Friday, September 1, 2017

Is it hateful to believe that having sex with someone of the same sex is always wrong?

Consider the belief that people should only have sex if they are wearing a hat. This belief holds that sex where any member is not wearing a hat is always morally wrong. Sex with a hat might be morally wrong in some other way but a hat on the head of all participants is an essential requirement of a sex act being morally ok.

Now you might consider this belief silly. You might reject it out of hand as absurd. I contend that you cannot find this belief to be hateful. There isn’t any hate for any one behind it.

You could claim that the application of this belief is likely to be unfair and even cruel. Poor people who are less likely to own hats are going to be more heavily restricted by this belief than rich people with a hat for every boudoir. People with some physical disabilities might curse this belief every time they struggle to put a hat on, if they even can. Other people will find following this rule a breeze. But this unfairness in application does not necessarily make the belief hateful. At most we could say this belief is not very “woke” to its justice implications but I would still argue it is not a hateful belief in itself.

If this belief was widespread we would expect to see something; People with hate for others seizing on this belief to amplify and justify their hate. The desire to have sex regardless of a hat would be patholigised so that people with that desire could be seen as sick people, not to be trusted in many ways. People who have sex without hats ( a category that would earn both a medical name and a few derogatory slurs to call its own) would be denied jobs or the opportunity to formalize their relationships with the result that hatlessness in bed would be connected to criminality and promiscuity, justifying the discrimination. At the peak of this belief there would be a legal defence for murdering someone who wants to have sex without a hat and the police would barely bother to investigate the deaths of such people. Such people would be the butt of numerous jokes and stereotypical depictions. And far from the corridors of institutional power “Your mother doesn’t own a hat” would be a schoolyard taunt that always led to blows.

The institutionalized hate around this belief would make it difficult to separate the belief itself from all the prejudices and priveleges of its proponents. Indeed there would be no easy agreement on what was the hate and what was just the belief. Is a program to remind people to wear hats in bed using shock treatment and prayer born of hateful discrimination or misguided love? Arguments would go on about how to understand these programs. Such confusion, however, does not mean the original belief itself is hateful. There are people full of hate who have found this belief useful to them (and we can reflect on whether that utility is in the nature of any legalistic moral claim) but there could be people who hold none of the hate who still hold the belief in its entirety. It is simply incorrect to call them hateful too.

You’ve probably realized the metaphor I’m making by now. We live in a world in which some people believe that sex that isn’t between a man and a woman is always morally wrong. They believe there are many ways that sex between a man and a woman can also be morally wrong but the presence of the two genders is a necessary requirement for the sex act to ever be morally ok. This belief can be cruel in its application – people who don’t feel any homosexual desire follow it with ease unlike others who only feel homosexual desire. The belief certainly has been used by hateful people to justify their hate in all the ways I mentioned such views can. But I would still argue that the belief itself is not necessarily hateful.

This is important to realize. We are in the middle of a national debate on the merits of opening our civil rite of marriage up to same sex couples. At the moment civil marriage in Australia requires the participants to be male and female. For some people to remove this requirement would be to “endorse sin” at a national level and this forms the motivation of many no voters in the postal survey we may be having (the High Court challenge is yet to decide if it will proceed). I disagree with this view of sin. Its just silly to me to make heterosexuality a moral requirement of sex and a distraction from the real issues around love, mutual flourishing and consent. Still, I don’t think their idea that sex must be between a man and a woman is necessarily hateful and I wont join in labeling them as such.

There’s more I could say on this but I need to finish up. I think we need to be able to hear other people say “homosexuality is always wrong” in the same way we might hear them say “masturbation is always wrong” or “sex before marriage is always wrong.” That is, to disagree but not necessarily be offended. There will be some who are aiming to be hurtful and spread hate. Most wont be aware of how unfair they are being although some may well be. But the ideas themselves can be held by people who are loving, as hard as that may be to understand.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Wonder Woman: A political, philosophical and theological review part 2


In Patty Jenkins’ 2017 blockbuster film, Wonder Woman is born with a specific holy purpose; she opposes the evil of Aries and restores humanity to their created nature. Throughout her story she brushes aside the suggestion that removing Aries won’t end all war, let alone the war around her.  She is certain his destruction will instantaneously cause soldiers to drop their weapons as if stepping out of an enchantment. While there is an element of comedy to such an unsophisticated world view, Wonder Women’s is a naivety we can’t fully scoff at. After all, the truth she needs to learn instead, is deeply collectively embarrassing for us, as well as a truth that endangers hope. Her belief that Aries alone is why humans act with depravity towards each other not only lets us off the hook, it offers a simple path to victory. It is not too different to the naiveties we often embrace ourselves.

The most obvious real world parallel to Wonder Woman’s perspective is a childlike view of the devil. According to some biblical interpretations the world is in the devil’s thrall, handed over by God to be their hunting ground as they “roam about like a hungry lion” (1 Peter 5:8). Only those who are strong in their Lord Jesus, who trumps the devil, can protect themselves from the devil’s possession. This is a fantasy that all the world faces one opponent in disguise. Worse still, this can be read in reverse to declare any opposition to either faith or just familial authority, as coming from this evil one. This simplistic idea of human evil is what we read about it in some terrible tale of a family exorcism that kills a child or in the experienced of other victims of religious abuse declared by their families as taken in by the devil. Sophisticated clever people, religious as well, scoff at the ignorance of such a totalising world view in a way that the Wonder Woman movie could be seen as encouraging.

