bryant Myers’ Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development.

I was extremely fortunate last year to spend some time with Ruth Padilla deBorst, and to hear about what integral mission means for her (and how she seeks to embody it). I’ve also had the opportunity recently to see the work of a wonderful group of Christians in an area near where I live (north-western Sydney), seeing how they live out this incarnational, holistic mission in a lower socio-economic area (working around social enterprise opportunities and partnering with the local council for a community garden, to name just a few of the things they do).

In regards to the spirituality and practice of nonviolence, it’s been something that’s been growing on me for a number of years now. I attended some nonviolence training with Pace e Bene Australia in 2012, perhaps not totally convinced about it all. Having emerged from that training, reading through the Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living textbook and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, I found myself thoroughly convinced and eagerly desiring more.

My reading, admittedly, has been a little light-on to this point. In addition to the titles above, I’ve been working through various bits and pieces by Gandhi and MLK (and watching countless YouTube videos of nonviolence in action), in addition to Walter Wink’s fantastic little primer Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. The most important influences on me in this area, however, have been some friends of mine, as we have formed something like the beginnings of a community of practice. Discussions about non-violent direct action (NVDA) concerning a couple of hot-button political issues have been incredibly enlightening.

In regards to permaculture, I think the three core principles speak for themselves:

  • Care for the earth
  • Care for people
  • Share/return the surplus

Permaculture—far more than just growing vegetable gardens—is a way of thinking and acting that has ramifications for the whole of human life, ranging from the environmental sphere, through to social (and spiritual) applications. Basically, it’s about moving from mindless consumption to sustainable, integrated thinking and living.

I’ve been working through the Regenerative Leadership Institute’s free online permaculture design course, as well as reading Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and Bill Mollison’s classic Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.

What is really exciting, however, is thinking through the ways in which these spheres of thought intersect. In both missional and permaculture thinking at least, the edges and the overlaps are exciting places to be. As I indicated above, I’m going (hopefully) to post about this in much more detail over the coming months, but it’s just something that I thought was worth noting at the outset.

So, there it is. This Venn diagram represents for me the focus of my thinking throughout 2014, and I heartily invite you to explore any or all of these possibilities with me.

It probably goes without saying, but I should point out that I’m a total rookie when it comes to each of these systems of thought—especially when it comes to putting them into practice. My interest in these areas is not just in regards to thinking interesting thoughts or having interesting conversations (though they’re good and fun), but in embodying the values in my own life in concrete ways. My hope is that my own life and my way of living is significantly changed through this process.

Terrence Malick and Coffee Beans

I recently watched Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure what to do with Malick’s films, with their signature whispered, poetic voice overs, shots of long grass swaying in the breeze, and the often beautiful, sometimes awkward use (or absence) of music. Malick’s films explore the deep questions of life in a way that respects the viewer enough to think for themselves. Sometimes frustrating, this being-kept-at-a-distance is usually balanced by being drawn inside the characters’ minds—even if the thoughts encountered there remain ethereal.

The Thin Red Line captivated me when I first saw it, and still does. I desperately desired the same for The Tree of Life, but it wasn’t the case. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to capture the depth and breadth of what he was aiming for in that film, but I appreciate the attempt.

To The Wonder explores themes of love and loss, commitment and isolation. The story revolves around the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Falling in love in France, Marina moves with her daughter to Neil’s native Oklahoma, but the dream-like state does not last. As the relationship breaks down, Neil rekindles his relationship with former love Jane (Rachel McAdams). Tangential to this main story, the film also follows the story of Father Quintana (played to perfection by Javier Bardem), a Roman Catholic priest in the same town (originally also from Europe) who struggles with a deep sense of alienation from the God who once seemed so close as he goes about his selfless, low-key (but nevertheless extraordinary) ministry to the local down-and-outers.

The low (and otherwise unorthodox) camera angles, the almost constant motion, and the drifting in and out of conversations and other important moments combine to create an almost voyeuristic feeling, remembered in glimpses with a sense of remoteness. The camera is almost magnetically attracted to Marina, prancing and twirling through most scenes. Her extraordinary womanly beauty, however, remains in tension with her childlike naiveté. Neil’s emotional complexity is masked by an often stony-faced Affleck, though there are glimpses. Father Quintana’s God-forsakeness is raw and compelling.

(Read Roger Ebert’s final ever review of the film here, for a more in-depth analysis.)

