(A Short Post on) Public Faith, Cultural Privilege, & Confected Culture Wars

Mike Frost* posted the following statement on social media yesterday:

The church has grown so accustomed to cultural privilege—a privilege it should never have had in the first place—that its erosion feels like persecution, when it’s not.

As a result, instead of meaningful engagement with society, we draw battle lines in confected culture ‘wars’ featuring praying football coaches, dissenting county clerks, and recalcitrant wedding cake bakers.

To my mind, this is one of the most piercing (and succinct!) analyses of the state of public faith (and flawed understandings of ‘mission’) in places like Australia and the U.S.—and I’m sure a number of others—that I’ve seen in a long time.

I won’t add any further comment on the statement here, but would love to get a conversation going around it in the comments section.

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* Mike is a leading voice in the missional church movement, Vice Principal of Morling College (in Sydney, Australia), author, speaker, and a bunch of other things (including, some might say, provocateur).

“The Energy of Debate” (a response to “The ‘Energy’ of Violence”)

Here’s an excellent—and necessary—response to my last post (The ‘Energy’ of Violence) from my friend Labalienne, over at her blog Seaweave: The Energy of Debate.

I’m hoping to continue the conversation over the coming days!

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.

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.

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?

The Necessity of Indigenous Self-Determination

There are a couple of issues that I consider to be crucial for Australia to address, and to address as soon as possible. One of those issues is our abhorrent treatment of asylum seekers. Another—one which is perhaps the single most important issue facing us as a nation—is the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I write/speak/tweet/rant/shout quite a bit about the first of these issues. As far as I can see, the solution/s to the current situation is not overly complex. It begins by approaching the situation as a humanitarian crisis, rather than a small-minded, nationalistic issue of ‘border
protection’, and builds from there (e.g. directing funding to regional processing centres, community processing of asylum requests, etc.).

The second issue, however, is rather complex indeed—all the more so due to over 200 years of policy failure. While the issues are complex, and while I do not want to try to talk as if I (as someone who has benefitted from a lifetime of white privilege) have the answers, I think there is one essential ingredient that needs a whole lot more focus from those who are making decisions: Indigenous self-determination.

Though this idea has often been misunderstood and (perhaps deliberately) misrepresented, true self-determination for Australia’s Indigenous peoples must surely lie at the very heart of our future together.

Much has been written and said on this topic, but I have found Chapter 2 of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s* 2002 ‘Social Justice Report’ (Self-determination – the freedom to
‘live well’) to be quite helpful. It’s worthwhile reading the whole thing through a number of times (in order to grasp the numerous excellent points that are made), but I thought it might be helpful to post one of the summaries here:

  1. Self-determination is an ongoing process of choice for the achievement of human security and fulfilment of human needs.
  2. Respect for distinct cultural values and diversity is fundamental to the notion of self-determination.
  3. The protection of self-determination unquestionably involves some kind of collective political identity for indigenous nations and peoples, i.e. it requires official recognition of their representatives and institutions.
  4. Respect for Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land and resources is an integral component of self-determination, from an economic, social, political and cultural dimension. A lack of control of traditional lands and resources is often a significant institutional barrier to the realisation of Indigenous self-determination.
  5. Self-determination contains a subjective element – it cannot be judged solely from objective criteria. The true test of self-determination is whether Indigenous peoples themselves actually feel that they have choices about their way of life.
  6. Essential to the exercise of self-determination is choice, participation and control. The essential requirement for self-determination is that the outcome corresponds to the free and voluntary choice of the people concerned.
  7. Self-determination does not have a prescribed or pre-determined outcome.
  8. Self-determination is a process that is ongoing. It is not a one-off event or something that is defined as at a particular moment in history.
  9. notion of popular participation is inherent to self-determination.
  10. In a democracy, Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination is not necessarily safeguarded or respected by a reliance on majority rule. Self-determination raises the issue of representativeness and participation within the democratic principle.
  11. The existence in democratic societies of structural and procedural barriers which inhibit the full participation of Indigenous peoples must be recognised. The nature of participation and representativeness required by self-determination necessitates going beyond such sameness of treatment and to strive for institutional innovation.
  12. Ultimately, the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the State is linked to respect for self-determination. Numerous UN declarations, such as the Friendly Relations Declaration, limit the exercise of self-determination so that it does not threaten territorial integrity or political unity of States so long as those states conduct themselves in compliance with the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and are representative.
  13. Continued government representivity and accountability is therefore a condition for enduring enjoyment of the right of self-determination, and for continued application of the territorial integrity and national unity principles.
  14. Article 45 of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples** similarly qualifies the recognition of Indigenous self-determination in Article 3 of the Draft Declaration by making it subject to the provisions of the Friendly Relations Declaration (and other UN provisions). Hence, the recognition of Indigenous self-determination through the Draft Declaration is qualified in a way that guarantees the territorial integrity of States.
  15. Secession is an extreme expression of self-determination and one that will only occur in the rarest of cases when all other processes have failed. Separation or secession from the State of which a people forms a part should be regarded as a right of last resort.
  16. The fear of secession by States immediately conflates Indigenous self-determination with the concept of state-hood. The equation of self-determination with secession is made without reference to the existing state of international law and without an eye to history.
  17. In Australia, the absence of any conflict or political movement for secession by Indigenous peoples is an obvious indicator of the lack of reality, indeed the absurdity, of the claim that recognition of self-determination could lead to secession.
  18. Self-determination is not self-executing, unilateral or absolute in its application and is a process of engagement and negotiation. When balanced against principles such as the protection of territorial integrity, the international community is highly unlikely to recognise secessionist movements in States that are conducting themselves in good faith.
  19. Indigenous peoples have indicated that generally they do not aspire to secession. Examples from Australia indicate that there are no aspirations for secession by Indigenous Australians.
  20. The fear by governments of secession is not soundly based in existing law or political reality. What is required for progress in recognition of Indigenous self-determination is for governments to stop acting in bad faith by automatically equating self-determination with secession.
  21. There is no justification for imposing an arbitrary restriction to internal self-determination on Indigenous peoples. The participation of Indigenous peoples in UN processes and in negotiations on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples demonstrates that there are numerous external dimensions to their right to self-determination, other than secession.
  22. Attempts to qualify the recognition of Indigenous self-determination place the universality of human rights at risk.