But politics, secular politics too, is full of equally simple naiveties. The lure of simple singular enemies is strong. One such foe, patriarchy, is touched upon in the Wonder Woman narrative. If only women ran the world, maybe life could be as idyllic as a Mediterranean paradise. For some feminists of the time and setting of the film, the hoped for effect of women voting was an end to war. For some later feminists the Age of Aries with its male symbolism is supposed to be replaced by the Age of Aquarius and an ascendancy of “feminine values”. Demonstrably the inclusion of women in politics can and does improve the world, increasing the political viability of peace, the valuing of the environment and the funding of education especially for girls. Society after society has shown this. Defenders of patriarchy are peddling a disproven medicine. But there is also a naïve overreach in the hope that only patriarchy needs to be overcome for utopia to emerge.

The optimism that an all-women’s collective will have no toxic politics, or that lesbian relationships will be free of domestic violence, or that a female politician will be incorrigible, is an attractive fantasy. It gives us a simple path forward to a peaceful and just world. I remember hearing when young the speculation that generations from now we could become a humanity of one sex, reproducing asexually through technology and subsequently no longer containing our ancient code for violence in male DNA. But such utopian speculation sets us up for disappointment similar to the disappointment felt by Wonder Woman when human peace was unlinked to Aries’ death. Women betray women, just as men betray men. Gender, with respect to Monique Wittig, is primarily a set of relations between two classes and in the absence of sex to mark gender lines, new lines are created to create new classes. The partial truth at least of this can be confirmed by anyone who attended a single sex school. Biological sex is not necessary to divide the school into valued/unvalued, privileged/oppressed, key/peripheral, “male”/”female”. A single sex world is likely to simply gender itself anyway.

For my part I like to blame capitalism. I want to locate all our horrible dealings with each other as outworking of this system that commodifies everything from knowledge to fun and ultimately turns people themselves into mere capital. Racism, sexism, the destruction of the environment can all be seen as bolstered by capitalism. But just like patriarchy, capitalism is only a form evil takes. The Jonestown practice of apostolic socialism had terrible problems but none of them can be fairly attributed to capitalism. The mass murder of Jonestown members including many children is often mistakenly referred to as a suicide although it is uncertain how many chose in any way to drink poison. Certainly no infant chose anything and we know others felt they had no choice. Multiple other disappointments with the utopia of post-capitalism exist as well. Certainly figures like Stalin and institutions like the KGB show us that great cruelty can thrive in societies that reject capitalism.

Whenever we move beyond our initial naivety we are left with two choices. We are right to feel a sense of betrayal and even heartbreak. A promise of an easy victory has been broken. The Catholic Church represents such a broken promise for many who grew up there and were told that the faith was a refuge for children. So too does the Queer community for anyone who has been screwed over there despite the profession of family, while left wing activism has its own internal conflicts despite the songs of solidarity. Religions and political affiliations which cast our problems as having a singular identity inevitably come to wear the villain’s hat as well. Why not condemn everything as pointless and equally bad?

This option is put to Wonder Woman in the film. After moving beyond the first naivety that human society would become perfect without Aries, a second naivety is proposed by Aries - that all humanity is to be condemned and the best we can hope for is its destruction. The first movement is a movement beyond simple faith but a second movement has to be made to go beyond disillusionment with everything. It can be a return to a different simplicity. We can lurch from one solution to another as if now we know what fixes humanity but I consider this a disgenuine denial of reality. I don’t think Wonder Woman ends up in that place.

Wonder Woman knows that any blow she strikes will never be decisive. We who have made a similar journey out of simple faith know that any change we make to society will never be entirely enough. We know there isn’t any absolute refuge from evil. Church communities, activist communities, alternative economic systems, retreats to family or tradition, will never be perfect and will always have the potential to be abused and to let us down. If faith is faith in something as a perfect solution, then we have entered an acceptance of no-faith and yet we do not give up on humanity.

Society is not utterly depraved and in the struggle to do the right thing improvements are made. Even if no improvements occur this is not necessarily what engages us. Humanity, with its moments of kindness and passion, its concern and its actions of self-sacrifice, captures Diana’s imagination as it should capture our own. If those moments are fleeting and constantly swallowed up by greater evil it simply becomes even more necessary that we become involved in order to sustain them that bit longer. This is the sort of faith that embraces its own folly, which acknowledges it can’t win in any final way. Diana, as Wonder Woman, ends the film still a hero in our own time, 100 years later, presumably having seen both World War Two and the Cold War follow Aries’ demise.

I want to particularly mention the scene where Wonder woman forgives the poisoner, Dr. Maru, rather than destroy her. This could be construed as Wonder Woman putting her faith in love or forgiveness in a way that was completely in-congruent with all the killing she did to get to that point. I agree this would be in-congruent but I don’t think Wonder Woman does make this act of faith, at least not in the sense that a pacifist does. This is one moment where the idea of no-faith or faith that acknowledges its folly is necessary to understand her actions. Wonder Woman, post her movement beyond naivety, engages in violence with no faith that this violence will be conclusive and in mercy also with no faith that this act concludes anything. In this sense she has moved beyond her destiny as god-killer, or the identity Aries offers her as God, and stands alongside the rest of humanity.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Wonder Woman: A political, philosophical and theological review Part 1.


This post contains spoilers for the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. Loving the craft of movies as I do, I don’t want to spoil a good one and Wonder Woman, without needing to call it a classic of cinema, is a good one. Come back after you’ve watched the movie. Even if you have to wait for the DVD this will still be here.

This isn’t intended to be a general review of Wonder Woman. I’m only going to focus on what I see as the substantial political, philosophical and theological content of the film. In one quick aside though, Wonder Woman deserves to be complimented on the contrasting use of colour between Diana’s bright birthplace and “the world of Men”.  I wish we’d lingered in the sunlight for longer – the tendency of modern films to shoot so much in shadow annoys me – but I get the point they were trying to make. The world of WW1, and Industrialisation as grey, muddy and smogfilled makes sense. That was just one of many clever film making choices of this movie.