To The Wonder left me with the same sorts of feelings I encountered after watching The Tree of Life. I’m not sure precisely what to do with it, but I’m pretty sure that I’m happy I watched it.

In a way, watching Malick’s films, for me, are like smelling coffee beans in between testing perfumes (or eating sorbet between courses of a meal); they ‘cleanse the palate’ and reset to neutral. Though this may sound somewhat disparaging (essentially coming across as a negative rather than a positive experience), I don’t mean it that way. When so much of the ‘perfume’ of contemporary movie making is cheap and nasty, or when so many films are like a McDonald’s meal (rather than fine dining), a cleansing of the palate becomes an absolute necessity.

Though Malick’s films (especially of late) may not capture everything that Malick attempts with them, they reset to neutral the expectation that I have for all films. More than that, they allow me to wonder what is actually possible. Formulaic romantic comedies, mindless action films, and dramas with no sense of nuance or complexity are fine, but they are, for the most part, lazy.

So much more is possible through the wonderful medium of film, and Malick helps me find where the starting point for those possibilities might be.

A Reflection of Sameness and Difference for Australia/Survival/Invasion Day

It seems to me that one of the significant causes of tension around Australia/Survival/Invasion Day is the increasing tendency towards narrowly defined (and increasingly aggressive) nationalism in majority Australian society.

Now, please let me say this clearly: there is nothing necessarily wrong with being proud of one’s nation or culture or identity. Having a positive (though not blinkered) view of one’s identity is fine; it’s when this identity seeks to define itself over and against the other in negative terms that we have the beginnings of the problem.

In the words of Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, this type of situation ends up in exclusion, which can manifest itself either as a cutting off from interdependence (the other becomes the enemy), or as the disintegration of the difference (the other becomes assimilated).

This is the sort of thing, I think, we’re seeing around ‘Australia Day’ (as well as ANZAC Day and in general conversations that include discussions of ‘national identity’), in regards both to attitudes towards Indigenous Australians and towards ‘new’ Australians. The only options, it seems, are either full assimilation or (therefore necessary) separation. One can either (quite literally) lose themselves in the prevailing culture, or they can, as is so eloquently put in numerous social media memes, go and f@#k off!

Such a limited and aggressive understanding of identity is distressing in so many ways.

But is there really no other option? Are we Australians so small-minded that ‘sameness’ is really the best that we can come up with?

I don’t think so. Though the angry voices for ‘unity’-based-on-exclusion are usually the loudest, I am convinced both that there is a better way and that Australians, in general, are clever enough and big-hearted enough to embrace it.

In Volf’s words:

We are who we are not because we are separate from 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.*

Surely we can be sophisticated enough to recognise difference within our larger category of what it means to be ‘Australian’. We can be different but still united; we can be united but still different.

(In another post, I may seek to explore the theology of this in more detail. I’ll say here simply that this is part of the very core of Christian theology.)

This, it seems to me, would allow us to recognise that Indigenous Australians can ‘be Australian’ in a different way than I, as an Australian of British heritage, do, and that different Indigenous Australians will do so in a variety of ways (i.e. there is not just one way of being an ‘Indigenous Australian’). In the same way, more recent arrivals to our shores should be able to embrace what it means to be ‘Australian’ without needing to lose what it is that makes them who they are.

Personally, I can’t see how ‘being Australian’ can mean anything else.

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* Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, p. 66.

Christian Missionary Work at the Roots of Modern Democracy?

So, word of a pretty amazing piece of research by Robert Woodberry is floating around social media at the moment. You can have a look at a summary of it here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html?paging=off

Basically, Woodberry’s thesis is this:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

Now, when something like this comes out, many Christians are probably going to be pretty excited about it. Already, I’ve seen just a hint of a ‘stick that in your pipe and smoke it’ attitude emerging, and I can only imagine the sorts of wild claims people will use such research to make. Equally, many who are opposed to Christianity (or religion in general) will seek to write the research off without critically and authentically engaging with it.

We need to be very careful not to forget that Christian missionaries did sometimes do some truly terrible things (whether intentionally or not), and in some cases the ripples of those actions are still being felt. This needs to be balanced, though, with a recognition that it is rare to find anyone as dedicated as these missionaries were, who often gave their lives (and life’s work) in seeking to embody the message of Jesus of Nazareth. They also preserved numerous languages as a regular part of their work, and taught women, and the poor, and others who would usually miss out (and who were thus assisted in being empowered by the actions of the missionaries).

