Before there is Hate, there is Hope.

I spent most of yesterday with my wife and daughters at an amazing outdoor playground in Homebush, Sydney. It is a truly extraordinary (and free!) playground, that could much better be described as a play ‘wonder land’. My kids absolutely loved it, as did the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other kids that were there yesterday too.

Though I enjoyed just taking some time out with the family and watching the joy on the faces of my girls as they played on the swings, climbed soft-fall rock climbing walls to go down giant slippery dips, scurried over the huge rope-netting area and journeyed to the top of the massive cubby-house tower, I was also struck by a profound realisation.

As we were watching our kids as they rapturously ran under the synchronised water fountains, I became aware, firstly, of just how many different cultures were represented by these sometimes giggling, sometimes squealing children and, secondly, of the complete lack of hate shown by these kids, united in their joy and sense of wonder.

Now, I’m not saying that there was a complete absence of selfishness. Sometimes it’s difficult to get children to share or to take turns. What I am saying, though, is that even when these things did happen, it didn’t seem as though any of it was due to the colour of one’s skin or that it had anything to do with one’s socio-economic position.

As I watched the children playing, I was struck by the realisation that they were too young to truly hate. They were seemingly untouched by the prejudices that their parents had experienced or taken on. The hatred of so many generations had not yet scarred their innocent hearts and minds and they were free, in this moment, to be young and to be human. Surely, like every generation before them, they would, in time, learn the hatred that divides along the same old lines, but for now they just wanted to play. Older kids helped younger kids when they needed it, and were rewarded with gleeful giggles and the twinkle of pure joy in the eyes of a child. And the parents let them play, perhaps holding back the weight of prejudice and fear and hate for that moment to provide the space for their kids just to be kids.

It was a beautiful thing.

And, though my mind did wander to possible futures where these now-innocent children were eventually broken by the hate that enslaves humanity, I was struck by the hope that each new generation represents. Though it does seem somewhat inevitable that children will learn and take on roughly the same prejudices as their parents, the glimmer of new possibilities is present with each new life. And we, as parents, as aunts and uncles and as communities that help shape a child’s life, can choose to repeat the same stories or to tell new ones. We can hand down the hatred of our parents’ parents, we can pass on the hate that we have come to embrace, or we can re-write the script.

The possibilities are limitless, and this potential is already alight inside our children. Our job is to not let it be extinguished.

For now, the best way to do that is just to let the children play.

Gun Reform or the Horrifying Norm?

The recent mass shooting of young school children (and some of their teachers) in Newtown, Connecticut, has shocked the world. It is truly horrific. It’s hard to even think about without feeling physically ill or having tears begin to well up.

Somewhat predictably, it has also resulted in the same media frenzy – verging on the obsessive – that usually follows such events, as well as the tired emotive rhetoric that stymies actual discussion and which usually results in the maintaining of the status quo (once the news cycle has moved on to the next tragedy, or some Royal somewhere does pretty much anything).

Much has already been written on these events, and there will be much more to come. Knowing this, I would just like to offer a couple of thoughts that, I hope, might be helpful.

1) Firstly, the noble-sounding calls for making sure that this moment is not ‘politicised’ are code for making sure that the policy status quo remains and ensures that this will happen again.

Now, I’m sure that there are some very well-meaning people who are making these calls (just as there are many who know exactly what they are doing). I’m sure that there is a sense for many (especially with the media obsession with these events) that there just needs to be space for the families to grieve in peace. I understand this. I’m also not a fan of cheap political point-scoring.

But one thing I know for sure is that, if the moment is not seized, if policy change is not set in motion while the horror of it all is still being acutely felt, then policy change will not come and this sort of thing will happen again (and again and again). I think recent history has shown, beyond all doubt, that this would certainly be the case.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for knee-jerk reactions that are based purely on emotion. That rarely (if ever) results in good policy outcomes. What I am arguing for, however, is for all the policy discussion and debate that has happened in the wake of each of these catastrophic events (and there has been a lot!) to be brought to bear on concrete policy being put forward while tide of human good will can carry it. We know what needs to happen. We know the sort of policy that needs to be put forward. Much thought has already gone into this, but ordinary circumstances do not provide the impetus to disrupt business as usual. If this opportunity is lost now, then (and I really do hate to say it) policy reform in this are might be left on hold until the next ‘unthinkable’ tragedy. The time for action is now – right now – because the power of the status quo is, in normal circumstances, simply unchallengeable.

And this brings me to the second point.

2) Actual change on the issue of gun violence in the U.S. will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

The history of the U.S. is written in blood.

Birthed in the Revolutionary War, the nation came of age in the Civil War and reached full maturity with the events at the end of WWII. The history of the U.S. is a history of violence and, I would make the claim, violence is part of the nation’s very DNA. This can be seen, I would suggest, in everything from the decimation of the Native American populations, to black lynchings (usually at the hands of crowds of very ‘respectable’ white folk), to gang warfare and drive-by shootings, to modern U.S. foreign policy and the drone murders of thousands of innocents.