The gender politics deserve special mention. Even if this wasn’t the first blockbuster superhero film directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and the first mainstream success of the sub-genre with a female lead (The 1984 Supergirl movie by comparison returned less than half its production budget in ticket sales), the setting of the film with its Amazonian idyllism in contrast with WW1 before women got the vote in England, put gender front and centre in the film. For me two points stood out. The male allies of Wonder Woman stand as testaments to the brokenness of the world  she has entered. Their depictions are sympathetic and complex. Many male lead action movies have treated their female side characters as having far less depth. As a male I particularly liked viewing men in a softening role, helping the action hero to not lose themselves in god-like power by reminding them of their humanity, ironically in Wonder Woman’s case. I might grow tired of seeing my gender cast that way a hundred times over in some alternative reality but as a change it was more than refreshing. In fact, it felt healing. There has been a lot of ink over how empowering it is to see a strong female on screen but seeing softness in male characters, in the action genre, was an equally rare delight.

Secondly I do not think it is too great a stretch to suggest that the films treatment of sex and sexuality owes a lot to the considered gender politics of the film. Wonder Woman was originally written by a man with a penchant for female sexual dominance. Her original character was strong and fierce but also for her time very sexual, often either tying others up or being tied up herself while, again for her time, scantily clad. Much has also been said about the inadequacies of women’s attire in both superhero and fantasy genres and Wonder Woman’s corsetry and hot pants never bucked that trend. With this back story and context and in today’s time when sexualized violence against women in shows like Game of Thrones is a proven seller Patty Jenkins could have chosen to have capitulated to such trends. Catwoman with Halle Berry did just this by practically reducing that character to a walking butt shot and it was punished commercially for its lack of depth. Alternatively Wonder Woman could have skirted any controversy by avoiding all hint of sexuality  in the film, and making no overt reference to either the politics of modesty or overt sexuality, as the Wonder Woman tv show and orginal comics did.  Patty Jenkins chose neither.

By The collection assembled by H. J. Vinkhuijzen (1843-1910). See: [2] - New York Public Library (NYPL) digital gallery: [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2904013The films cleverness lies in tackling the issue of sexualized female heroines head on. The immodesty by early 20th century standards of her costume is treated as a comment on the prudishness of such a society and its effect on woman’s capacity to move is exposed. When Wonder Woman attempts to kick while wearing one dress there are unhelpful gasps at the revelation of her bloomers and the womanly attire she is given to wear is ultimately deemed inadequate for fighting. Mary Wollstonecraft in her vindication of the Rights of Woman would agree. This point is aided by the fact that Wonder Woman's armour has a practicality to it.  Crucially her guts are protected, exactly what armour in Ancient Greece was designed for and like Wonder Woman, the Ancient Greeks did not generally use leg or arm protection. The bare midriff that Zena the warrior princess sometimes wore is nowhere, thankfully, to be seen.

Perhaps best of all in terms of gender politics is how clearly the film depicts Diana’s agency regarding sexuality in a way that also includes the audiences relationship with her character. When Diana sleeps with Steve Trevor the initiative is hers and Steve is clearly shown to consent but then that is the extent to which our voyeurism is permitted. This is not sex for us the audience in the way that HBO practically guarantees a woman will be stripped to the waist in every episode but sex as part of Wonder Womans control over herself. I’m not saying that nudity is in any way always negative in story telling. Nudity can be funny. Nudity can be powerful. Nudity can be incidental or tragic. Nudity however can also titillate. Titilation, also not necessarily a bad thing, shapes audience relationships with characters so that they are there for us, not merely in the context of the story, but in a seperate context of our own sexuality. I was thrilled with a directorial decision that meant Wonder Woman was a sexual being without our relationship to her as viewers being sexualized in any way. Thankfully the particular combination of titilation along with violence against women was a mistake the film never came close to. Too often directors emphasis the vileness of a villain by showing them molesting a women, especially a heroine, in a way that is not accidentally erotic for audiences and which affects our relationship as fans to that character.

In a few brush strokes the film even holds up to the viewer the divisions of race and class between the gender of men. The deep respect of the Native American character in the film, nicknamed Chief, played by the actor Eugene Brave Rock, when Wonder Woman speaks to him in his native Blackfoot language is palpable. The poignancy when Chief points out that his land was taken by the people of Steve Trevor is real. This character and this interplay could have been dropped from the film without changing the story much. I am so glad it wasn’t however. Besides being a rare respectful portrayal of first nations people in US cinema, it adds a richness to the location of the story in time and an understanding of feminist and patriarchal history that goes beyond the cartoon idea of bad men. Race and class in contemporary politics confound simple caricatures  of women=victims/saviours, men = powerful/oppressors. This film, with its basis in comics, could have stayed with such a cartoon analysis, for cheap effect, but didn’t. By going beyond, it gave Wonder Woman that feminism that goes hand in hand with tackling all injustices, in which women’s equality is a necessary part but not the end of making the world a better place.

My comments so far were originally only intended to be introductory for another discussion. The way this film deals with human evil and with the concept of judgment has a lot to teach us. Instead I found I had more than just a few things I wanted to say about Wonder Woman’s treatment of gender. Consequently I’m going to leave those thoughts about evil for a second post. As always I would love to hear your comments on what I’ve said so far. Do you disagree? Were there other elements of the films gender politics you consider worth mentioning? Would you rate the film less favourably? Feel free to comment below.

Monday, May 8, 2017

We need fair micro-credit solutions.

I have friends who, when bad luck strikes, have been forced to take out credit card loans. Every single article I have read or consumer advice show I have watched has warned me this is a terrible idea. Those friends however are disinclined to accept any direct financial assistance from my partner and I instead. I get that there are solid cultural reasons for this. I believe we can overcome, or maybe circumvent such reasons, with positive micro-credit systems.

