Abolitionist Sunday

This past Sunday was ‘Abolitionist Sunday’. If that name is totally foreign to you, you might do well to start here: Abolitionist Sunday (World Vision Australia).

Basically, it’s all about challenging the Church to take seriously the issues involved with modern-day slavery and, very importantly, to do something about it. Now, although these issues are becoming more well-known, many people are surprised to find out that slavery still exists in the world today – genuine, bona fide, proper slavery.

Unfortunately, it’s true.

There are a number of forms that this slavery can take, like child labour, forced labour, or sexual exploitation to name but a few, and it’s usually the poor and the socially vulnerable who are most affected.

And the effects are obscene.

Innocent children are exploited. Generations are kept in shocking poverty. Human beings are ‘traded’ like any other commodity.

And some people are getting filthy rich off it all.

The figures are astounding: something like 28 million people are caught in this vicious cycle, and those responsible are making billions, and billions, and billions of dollars.

But it’s not just them. It’s us too.

We are profiting from the exploitation and oppression of other human beings. We are able to buy cheap food and clothes and electrical goods, and so often the supply chains for these products are stained with exploitation at some level.

So, Abolitionist Sunday, as I said at the beginning, aims to raise these issues and to put out the call to action.

In the rest of this post, then, I want to outline two very simple points that I believe are quite helpful to remember in all of this.

Firstly, the idea behind it all is the hope that we can help build a strong movement. These issues cannot be challenged strongly enough or systems changed deeply enough by just one or two of us.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I was younger I thought I was going to change the world. Single handedly.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that it’s probably not actually going to be the case. In fact, I know that it’s definitely not going to be the case. Of this I am 100% sure.

It’s not that I suddenly have really poor self-esteem. It’s more that I’ve come to realise that, beyond my immediate family, I’ll be, for all intents and purposes, all but forgotten not more than a couple of years after I die – if I’m lucky. Hopefully I can make a little bit more of an impact on my immediate family, but it seems to me to be the case that most people are promptly forgotten by the general population well before the worms even get time to do their thing.

And this is ok.

I really don’t care if my name is forgotten when I die (…I don’t particularly like it anyway, and can’t even work out what to call myself while I’m alive…). What I really want to do, though, is to be part of something good while I’m alive that will live on well after I’m dead and buried (or cremated, or whatever).

I think I can be part of something like that with the ‘Abolitionist’ movement.

My name might not be remembered, but perhaps I can play a small part in something much larger than myself. Perhaps I can make some choices that, combined with all the millions of other choices made by like-minded people, starts to put pressure on companies or governments to change business practices or legislation.

Of course, sometimes in these sorts of movements there are the ‘great ones’. There are William Wilberforces, after all. What I’ve come to realise, though, is that for every William Wilberforce there are thousands, probably millions of people who are never really recognised for their hard work.

That’s ok too.

If I can be part of a movement that accomplishes what Wilberforce and his many friends and helpers achieved, I will die a very happy man. The goal is what is important, not whether they make a movie about my life.

This is a movement. This is something bigger than any one of us, but something that only works when we each decide to work together. And the amazing thing is that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not exactly sure how it works, but I do know that a movement that is focused enough and disciplined enough can easily change a nation, and can quite possibly achieve that goal of worldwide influence.

Secondly, then, the focus is on the Church spearheading this amazing movement.

Why the Church?

With all this talk about Royal Commissions into institutional abuse of children, isn’t brand ‘Church’ way too tarnished to be of any use in all this?

I actually don’t think so.

In fact, I think it’s precisely this sort of thing that should be part of the Church’s core business. Rather than focusing on short-sighted power plays or lusting after poorly defined ‘influence’ or proclaiming a quasi-gnostic theology that focuses only on the ‘spiritual’ things, I think that the Church should be standing firmly on the side of the exploited and the marginalised and the oppressed – where Jesus was and where his Church should have been all along – and advocating for and embodying new possibilities.

But this is about far more than trying to help the Church’s image in the context of the painful yet very necessary Royal Commission; it’s an assertion that rises out of the belief that the Church is the perfect, and indeed only organisation capable of really taking up this challenge powerfully.