As such, these things need to be held in tension, noting the complexity of it all. The good and the bad often went hand-in-hand.

I think there are a couple of worthy quotes from the article, though, to help highlight the specific point that’s being made. The first concerns the fact that the types of missionaries being spoken of here were not those acting on behalf of (or tied closely to) the State:

Independence from state control made a big difference. “One of the main stereotypes about missions is that they were closely connected to colonialism,” says Woodberry. “But Protestant missionaries not funded by the state were regularly very critical of colonialism.”

The other thing to note is that this wasn’t anything that was ‘added to’ the Good News the missionaries were seeking to share; it was just part and parcel of what they were on about:

“Few [missionaries] were in any systemic way social reformers,” says Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College. “I think they were first and foremost people who loved other people. They [cared] about other people, saw that they’d been wronged, and [wanted] to make it right.”

Food for thought.

Sooooo, thoughts?

John Pilger’s ‘Utopia’

Last night, I was fortunate enough to be able to make it along to the Australian premier screening of John Pilger’s new documentary, Utopia, at The Block in Redfern (see the trailer for the film here). It was an emotional experience—some parts are very difficult to watch—with deep sadness, shame and guilt (as a white Australian), anger and even rage being stirred up, but there was also an almost tangible sense of hope that flooded the open-air event.

Utopia is in some ways a kind of follow-up film to Pilger’s The Secret Country (1985), though The Secret Country focuses more on the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous contact in Australia while Utopia focuses more on the present situation. At the beginning of the film, Pilger describes his shock in finding out that Indigenous Australians are still facing many of the same issues as they did when he filmed The Secret Country, and how (non-Indigenous) Australia still hasn’t adequately acknowledged it’s shameful history and grappled with the (ongoing) injustice of how Indigenous peoples have been—and are being—treated in their own land.

I was quite interested in how the film would unfold, considering the fact that Pilger is not known for his diplomacy. Personally, I very much appreciate Pilger’s work, but I also recognise that he doesn’t do well in acknowledging shades of grey. The best way that I can think of describing Pilger’s manner is that it’s like he suffers from ‘Truth-Telling Tourette Syndrome’, a condition that causes involuntary bursts of truth-telling in a manner that breaks the usual ‘rules’ of social interaction.* Pilger’s interviews in the film with people like Mal Brough, I suspect, will be seen as more or less effective depending on where one situates themselves on the political spectrum.

As the film unfolded, it also became apparent that Pilger was attempting to highlight a broad range of issues. The film covers living conditions and health issues in remote Aboriginal communities, the emptiness of Federal Government promises (no matter which party has been in control), Aboriginal deaths in custody, early movements towards workers rights for Indigenous people, the Intervention in the Northern Territory (in significant detail), the history of Rottnest Island (as a kind of ‘concentration camp’ for Aboriginal men) and it’s total ‘whitewashing’ of that history, the role of the Mining Industry in opposing Indigenous land rights and profiting from doing so, and the deeply saddening and alarmingly high rates of suicide among Aboriginal people in Australia. Each one of these topics, it could be argued, deserves its own full-length documentary (and more!), but Pilger touches on them all in more or less detail in the course of the film. My fear, then, was that the documentary would be ‘a mile wide but an inch deep’, and that by spreading itself too thin it wouldn’t have the same impact as covering a few issues in greater detail.

However, Pilger manages (somehow) to hold it all together, chiefly through the troubling but necessary comparison between the Canberra suburb of Barton (the most socio-economically advantaged location in Australia, named after Australia’s first Prime Minister**), and the central Australian community of Utopia (the least socio-economically advantaged location in Australia). This overarching structure is alluded to enough times throughout the film to allow an overall sense of connectedness. Though Pilger does, admittedly, make a couple of jumps in the documentary (the links between which, I’m sure, make more sense in his head), the issues raised and the stories told to seem to have, for the most part, an inner cohesion due to the people involved and the places visited. In addition to this, the issues that are covered each seem to be treated with enough depth to at least spark the curiosity of the viewer to find out more for themselves, or to be sufficient in dealing with the point that needed to be made without feeling like the only option left is despair. Perhaps the film is a tad too long in order to be able to do this, but it is gripping nonetheless.