We view direct transfers of money between friends as problematic. If your mate helps you out with a lift you might give them money “for petrol” as a way of diminishing the act of payment. If they help you fix your door (which friends have done for us) then you’ll often have a better chance of paying them with food or alcohol than you will putting money in their hand. The exchange of money can transform a relationship into employer/employee or service provider to customer. Those relationships can overlap with friendships but they also come with their own kinds of expectations. We are friends with our mechanic. But when he operates as our mechanic we expect a certain standard of service and he expects prompt payment.

The problem is sometimes we need money. In such situations we are culturally predisposed not to solve our problems in our communities with our closest allies. Instead we go to banks and when we lack the collateral to secure a bank loan we take out credit card loans, hoping we can pay them back before the above 20% interest rate kicks in. And we pay high fees for the privilege. When for some people repayments become difficult the crippling debt and fees serve to dig an impossibly deep hole, for others credit cards just add to the cost of living – not killing them but making life significantly harder.

The alternatives to credit card companies are worse. So called payday loans which provide instant short term loans of amounts like $6000 without credit checks, are loan sharks with fancy marketing. People end up with real interest rates as high as 68%, face late fees for not meeting repayments and end up facing constant harassment from debt collectors. Here are some resources that make for harrowing reading:
http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/whats-up-with-payday-loans/7794806
https://peterpilt.org/2014/03/03/exposing-nimbledumb-little-loans-deceptive-little-company/
https://peterpilt.org/2016/01/12/financial-rape-of-australians-by-wallet-wizard-cash-converters-and-loan-ranger-peter-pilts-thoughts/

The ultimate lender of last resort is the pawn shop. Cash converters is the most famous. They are an unwitting but not unwilling fence of stolen goods half the time. Even when they pawn legitimately owned property that business model is based on undervaluing goods to those who bring them in. I remember seeing an elderly man being told how worthless his wedding ring was by some young punk in a Cash Converters Polo-shirt while I waited to check if they had any of my stolen property. That’s the ugly face of capitalism they keep out of the brochure. In addition Cash converters joins in the payday business with a lack of scruples that makes the other players in that industry look good. In  2015 they were reached a settlement to refund about 37.500 customers after charging them real interest rates as high as 633%!

If you are wondering if there is a solution you’ll be pleased to know that there sort of is. All the small dodgy lenders we’ve mentioned (like Nimble and the rest) can be considered micro-credit or micro-finance agencies. They are ways to provide small amounts of credit – anywhere between less than a 100 dollars to a few thousand. NILS, the No Interest Loan Scheme, administered by Good shepherd, is showing how micro-financing doesn’t have to be exploitative and can serve as a crucial step in staving off deeper poverty. For want of a grand for example a person may not be able to repair their car and thus can’t make it to work.

The NILS program is restrictive. The loans can’t be used for ongoing costs like rent or bills. This is so as not to put a loan in the hand of someone who might be able to obtain emergency rental assistance or defer their bill payment – better options really than a loan. It also ensures the loans aren’t simply bandaiding a problem that will re-present in a month. The size of the loans are also very small between $300 and $1200. That no doubt ensures the program helps the most people but there would be many people who need more than that. For example, purchasing a roadworthy car for less than $4000 is nigh impossible.

Participants also need to be on low incomes and healthcare cards. This ensures the program meets the deepest need however even people off health care cards can face the need for credit with a real uncertainty about when or if those circumstances will turn around. The Health care card cut off is reached with an income of about $500 per week with an allowance of $34 dollars per dependant child. Two bedroom dwellings in Bendigo ( a regional Victorian town) are at their cheapest at $220 per week, while in Fawkner (a once outer suburb of Melbourne and traditionally very working class) they sit above $300 (which is still more than $100 cheaper than a basic single person apartment in Carlton). (https://www.realestateview.com.au) It is easy to see how a family might be on an income above the Health care card cut off and still be in financial stress after rent.

We should also consider that it doesn’t make economic sense for people to focus on mere survival. Living beyond our immediate means can be good economics. A person might reasonably build or purchase their own home, or undertake study or obtain a bee hive and a couple of chooks, or get that sore back properly looked at or buy a push bike. These are all investments in a more sustainable personal economic future which lines of no interest credit would make a lot easier. The NILS program of the Good Shepherd might service only some of these occasions. Its not meant to replace exploitative micro-credit agencies all together. For that we may need to consider other options.

Crowdfunding can be a way forward. Peer to peer lending is specifically a type of crowd funding which aims to emulate the banking system with lower overheads. The outcome is both lower interest rates for lenders and higher returns for investors. In addition peer to peer lending can give investors more control over how their money is loaned out. One positive aspects of peer to peer lending is how it draws loans from a very broad range of investors thus reducing the impact of a single loan default on any one person. The platforms also provide anonymity to lenders and borrowers overcoming our cultural problem with money and friends. Peer to peer lending however is profit driven perhaps precisely because of that anonymity enabling us to make a profit off simply loaning money to someone. I hope peer to peer lending does bite into the major banks business but I also don’t expect it to fundamentally challenge the banking business model so much as run it more efficiently.

The other extreme are crowdfunding sites through which people give money away like  GoFundme and to a lesser extent Pozible (which has some rewards for givers). Theses sites don’t fully escape our cultural taboos about asking friends for money. There are people who, in financial stress, still wouldn’t use such a means of asking. On the flipside because the money isn’t officially loaned people may put a higher standard on why they would give it. Perhaps a car that needs repairing wont be enough to garner support.

I did say Pozible and GoFundme don’t officially loan money but they can still be understood as forms of credit. If I fund you when you need money and when your situation recovers you fund someone else and so on, including the possibility that I will one day be funded myself, then the gifted money acts just like a no-interest micro- credit scenario would. Money moves around to meet need and keep people away from loansharks.