(As a kind of excursus here, is it not obscene that the deaths of dozens – or hundreds, or even thousands – of innocent children in drone bombings doesn’t attract the same media attention as the murder of innocent American kids? I am not for one minute trying to play down the absolute horror of this recent tragedy in Connecticut, but rather trying to get my head around the obscenity of the indiscriminate killing of ‘other’ children whose lives don’t seem to be worth as much…)

In this context, the 2nd Amendment (linked as it is to the very birth of the nation) has, I think, become what some might refer to as ‘structural sin’*. This concept is so deeply engrained in the corporate psyche of the nation that it is almost inextricably linked with national identity. And this structural sin has given birth to, dare I say it, a kind of ‘demonic’ entity that seeks to preserve the structural sin from any watering down or, indeed, from being ‘exorcised’ from the Constitution. Yes, I am talking about the NRA (and others like it). These entities hold an inordinate amount of power, and the whole has become something much more than the sum of its parts. They seem to feed on tragedy and grow more aggressive each time their power is tested.

Now, please let me be very, very clear here: my use of such language does not for one moment mean I am saying that this tragedy is some kind of punishment or judgment from God. I am not saying that. I will never say that. I don’t believe that.

What I am saying is that the natural consequences of ‘structural sin’ are things like oppression or exploitation or destruction or death. The specifics can vary, but the effects are always very similar. The powerful cling to self-serving power and the innocent and the vulnerable are trampled under foot.**

And the only way to break the cycle is an act of corporate ownership of the problem – like a new A.A. member admitting that they have a problem and ‘owning’ it – and an act of corporate repentance (which entails an active turning away from the cycle of sin).

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the 2nd Amendment needs to be ‘thrown out’ (I’m not sure that this would ever be possible, even though it has all the applicability to the modern U.S. as dietary regulations in the Hebrew Scriptures do for Christians***). What I am saying is that there is a possibility to at least put a fence around this structural sin and to limit its power.

And that possibility is available right now.

Though changing attitudes in the U.S. on these issues is an extraordinary task, though it will mean in part challenging the very identity of the nation, I believe there is an opportunity at this moment. Even through all the similar tragedies of the past there has not been enough utter brokenness to see something change. Even with all the good will of those in the U.S. who have passionately and tirelessly campaigned for these changes there has not been enough recognition or acceptance of the extent of the problem to see that change enacted.

But this time it’s different.

This time, it was kids.

I don’t know why, but something seems to happen to us all when innocent kids are involved in these tragedies (well, perhaps ‘kids of people like us’ might better sum it up, but I don’t want to be too cynical here). Somethings breaks inside. Somehow we are able to understand the horror at a deeper level. Somehow it allows a moment of clarity in an otherwise out-of-focus world. I think this article from The Onion sums it up well (language warning!).

Though the task is very difficult – indeed impossible under normal circumstances – I have hope that something good can come from this horror. This doesn’t change anything for the dozens of grieving families and a community brought to its knees (and all the other families and communities devastated by previous tragedies), but it might just mean that other families and communities are spared a similar fate.

America, the time is now. May God be with you at this time.


* Sometimes referred to as ‘institutional sin’ or ‘corporate sin’.
** Please let me make it clear here that I don’t for one moment believe that all Americans are ‘evil’. That is not what I am saying at all, even though I’m sure some will accuse me of saying this very thing.
*** I make this comparison because I think it’s particularly well suited. Both situations involve the careful exegesis of ‘sacred’ historical texts in situations far removed from their original context.

Redeeming My Roots

For almost a decade now, I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘redeeming my roots’.

Please let me explain what I mean.

Before I became a Christian, I was a reasonably open-minded individual. Working from the foundation of a basic liberal worldview, I was an advocate for freedom and equality and the necessity of a good classical liberal arts education as the corner stone of a strong society. From that foundation, the framework of my political and philosophical outlook on life was built around a fairly strong suspicion of authority, taking the shape of anarchism.

ratm-ratmRage Against The Machine’s self-titled debut album became the soundtrack of my political journey. This worldview was predominantly furnished in the style of libertinism, with a few somewhat awkward hints of humanitarianism thrown in the mix.

I may not have been able to explain how all of this fit together, but I was only about 17 or 18 at the time.

Now, obviously, not all of this was good.

My relentless pursuit of pleasure meant that I spent most of my time drunk, about to get drunk, or thinking about getting drunk, and my inclination towards anti-authoritarianism was polluted by my own pain and anger in regards to my then lost relationship with my father. This was made manifest in some less than helpful ways.

The problem, though, is that the whole construct was pretty much swept away by a certain fundamentalism when I became a Christian.