I make this (no doubt, to some, extraordinary) statement due to a) my belief that it’s not really in the interests of powerful people and powerful nations to disturb the status quo on these issues (on account of the ludicrous profits that can be made – and the ‘standard of living’ that can be achieved – through such activities), and b) because my (perhaps naive) understanding is that the Church is supposed to look like Jesus and embody the hope of new, more fully human, possibilities.

In regards to the first point, the question must be asked: who else is going to do this?

It’s most likely true that seeking to break down these structures of oppression will have wider impacts than just seeing people have better working conditions or children having childhoods or people not being forced into sexual exploitation (basically people being free to be more fully human). It might mean, for example, that some things become, perish the thought(!), more expensive. It might cost more than $5 to buy a t-shirt if the person making it is paid a living wage. Coffee or chocolate prices might rise if farms aren’t allowed (or practically forced) to rely on child labour.

Why would anyone want this? Why would I want to inconvenience myself in this way? It doesn’t make any real sense to do so. Individuals in nations not directly affected by it all wouldn’t really be directly ‘benefitting’ by doing anything about it (based on dodgy, but nevertheless very common, understandings of how that word might be interpreted), but possibly inconvenienced. The people and companies making massive profits out of the exploitation certainly don’t want to deal with declining profits, and politicians pretty much don’t care unless it’s an issue that will affect votes.

The only people who really should want to do something about it all are Christians, and this is because it’s part of the very DNA of what Christianity is all about.

And this brings me to the second point.

It is my belief that the group of people who are best equipped, or at least most called, to do something about all this is the Church. This is because, as I have already noted above, I believe strongly that the Church is supposed to look like Jesus – to continue on his mission in the world. This was the Jesus who, in his own words, defined his mission as, among other things, ‘setting at liberty the oppressed’. This was the Jesus who, due to his firm belief that all people were created in the image of God, treated people with the dignity they deserve. This was the Jesus who loved in a way that didn’t focus on what he got out of it; it was a perfectly self-sacrificial love that was displayed in full on the cross.

And this is why Christians are not only the best candidates to do something about these issues, but are compelled to act. In fact, I’m not sure that one can truly call themselves ‘Christian’ unless they are doing the sorts of things Jesus did. This includes working towards true freedom, and this true freedom should be for all. After all, where the image of God is denied in one, the whole of humanity suffers.

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Let the Light Shine In: The Royal Commission

Much has been said already in the week since Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her intention to ask the Governor General to establish a Royal Commission into institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia.

I want to offer here just a few thoughts about what I think is important to remember throughout this process.

1) Firstly, it is vital that the Terms of Reference are well thought through and carefully set. Though Royal Commissions have considerable power to investigate, they are very much restricted by the Terms of Reference in regards to their final recommendations. As such, the Terms of Reference for this particular Commission must be suitably wide in scope (due to the nature of the investigation), but not so wide that it becomes practically impossible to complete the required investigations at a suitable depth. Linked with this, the Commission must be allowed a suitable time-frame for the investigations to take place, but it can’t drag on forever. Balancing these concerns will be very tricky indeed, and it is quite possible that no one will be truly happy with the Terms of Reference when they are set!

Building out of this, it is also worthwhile noting clearly that the end result of Royal Commissions is the publication of their findings with recommendations. These recommendations are not automatically enacted into policy, and the Commission itself is not a court of law. I point this out simply because many will no doubt be disappointed at the conclusion of this particular Commission if (and when) nothing happens immediately upon the release of the findings, and there will surely come cries of frustration and distress at the prospect of then having to wait for policy makers to go through the necessary processes or the thought of possibly lengthy criminal trials or litigation. As such, we should be mindful of this at the outset.

Finally on this general point, we should remember from the very beginning that the focus of this investigation, once the Terms of Reference are set, will include (and perhaps prominently feature) the Roman Catholic Church, but is not restricted to it. I will note below the responsibility that I think the Roman Catholic Church has in all of this, but I just wanted to point out that, while people in positions of authority in the Roman Catholic Church have, very distressingly(!), been proven to have been guilty of numerous abhorrent crimes against children (and unfathomable cover-ups), they are (again very distressingly!) not the only organisation to be marred by systemic problems in this regard. This is not to absolve the Roman Catholic Church of any guilt here in any way (and please let me be perfectly clear about this); it is simply to point out that abuse of this kind is abominable wherever it occurs.