There are other ways donations can form a kind of bank. Free Wheeling Fun in Bendigo takes in old bikes, fixes them up and then provides them for a donation to anyone who needs a bike, This concept of free-cycling minimizes expenses and waste at the same time. Baby gear; prams, cots, high chairs, clothes and toys , even non-disposable nappies; all are perfect for free cycling. They just take up space  once outgrown but they will be a real boon to someone else. What makes this sort of giving away into a form of micro-credit is the reciprocation. Upon giving away a cot, get a kids bike for a donation, then give that back because your kid is grown and ask a stuff-sharing community for a cot because its second child time. Or something like that. What doesn’t make this like a bank is that giving or taking is not tracked. While this means people may exploit the situation I suspect that doesn’t happen as often as feared. Rather I worry that people would be concerned about looking like they were exploiting the system and despite the opportunities in free-cycling will only turn to it after exhausting less savory options.

The enemy of positive, generous and non-restrictive micro-credit alternatives is a cultural view that we all must stand on our own. Nobody does stand on their own of course. We are supported by family and friends if we are fortunate. Less positively we are a part of histories of oppression and theft in Australia. For good or ill, any employment we have is embedded in a whole society that makes that employment possible. In so many ways the cliché call to stand on our own (in addition to conjuring an image unfair to people without use of their legs) is never accurate. If we can accept that, we can instead invest in fairer ways to help each other. Anything has to be better than interest rates that contribute to our growing income inequality.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Theological Response to Child Abuse in the Church.

Jesus loves his church.
There are many articles about the institutionalized abuse of children in the Catholic church. The scale of the problem in Australia alone has been phenomenal. At least 1,880 offenders. Over 4,440 victims. And this is only the Catholic church.

One article in particular struck me as a telling example of the churches response from a mainstream (perhaps a little to the conservative side) Christian site. In it a Catholic theologian outlined a practical response, a procedural response to the issue of child abuse. I actually recommend the content of that article for what it was trying to be. The article, by a theologian, also illustrated to me the absence of a specifically theological response from the church to this issue.

Theology is the discussion and study of the divine. It is the considering and contesting of all that can be said about God, or even whether anything can be said at all. The epidemic of child abuse in the church is shaping how God is understood and affecting what statements about God are believable. There is a lay theological response to this issue even if it seems like church theologians are largely focused on the pragmatic. I want to try and articulate how I see that theological response developing in this article.

It is important to distinguish a theological response from one which looks for blame or solutions. There are many different contributing factors to blame for child abuse in the churches. These may include theological factors – that is people’s understanding of God may have enabled and even justified the abuse, but other factors include institutional self-preservation as well as explanations that are better rooted in patriarchy and a broader social devaluing of children. The purpose of a theological response is not to push theological faults forward as if they alone explain what has happened but to look for how to positively understand the divine in the mess of this matter. The end result of a theological response is a set of statements about the divine that can co-exist with the abuse that has transpired.

The first reflection that must be made is of God’s weakness. I say that to deliberately confront a particular notion of God represented by the statement, “God will not be mocked.” This notion of God is represented by the stern disciplinarian who stands above us with strap in hand, swift punishment befalling those who disregard their authority. Whether or not the divine cares if it is mocked, it has had no recourse when it is so thoroughly debased and disgraced as to be used to cover child abuse. I am not blaming the divine. I am postulating that it has been grossly misrepresented, but I am noting it could not prevent that misrepresentation.

To an extent this is simply the classic “problem of evil” that is used to disprove a God who is all loving, all powerful and all knowing.  Child abuse is a clear evil and a God who has all three of those characteristics is not consistent with a world in which child abuse occurs. There are answers to this problem – the importance to God of free will being one of them – but those answers don’t really do much other than insert a “because” in the statements at least in terms of the God we experience. God must allow evil to occur and thus cannot be experienced as all powerful over the world because of the importance to God of free will.

The problem of child abuse in the church, however, is not simply a crisis of God’s power over the world. It is specifically a crisis of God’s power over their representation. The result of this crisis, regardless of the “becauses” that we insert, is that God cannot be experienced as in control of their representation. This means that whatever logical solution we come to that preserves Gods existence in the presence of evil, the connection between God and their representation in the world must cease to be a special relationship different to their connection to the world at large.

This is huge for some churches. For other churches, not especially. The Quakers have a strong distrust of people speaking for God in any way and believe in our capacity to experience God directly through silence and stillness. At the other extreme the Catholic church holds that it is specially instituted to represent God on earth through the authority of the Pope and their Bishops. The idea of a God who has the power to do that simply does not survive the child abuse scandals of the church. God can grant no special protection from corruption or falsehood to any institution standing in their name.

This is not just a problem for Catholics. Generally Christian denominations have relied on two sources of authority to support their doctrines. The traditions of the church and scripture. These two strands are not distinct. The specific texts which were included as scripture in Christianity were chosen by a series of early councils of the church which relied on tradition to determine inclusion. Tradition is also why these decisions are seen as enduring. Meanwhile the Catholic church, which could be said to have emphasized tradition over scripture, bases its authority to do so on a passage in scripture. Importantly both tradition and scripture rely on some notion that God has some capacity to bless their correct representation in the world. Christian scripture is not the writings of an incarnated God but writings about that experience by others and is deemed to be specially protected from falsehood by God. 

This reliance on protected representation only becomes stronger as we head back into Christianities past and the books of their Old Testament. There are Christian schools of thought which contend that meaningful theology must be restricted to uncovering the truths revealed in either these books or the New Testament writings. This is to say that  Biblical representations of God are all that can be trusted and evidence from beyond them is unsafe to depend on. This is how deeply held the notion of a special relationship between God and their representation by the church (in the broader sense of the word) is for some forms of Christianity. Such ways of theologizing cannot survive the child abuse scandal rocking the churches.