Please let me be clear: the people who walked beside me in my formative years as a Christian were (and are) some truly wonderful people. I remember clearly the love that was shown to me in the small country town church that I started to attend on Sunday mornings after spending the previous night out on the town. With little or no sleep, and either very badly hungover or still drunk, I would walk into this small congregation – reeking of Jim Beam – only to be hugged warmly on arrival by a woman who must have been about 135 years old and who needed to stand on a chair to reach me.

The problem was not at all the people themselves. They were very well meaning, dear people. The problem was, rather, that the predominant theological influences on me at this time were all pretty much fundamentalist.

Under the guise of ‘submitting to authority’ (and being warned more times than I care to remember that “rebellion is witchcraft”), I moved strongly, yet always uncomfortably, towards authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. The pinnacle of this sort of anti-intellectualism, I recall, was trying to have a conversation with a really good highschool friend about 6-Day Creationism. I remember seeing the alarmed look in her eyes that moved from astonishment to pity through the duration of the conversation. I (sadly) read Left Behind, and somehow became convinced that ‘good’ Christians never questioned support for Israel and were uncompromisingly conservative in political affiliation. I began to believe that homosexuality was somehow like a toxic gas that corrupted everything it touched and was the arch-enemy of ‘decent’ family values.

I threw away all my formerly-favourite CDs, including Rage Against The Machine.

Worst of all, I began moving towards a position that regarded my former humanitarian inclinations as some kind of bankrupt emotional drivel. ‘The Gospel’, I was told, was about ‘getting people saved’. What good would feeding the hungry be if they were destined for (a literal) hell, after all?

Now, not all of this was bad.

Before I became a Christian I guess I was a bit of a no-hoper. I remember my friends’ parents (who often randomly found me passed out on their floors on a Saturday morning) rebuking my friends when they laughed at me for getting a part-time job as a night-fill worker at Woolworths. Their argument, it seems, was that this would probably be the high point of my life and I should be affirmed in reaching my fullest potential.

When I became a Christian, I started getting my act together. I finally found direction in my life and started working hard and saving for theological college. I had goals. I had purpose. I found some discipline.

The problem was that I quickly began to lose much of what made me me. I started conforming to some kind of cookie-cutter Christianity that wasn’t so much concerned with me as an individual but was rather more focused on spitting out good little conservative automatons who wouldn’t question what they were told and would become engaged in the valiant work of defending the Truth against all manner of immorality and heresy, with fingers firmly implanted in ears so as not to be polluted by such things.

And thus, since about 2004, I have been on a quest of working through all of this and [re]discovering what it actually means for Josh “Jack” Dowton to be a Christian.

This journey was, in part, kicked off by my theological studies where I was fortunate enough to be guided by some extraordinarily intelligent and faithful individuals who encouraged me to think again. I was also helped by the work of N.T. Wright (who showed me that ‘the Gospel’ is much broader, and much better news, than is often portrayed by conservative Evangelicals), and by groups such as the Micah Challenge. I remember in 2004 putting up a Micah Challenge poster in the room that the church youth group I ran met in, which spoke of the Millennium Development Goals and the need for Christians to be involved in this cause. I remember also copping a bit of flack for it, but nevertheless remaining convinced that this sort of thing was central to being Christian, even if I wasn’t exactly sure how it all fit together.

What I’ve been trying to work out, then, is what needs to be ‘redeemed’ from this former me, and what needs to be thrown away (both from the ‘old’ [pre-Christian] me, and from the ‘mindless conservative Christian’ me).

It has been, and still is, an interesting journey.

While I am still very much convinced that a certain transformation must take place in the process of becoming a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I am nevertheless convinced that this transformation takes into consideration what truly makes someone themselves and is not about simply producing clones. While I am convinced that, for the Christian, there needs to be a process of ‘dying to oneself’, I am nevertheless convinced that this does not mean a total disfiguring of one’s identity, but is rather about putting off the selfishness that plagues humanity and embracing self-sacrificial love that is best illustrated in the life and teaching of Jesus.

This is a difficult process, but I think it is also a rewarding one.

As such, I have entered into this process over the last 9-or-so years, and I think the process still has a fair way to go. In some ways, it’s almost like a second ‘conversion’ experience, though it has taken a lot longer than the first one. I have realised that some of my pre-Christian impulses were very good ones and have, for example, ‘redeemed’ my humanitarian tendencies through the belief that all of humanity somehow bears the ‘image of God’ and each individual is thus deserving of respect and dignity. I am convinced that poverty causes this dignity to be diminished, and that where this image is disfigured in one we are all implicated. I have re-embraced my inclination towards freedom through the lens of the prophetic impulse that weaves throughout the scriptures and which strives towards liberty and fullness of life. I have even allowed myself to listen to RATM again, even though my philosophy these days can more more accurately be described as grace against the machine.

I am sure, though, that many people would simply suggest that it is a slow move to theological ‘liberalism’. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, though, there is far more to this Christianity thing than being worried about the labels ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.