2) Secondly, then, it is very important to note that this is going to be a particularly distressing process for those who have lived through unimaginable abuse, and for the families and friends of those who suffered abuse but have since died (or who may die before the process is complete) and therefore won’t see the end result of this Commission. Experiencing the abuse itself is difficult enough (to say the least!), and ‘re-living’ it while giving evidence for the investigation is going to be seriously traumatic for many involved (though it must be said that the process itself could also bring much healing). There are going to be people, no doubt, who will be very hesitant to open up painful emotional wounds. There are going to be people who have worked very, very hard at ‘moving on’, and this process is going to be excruciating. The process will possibly, perhaps, be enough to push some perilously close to the edge. There will be some who have become distrustful of all authority due to the fact that they raised the abuse with people in positions of authority and were summarily dismissed. Some of these people may therefore not have any trust in the process of the Commission.

It is thus extremely important that the investigators go about their duties with great care and compassion, and we must all remember that this is real people’s lives that we are talking about here. The formalities of this process must make room for the full humanity of those who have already been treated with something far less than the respect and dignity they deserve through the abuse they have experienced. Having said that, we should remind ourselves that those who have experienced such abuse need empathy rather than pity.

For those of us who come from a faith perspective, we should pray.

3) Thirdly, I strongly believe that the Roman Catholic Church must embrace this process with openness and humility. In fact, I would probably go so far as to say that, unless they are to do so, their future in Australian society may be on very shaky ground. Cardinal Pell has (rightly) noted that, unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church is not the only ‘cab in the rank’ here. This is true, and I have noted this above. He may (and I stress ‘may’) also be right in suggesting that there could be something of a tendency in the media to focus solely or predominantly on the Catholic Church in these regards, and that this process could turn into a kind of ‘witch hunt’ focusing only on Catholic priests.

This is certainly possible, and such a ‘witch hunt’ would be something far less than ideal.

However, what the Roman Catholic Church needs right now, I believe, is not the kind of defiance – even arrogance – displayed (I would suggest) so often by the Cardinal, but rather it needs to allow light to shine into some very dark places. Of course, I would argue that all other organisations and agencies involved assume the same attitude, but I do feel that it is of particular importance for those in authority in the Roman Catholic Church at this point in time.

It seems to me that if one were to play a word association game with many Australians, the result would be a high correlation between ‘Catholic Church’ and ‘child sexual abuse’. This is profoundly unfortunate, not only because the Catholic Church links itself to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (and should therefore be associated with words like ‘selflessness’, ‘grace’, and ‘humility’), but also because it pretty much writes off all the good work done by so many faithful Roman Catholics (clergy and laity) throughout history. We must, therefore, not forget that the Roman Catholic Church has done much ‘good’ in our world (though some would argue otherwise), but neither must we ignore the great evil done in its name.

As such, the only way I see the Catholic Church coming out on the other side of this process is for it to take the extraordinary and absolutely necessary step of moving towards full transparency. This would obviously be a profoundly painful (and even ‘dangerous’) thing for the Church authorities to do, but as far as I can see it is the only option. With full disclosure and an attitude of humility and deep contrition, I think the Catholic Church could go a long way to restoring some of the lost confidence of the Australian public, and could perhaps greatly assist many who have experienced abuse at the hands of those representing the Church in finding true healing and seeing justice done

At the end of the day, this whole process is necessary because children have so often been horrendously mistreated by the very people who have been entrusted with their wellbeing. This reality is truly heartbreaking, and an extraordinary breaking of trust. As such, this Royal Commission could be a really good thing, though it will no doubt be a sometimes-messy and certainly painful process. It won’t be perfect. It won’t be a silver bullet to fix all that is so shamefully broken. It just won’t. But it might just be – and I pray that it would be so – an opportunity for healing to come to the survivors of such abuse, and also an opportunity to shine light in dark places and to see changes take place to ensure that these things do not happen again.