I should note that there is strong evidence, at least in the Catholic church, that the proportion of offenders in positions of authority exceeds that of the general community. However, this isn’t necessary to justify the claims I am making. Nor is it necessary to prove this isn’t simply because more trust over vulnerable people was historically placed in the churches hands or due to a hands-off approach to the church by secular authorities that would have failed any organisation. Regardless of cause the evidence that there is no special difference favouring those purporting to represent God over secular organisations is enough to disprove a special relationship between God and their representation in terms of power over evil.

If no special relationship exists between God and their church then this is not all negative. Freeing the divine from possession by its spokespeople (spokesmen mostly) emboldens other theological claims. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Abuse that is exposing the abuse in the churches is the work of the non-churched, the religious and the ex-churched. If the divine is free from a special connection with the church we can see the divine in this work. The work of the commission can be viewed as divinely inspired even as it exposes and potentially weakens the church.

Much of Judaeo-Christian theology has God massively concerned with their representation. They are, in story, outraged by heresy and idolatry both of which get God wrong. If God is incapable of protecting themselves from misrepresentation this idea of what angers God seems foolish. It would be a futile anger. We might be better off considering the divine as a spirit radically unconcerned with their representation, happy to work through atheists or Catholics in order to get the job done as in the work of the Royal Commission. This picture of God seems more consistent with a world in which we are saddened and inspired by different aspects of human society with no pattern as to whether they can be associated with one religion or another or none.

There are many more diverse theological responses to this issue than I have covered here. There are victims who simply put to one side questions of God’s power and find a place for God as a companion in their suffering. There are others who dismiss entirely the usefulness of the idea of any divine spirit. These both seem like legitimate responses to me. The picture of God that is no longer viable is the God who can guarantee to be known through their representatives, by ensuring that the lies that happen outside the church are kept from happening within.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Marriage - Something old, Something new.

I’m currently reading “Love Wins”. Not the much hyped Rob Bell book about the non-existence of hell but a book by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell with the same title, about the court battle to establish marriage equality in the U.S. It’s a fascinating story so far with clear prose back grounding the plaintiffs and lawyers pivotal to the case. The differences evident in the book between the U.S. situation and Australia’s has led me to undertake some historical speculation. We are currently at an impasse in the progress towards marriage law reform in this country. Could we have taken a different path?

In 2011 Julia Gillard as Prime Minister of a minority government, opposed same-sex marriage. As parliamentary leader of the Labor party she negotiated that a conscience vote on the issue of marriage reform was Labor’s policy rather than a binding vote in support. At the time this was seen by some as protecting Labor backing amongst religious conservatives. Catholics are a significant Labor constituency with historically socially conservative views. Those views are changing however with opposition to homosexuality now largely living in more Liberal voting evangelical churches. This was one reason why the politics of Gillard’s decision led to many scratched heads. Was it really necessary?

Even more confusing was that Prime Minister Gillard herself was an open atheist in a defacto relationship with no (public at least) intention of marrying. Why was she personally aligned with the “marriage defenders” on this issue? Gillard didn’t just broker a deal on the conference floor she spoke openly about not wanting to change the marriage act to include same-sex relationships. For atheists who take a strong pro-secular position the chance to remove John Howards judeo-christian inspired stipulations about gender seemed like a no-brainer. If it wasn’t politic to do so, this could be understood, but to go on the record as not wanting to change such a blatant elevation of religious concerns? As an atheist? Bizarre.

Gillard however gave us her preferred solution. Straight couples and same-sex couples alike should embrace civil unions. Leave marriage to the churched. I imagine that Gillard might have also felt that she represented the ultimate victory in regard to marriage – a person holding the highest office in the land without needing a ring on their finger to prove their substance, a woman in public office who didn’t need to express pining for her day in white taffeta. From this perspective making marriage relevant again by broadening it to same-sex couples looks like a gross step backwards.

I’ve been wondering, what would it have taken for Gillard to have been right? For our circumstance then to have been the Lefts cultural victory in this matter, sans any change to the Marriage Act would have needed Australians to embrace a perspective that wasn’t popular even then.  Marriage equality has gained momentum since that time and is now the only solution for the cause of same-sex relationship recognition in the popular imagination.  It would have taken a very different Australia to have ended this conversation with Gillard’s solution in 2011.

Crucially, we would have needed there to be a stark split between those who marry and people in the LGBTI communities and their allies. If those groups were separate then the rhetoric of “leave marriage to them” would make sense in the LGBTI community. “Them”, the marrying-kind, as distinct from those in same sex couples or their allies, would be a sensible category. For some people this is their reality. The adult children of people who never married, whose parents have no expectation their kids will marry can feel marriage belongs to “them”. Such people may see marriage as irrelevant to their life – not only are they unlikely to get married, but they are unlikely to even get invited to a wedding. Occasionally someone in their circle of friends or family surprisingly falls in love with one of the marrying kind and a wedding invitation appears in the mail.  Attending the wedding is like attending a bar mitzvah when one is not Jewish. The food is great, the music as well, but nothing makes perfect sense. You just roll with it as a curious exotic adventure.

Likewise the other side of the divide, the marrying kind, would need to be profoundly separate from members of the LGBTI community and their allies for Gillard’s position to be comprehensible for them. Again this is some defenders of traditional marriage’s reality, betrayed when they use slogans like “choose your own word, leave marriage alone.” For these people same-sex couples are not a part of the tradition and history of marriage. They are like goyim at a bar mitzvah who liking the look of the thing decide to have their own. The belief is that same-sex couples have no historical claim to this ritual.

Although some people live lives as described above with few connections to their opposite, my own society is not like this at all. I have one sibling who is married, one engaged, one who probably never will get formally married, and my self who married only after having my children. In our extended family there are atheists, Catholics, Anglicans, Evangelicals and a bunch who are open to a range of religious positions. Friends and family include same-sex couples. Marriage is our word, our cultural heritage, although none of us are treating it exactly like our parents and some of us are either rejecting or radically reinventing it.  It seems perfectly plain to me that same-sex couples who want to get married, and whose families and friends want to celebrate their weddings, do so because this is a part of their traditions and cultural heritage. It is what their parents did and what their siblings have done. It is their word too.