I’m honestly not sure how much screen time is devoted to each ‘issue’, but it certainly felt like the point dwelt on in the most depth was ‘the intervention’ in the Northern Territory. Pilger covers, in detail, the ways in which the Government at the time unleashed an extraordinary wave of propaganda in order to justify its actions, and exposes some of the startling facts about the veracity of the information that was released and the complicity of the media (specifically in regards to the ABC’s Lateline reports). By seemingly insinuating that (perhaps most) Aboriginal men in remote communities were predatory pedophiles, community outrage (in non-Indigenous Australia) was sufficient to allow the Government to do, basically, whatever it wanted to do—including suspending the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT which, as is noted in the film, is something that needs to be done if the proposed action is fundamentally racist!

I guess the only thing I’d note here, by way of critique, is that Pilger’s coverage of this issue does, in the emotion of it all, tend to play down the findings in the Little Children Are Sacred report, which was central to the Howard Government’s ‘response’ in the Northern Territory. Though it has been noted many, many times—and correctly in my view, for what it’s worth—that the Howard Government seemed to ignore pretty much every single recommendation in that report, the report itself was significant enough that it shouldn’t be brushed off in the process of heavily critiquing the Howard Government’s policy and actions. It felt, just a little bit, like this nuance was lost in Pilger’s film.

Now, in the interest of making the point as clearly as I can here, I want to reiterate that, from the evidence I’ve seen, the Howard Government’s policy, and the implementation of said policy, was terrible (and it continues through Labor’s ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation). There was a determined effort in the rhetoric to demonise Aboriginal men (like middle-class white communities don’t also, sadly, have similar levels of child abuse!), in general, and the legacy of the (ongoing) implementation of the policy seems largely to be disempowerment. Instead of serious community consultation, there seemed to be even more centralised, external, and powerfully enforced decision-making. Rather than moving towards empowerment and self-determination, it seems, in general, that it’s been a process of shaming, and one only wonders at what other motivation there was in implementing the policy so forcefully (and Pilger hints at at least one possibility here, in the film).

All of that being said, the Little Children Are Sacred report should not be brushed away in the interests of (rightly) noting the critiques of the policy and its implementation outlined above. The point to be made, quite simply, is that addressing these issues means genuine consultation and empowerment of Indigenous communities in decision-making, rather than what has been done.

Returning to the film review, my final concern (though ‘concern’ might be too serious a word) was that Pilger would spend the whole of the documentary outlining the ‘problems’, and that audiences would be left with a sense of despair and disempowerment.

I don’t feel, however, that this was the case.

Though the film certainly doesn’t shy back from throwing a spotlight on some horrible facts, it ends on a positive note of seeking, it seems, to reignite the push for a formal treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, and also towards the idea of true justice and self-determination. Pilger himself seems to be somewhat fixated on the idea of raising external pressure on Australia to act on these issues (like the way many nations pressured South Africa in regards to apartheid), but I am not willing to give up just yet on the notion that Australians do have the capacity to truly hear the voices of our Indigenous brothers and sisters and come to the conclusion ourselves. Though one might feel a certain despair in listening to the ‘bogan’ stupidity around ‘Australia Day’, I have an unquenchable optimism in the ability of humans (even bogans!) to change their minds and behaviour once they actually meet, in person, people who are being adversely effected by their ignorance, and to truly hear their stories.

All in all, the film was certainly worth watching, and I encourage all Australians to see it. Unfortunately it won’t be released on DVD or iTunes before ‘Australia Day’, but I think it should become part of a package of ‘essential viewing’ for all Australians (and perhaps an ‘Australia Day’ tradition in years to come). Being part of the screening at The Block was very special indeed. With something like (I’m estimating) 2,000 people in attendance, and with many rousing speeches before the film itself (especially one by Rosalie Kunoth-Monks), it is something that I won’t forget in a hurry.


Find an Australian screening of Utopia here, or purchase it on DVD or iTunes from May.

Utopia

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* I honestly do not mean to offend anyone who suffers from Tourette Syndrome by this reference, and have weighed up using the term here. I’m not at all trying to use it in a derogatory kind of way; I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe Pilger’s manner. If, however, you are offended by the reference, please let me know and I will remove it (and offer my sincere and unreserved apology).

** Sir Edmund Barton also happens to be one of the architects of Australia’s ‘White Australia Policy’, which officially came about at the time of Federation in 1901.