If the Royal Commission does some of this, then it will be worth it.

Humanising Politics

Bouncing out of my last post on creative nonviolence, I’ve been thinking some more about the importance of treating one’s “enemy” as fully human.

This may sound a little bit silly because, unless we’re into wrestling grizzly bears (which I don’t recommend, by the way), of course we realise that we are usually locked in battles (especially of the political variety) with other human beings.

However, though we may know this at one level, it seems to me that so many situations escalate into violence of some kind simply because of a basic failure to fully appreciate the humanity of the other, and therefore a failure to acknowledge the dignity and respect that should necessarily be foundational to any interaction.

This happens at the personal level, with people inflicting all sorts of physical and emotional abuse on one another, as well as on much grander scales. In all instances, as far as I can tell, the common denominator is the inability (for whatever reason) to see the other as truly human. I may be quite cynical sometimes, but I just don’t believe that a human being can subject another human being to profound physical or emotional pain if they are truly to acknowledge the full humanity of the other. This is why, for example, family or friends of kidnap victims appeal to the kidnapper/s in ways that personalise and humanise the victim, with the hope that the perpetrator will see the full humanity of the victim and relent. This is why some troops go into battle with angry heavy metal or hip-hop music blaring loudly through the speakers in their tanks, in the hope, perhaps, that it will feel more like a video game and less like blowing real people to bits. The latter is very hard to live with, and we see this over and over again with returned soldiers facing incredible struggles to live with what they were asked to do. As a side note, have you ever wondered why the military seem to use so many euphemisms?

And, of course, to take it to extremes, the only way that a holocaust or a Hiroshima or a 911 could happen is if, somehow, the recognition of the full humanity of the victims is ignored or warped out of all shape.

But I want to take this a step further here.

I have noticed of late that political discourse, at least in Australia and, I would strongly suggest, the U.S. (though I must note here that I live in Australia and therefore only see the situation in the U.S. externally), is well on its way down this ugly path. This has become even more pronounced with the seemingly never-ending election campaign-style politicking that currently dominates the Australian political scene and, of course, with the U.S. presidential election.

Now, I’m all for robust political conversation, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that all political debate should be ‘tame’, but I do want to suggest here that I think there is a worrying trend in the way political opponents are referring to each other (both in regards to elected leaders and the followers of those elected leaders), and I don’t think it’s headed anywhere good. What I see is so many policy debates becoming shallow and personal (which is the classic first mistake of debate), and so many personal attacks becoming increasingly dehumanising. The end result of this is a marked increase in surprisingly (public) violent rhetoric, and I don’t think physical violence is far behind in some circumstances.

I don’t actually know what the answer to this situation is.

What I do know, though, is that now more than ever we need voices in the public space demonstrating different approaches and new possibilities.

Enter the delightful Annabel Crabb.

I bet you didn’t see that coming(!), and I bet Annabel never thought of herself as a practitioner of creative nonviolence. But what a breath of fresh air it is having a t.v. show from such a well-respected political journalist which illustrates so beautifully the humanity of our politicians. I’m not sure what Annabel’s intentions were regarding the creation of the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet, but what the show does, at least for me, is to allow a glimpse of these elected representatives as 3-Dimensional human beings, rather than the 2-D caricatures that we so often see in through media representations and election campaigns. I for one have found it truly enlightening as I’ve had my own preconceptions about certain politicians challenged, and in at least a couple of cases significantly corrected, when confronted with a presentation of the politician that delves much deeper than what we are usually shown (and certainly deeper than just the official policies they espouse).

I can’t explain how important this is.

As a Christian, one of the core elements of my faith is that all humanity reflects the image of God – even my “enemies”! This is such an incredibly vital part of the Christian message but, unfortunately, us Christians have not always been the best at treating all people as beautiful, valued beings with an inherent dignity. So I need to remember, then, when I engage in political debate (and I think Christians, like all other Australian or U.S. citizens should take part in political discussions), that even those who I disagree with most profoundly are to be treated with dignity and respect.

Now, I’m pretty sure that Kitchen Cabinet isn’t the answer to all the problems with political discourse in Australia(!) but, nonetheless, I thank God for Annabel Crabb : )