There is something gloriously socialist about the construct of the civil union. Or perhaps a better description of its tone would be the perfect rationalism of the French republic with its proposed ten hour days and ten day weeks. By sweeping away the traditions of the past and replacing it with something that lacks such baggage we can provide a purely functional answer to state relationship recognition. Marriage can continue in churches, including gay affirming churches too, or synagogues or mosques or wherever really but as a separate institution, left on the law books as an anachronism. Or in true French revolutionary style we can even expunge marriage from the law books altogether and make it a private arrangement.

Bluntly this isn’t how the world works. The French Republican Calendar was abolished after twelve years. Esperanto, developed in 1887, to replace European languages with a logical grammar, hasn’t caught on. Legacy systems pervade our culture: you might argue because of a failing of vision and ambition. However partly at least we want those legacy systems to remain as a connection to the past and our shared heritage. Far more than Gillard realized and far more than those who want same-sex couples to leave marriage alone we all have a shared heritage that includes marriage. What we are trying to do is to share it better. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

So many points of no return.



Just before Australians cast their votes in our most indecisive election ever , the leader of the Liberal party and incumbent Prime minister gave an address to the National Press Club. The answers he gave to some questions touched on a theme of interest to me. It’s the theme that everything hangs in the balance or that we are at a point of no return.

A question from Catherine McGrath from SBS television about engagement with multi-ethnic Australia prompted a response that oddly was able to include this sentiment;

“Right across our nation, the choice on Saturday is clear - my team, a stable Coalition majority Government, with a clear national economic plan that will enable Australians in all of their diversity to realise their dreams.
On the other hand, the chaos, the uncertainty, the debt, the deficit, the higher taxes slowing investment, deterring employment, depriving Australians of those opportunities – that is the choice. It’s a clear one.”

A question from Catalina Florez for Network Ten about the Prime Ministers security in his own leadership was deflected with this idea;

“Catalina a win for the Coalition on Saturday is critically important for the future of 24 million Australians. It’s critically important for their children and their grandchildren. It’s critically important for the generations that are yet unborn.”

This could be considered standard political rhetoric. An incumbent government will always want to hype the risk of change, especially when it has only been in power for one term. Suggesting that voting for the other team will bring descending chaos is par for the course.

It is not surprising then to find similar sentiments from the main opposition party, or from minor parties. The issue might be the health system, public television, the environment or some vaguely racist Australian way of life but the tone is the same; everything hangs in the balance, this is the point of no return. Vote for me or we're doomed!

I am not writing this blog to scoff at this rhetoric. There are ways in which I consider the stakes high enough and the choices stark enough to make exactly such statements justified. The Great barrier reef is in very dire straits, possibly past the point of no return. The removal of protections for Aboriginal sacred sites in Western Australia will commit damage that cannot ever be undone. If we sign the TPP we will have shackled ourselves legally to support more rights for corporations than governments and cannot simply walk away. A line was crossed when we gave our immigration minister the capacity to remove people’s citizenship. We need a commissioner to investigate the abuse on Nauru before the perpetrators crawl under some rock and evidence is destroyed.

I believe everything I’ve stated in the above paragraph so I am not trying to mock claims that we face critical junctions. In fact I often suspect we are wired to dismiss catastrophic language out of hand. I think we might very well carry a sense of our own absolute importance and believe that this protects us, individually, nationally and globally from anything too bad. I remember a story of a musician who fell out of a second story window one day and only just survived. It was the moment when they realize they were not guaranteed a starring role in life; they could just be the guy who dies in the first act. Most of us don’t have that realization. Religiously there seems to be a similar sort of denial that climate change is really real, as if God would never let it happen to us. Nationally we want to believe that a mining boom was evidence of our hard work or national destiny, not a lucky streak we have ridden while our manufacturing has dried up and blown away. I don't think we are too special to  be doomed.

What I do want to do is ask, “What are the implications of a genuine belief that we might pass a point of no return on a matter of deep importance?” In life we must often cope with holding a sincere high stakes view of a particular choice and the awareness that we don't control how that choice will be resolved. This might be because we accept that we share that choice with so many others in a democracy. It might be because we see the world around us as largely idiots led by liars. Either way we know we might lose in a contest of ideas even when everything hangs in the balance.

One solution is to make personal choices and support causes that match our values, separate to the political process. During the election campaign our family came close to hosting a survivor of Nauru currently on a bridging visa who was stuck without housing in Bendigo. Bridging visa’s preclude housing services from being able to offer much assistance and a robbery had left him without means. He left Bendigo for work on the Murray instead which reflected his discomfort with taking charity (and probably not our messy house). Our name is now linked with Rural Australians for Refugees, as a potential site of accommodation. I’m not saying this to brag (we didn’t actually do anything) but because this, plus weekly tutoring we do for a family of Karen refugees, is how my family copes with having little political control over the high stakes matter of Australia’s refugee policy. Other people make the choice to foster, donate to services for the homeless, establish farmers markets, or fund-raise for solar panels on schools. Taking these actions can help us cope with fast approaching dooms we can't convince our leaders to care about.

Sometimes we refuse to tolerate our slide towards disaster. I can think of many times when I have admired direct action to oppose injustice despite the democratic will of the majority. My hear swelled with genuine adoration of the people who refused to allow a Quantas flight to take a refugee back to persecution in 2015. There is obviously a danger of elitism to this. How do I know that I am right to stand against the will of the majority. As any student of history shows however majorities don't just get it wrong as often as individuals they get it even wronger in more spectacular fashion. My last post which mentions the Heroic Imagination Project raised the very point that obedience to social norms is evils best friend.