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* Formerly the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

** United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Madiba

Like so many, I’ve been deeply saddened today by the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. To be honest, I don’t quite understand this sense of mourning for someone I never personally met, but I think millions of people around the world are sensing the loss of someone who embodied something ‘good’. I can’t explain this sense of grief I feel, but I do feel it.

(I’m sure I can’t possibly understand the impact on South Africans today, and I won’t pretend for a moment that I can.)

Of course, when someone as high-profile as Mr Mandela dies there is always a mix of epitaphs; some seemingly pushing for immediate sainthood, others suggesting that the person (or their legacy) was not-so-perfect after all.

It is true that Mr Mandela was not perfect. He was human. There were personal and public failings that are there for the record, and it makes no sense either to forget them altogether or to focus solely on them.

In regards to his achievements, however, I have been thinking all day about a conversation I had with a man named Lethula when I was fortunate enough to travel to South Africa earlier this year. We happened to be travelling at a time when Mr Mandela was reported to be very close to death, and it seemed quite likely, at the time, that he would pass while we were in South Africa. For Lethula, Mr Mandela seemed to symbolise hope in an otherwise impossible situation. He spoke of living under apartheid (as a black man), and he spoke of what it was like now.

In Lethula’s words, “Tata means everything to us. He showed us what was possible.”

This, it seems to me, is (at least one of) the most significant achievement(s) of his life. He embodied the hope that things could change for the better—that beauty and wholeness could come out of ugly brokenness. A generation on from the victory over apartheid, the question still remains as to how deep the reconciliation runs (not to mention how well Mr Mandela’s legacy has been carried on by those who have come after him), but the one thing that I don’t think can be denied by anyone is that Mr Mandela symbolised the possibility for a better future.

In light of Madiba’s passing, and as we reflect on his story and achievements (and, yes, perhaps even some of his flaws), I think it’s worth asking the question as to where we go from here. Nelson Mandela was an amazing human being, no matter which way you look at it. But what does it mean for us?

I would suggest two things.

Firstly, I think we need to be careful to remember that the types of things that he stood for and the types of injustices he stood against are very much still relevant today. This fight against social injustice is not over. The victories of people like Nelson Mandela don’t relegate such struggles to the past. Systemic injustice is alive and well, and in many cases it’s living right under our noses. We don’t value the memory of Madiba by burying the struggle against injustice with him. In the same way, we don’t honour his legacy by forgetting that he was despised and feared by many of the types of people who are praising him today. He stood up to powerful forces of hate and injustice, and they hated him for it. They stole 27 years of his life in prison. It is worth remembering, then, that to stand with Nelson Mandela is to stand against the self-interest of the powerful, and to challenge injustice in all its forms. We must not let his memory be co-opted by the powerful and his example be emptied of its extraordinary activist force.

Secondly, as difficult as this sounds, we must be careful in raising the memory of Madiba to super-human heights. To forget that he was a normal person—an actual human being— is to cut off the possibility of following in his footsteps. There is a terribly disempowering tendency to focus on the achievements of extraordinary individuals, often moving their memory, as an individual, well beyond the constraints of reality. Once this happens, it becomes impossible to think that change can happen without one of these historical giants coming along and making it happen. And this is why we need to remember that Nelson Mandela, as courageous and wonderful as he was, did not change everything by himself. Martin Luther King Jr did not fight the battle for civil rights in the U.S. by himself, and Gandhi did not do what he did all by himself either. These people may become the symbols of the change that happens, but they do not make it happen on their own. Thousands and thousands of ‘regular’ people just like us struggle and fight and die to see that change come about. Though their names may be forgotten, their significance is no less important. I am convinced that it’s right and proper to honour Nelson Mandela at his passing, but I am also convinced that we need to remember that what he symbolises is something much greater than himself alone.

So, farewell Madiba. Thank you for all that you did, and all that you left behind. I pray that we would take up your challenge.