What consideration should we show other people’s dread that something is a matter of extra-ordinarily high stakes and beyond their control. If we share their understanding of the issue we can lock arms around shoulders and cry together. But what if I don't agree with the weight they give the matter? I know people who felt the inability of midwives to obtain insurance for homebirths was tantamount to disaster. It just didn't rate like that for me but do I owe them any allowance for the grief and outrage that I understand in principle? And what if we are opposed to their view; do we owe them any graciousness even as we work for the very outcome they perceive as catastrophic? What graciousness could be meaningful short of a concession to their strong feeling?

This last question bears relevance to the matter of same-sex marriage for me. I support the removal of gender from the marriage act of Australia. I have increasingly been seeing it as a matter of less importance though. This is because as more and more other nations endorse same sex marriage we are increasingly culturally accepting the institution in advance of any legal change. A same-sex couple can say they are married in Australia and the response in many public spaces is that this is a "real" marriage. This response emboldens other declarations and before you know it gay couples are as likely to want you to look at their wedding photos as straight ones.

This current situation in which culture leads the law (rather than the opposite) actually appeals to the anarchist in me. There is something empowering about recognizing marriages in spite of the state's position although to be fair we have relied on other nations laws to get us there. Still I sometimes wish  we who have argued for legislative change never gave such importance to government opinion in the first place. Rather than feeling that a same-sex marriage which lacks government imprimatur is not a real marriage I feel like it is more real – more purely a statement by two people, fists raised together against the world. I’m a romantic in this way.

There are however people both supportive and opposed to same sex marriage who feel that marriage law reform is the paramount political issue of our time. There was an unfortunate statement put out by the Presbyterian church of Australia in the lead up to this election. It described passing marriage law reform as to “embed motherlessness and fatherlessness in public policy.” The sole mention of any other concerns was to rank them as less than marriage law reform.:
“The Presbyterian Church understands that the moral matrices by which each of us evaluates political parties are often wider than one issue and weighted differently. They include concerns about social justice, equity, and morality when weighing the common good. However, redefining marriage is a once in a lifetime issue, and it is our belief it should be weighed accordingly, and considered carefully.”

This was a relatively calmly toned piece. We can find hotter heads on either side of this issue if we try. The point is that in this statement the Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia spoke for many who feel that same-sex marriage constitutes a watershed moment for their politic. Assuming that eventually we will get there and same-sex marriage will be passed is not ridiculous. It regularly receives above 60% support in reliable polls. Do we who support marriage reform have any obligation to sympathy to those who oppose same sex marriage and fear that it will take us to a place of catastrophe?

The simplest answer is no. A sense of impending doom can’t be allowed to create obligations on those who don’t share that sense. Otherwise we create the incentive to manufacture such a sense of doom. Anyone who parents knows this. And if you don’t then I would like to tell you how critically I feel I need some chocolate. Very critically.

This answer however is insensitive to the way in which friendships and family connections reach across political divides. I have people close to me who do think that same-sex marriage is a mistake of epic political importance. As, culturally, same-sex marriage recognition is already here, due to international influences, and is likely to be introduced legally to Australia soon, its worth reflecting on how I would like those friends and family members to act towards me if they were winning this debate. How would I feel about their triumphalism if the poll numbers were reversed? I probably wouldn’t want to hear it.

One thing that can be done is to listen to specific fears and see if they can be mitigated. Some people think that the only time you should take your adult pants off with another adult person is if the two of you are married and whats under those pants is wildly different. Specifically they think there should be a penis and a vagina. Some of those people, but not all, also think you should only put those bits together to make babies and not do anything which makes babies unlikely. There are ways that these ideas are defended that breach standards of polite conversation  - calling women who live differently sluts for example or describing gay couples as narcissistic (you know because a man loving a man is like a man loving himself). But even there do we really want to use the law to make such speech illegal? I don't and would like to nut out some agreement about the reasonable freedom to articulate a variety of views about sexual morality. This includes some appreciation that what is ok in church is not necessarily ok in the workplace and what is forbidden in the workplace needn't be forbidden in church. People shouldn't fear that marriage law reform will lead to gulags for traditionalist Christians and that means challenging any rhetoric against their views that justifies that fear.

There are areas of potentially unsolvable conflict. I am not comfortable with descriptions of homosexuality as a disorder or mental illness or as sinful. I don't think any of those descriptions constitute hate speech but I don't think they constitute "health speech" either or "holy speech" if you like. I want to argue against these descriptions but I don't want to have those arguments in federal parliament. School policies, government tenders to service providers, the regulations of professions like social work and psychology are areas where the line between local argument and state control have always been murky. I am not sure how to resolve lines between free speech and therapeutic or justice priorities in these areas. I think we can avoid confusing these battlegrounds with marriage reform but I concede people who think homosexual activity is sinful are scared they wont be able to keep saying so and maintain public employment. I'm willing to investigate that fear and we should all interrogate our motives to see if that is actually our intent.

There will be celebration when marriage law reform finally happens. There should be. Marriage requires an element of public celebration after all. However I will try to be mindful that there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth as well and that this feeling is no less sincere than the feeling I have about the death of the Great Barrier Reef. Although can I just say, the Great Barrier Reef is dying within two centuries of white invasion after thriving under thousands of years of responsible care by several different Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander nations.... if we could at least not trumpet the supremacy of Judeo-Christian Australia so much it'd be great! Bloody hell.

Politics takes us past many points of no return. Life does too. We cope in different ways. Even if our fears of descending chaos are not founded it can be difficult to know that at the time. I think if we are to maintain the bonds of family and friendship across disagreements about matters of high stakes then we need to have some consideration of each others angsts. In terms of our own fears hopefully we have shoulders not only to cry on but that join in making our hand cart as just and fair as it can be on its descent to hell.