Category Archives: Social issues

Death of a cricketer

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#PutOutYourBats

In this week’s news, a woman died in a local car crash and Phillip Hughes died after a cricketing accident.

Both deaths are immeasurably sad, but it’s Hughes who has grabbed attention around the world. His death has captured my emotions – like those of many others – and I think there’s good reason.

Cricket is a game. And like all the best games, cricket is entirely made up. Athletics and target shooting have skills similar to those needed for chasing food in the wild (or running away from danger). But cricket is weird: stumps of three sticks plus two; bowl without throwing; strike a leather ball; run back and forth on a small strip in a huge paddock.

Cricket is an imaginary game to play and watch, and that’s part of its appeal. We don’t want ‘work’ all the time, because we’re not made by God as simple work units. Humans work, that’s part of God’s creation. But we’re made for so much more: we’re made for rest (the goal of Genesis 1); we’re made for joy; we’re made for freedom in Jesus; we’re made to find that purpose is not intrinsic to our own frantic activity.

Cricket, however lightly, touches on these bigger purposes by ignoring practicality and making up rules with no connection to the business of business.

Yet death through cricket crudely slashes at the face of beautiful imagination. It’s all so real now for those who knew or watched Hughes, and for the bowler involved, Sean Abbott.

I do not claim that cricket is escapism. I’m claiming much more: that cricket is reality. Cricket hints at the so-much-more that is embedded in God’s creation. Hughes’ death shows us that the so-much-more remains tantalising, beyond our capacity and beyond our guarantees.

Though Christians know that creation will fulfil its purpose, in Christ (Ephesians 1:10), we share honestly with the on-going pain of our home (Romans 8:18-25).

To paraphrase someone who really could write: Ask not who was struck by the bouncer – it struck us all.

 


 

 

The value of work

A good question, from the early sixteenth century (from Thomas More’s Utopia):

what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in the things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs?

I don’t propose compulsory rearrangement of pay scales (not necessarily, anyway!), but how foolish it is to value people by the measure of their salary.

 


 

Quick review: Honk if you are Jesus

Honk If You Are JesusHonk If You Are Jesus by Peter Goldsworthy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very disappointing! A book written by rote, it seems.

I greatly enjoyed Goldsworthy’s Maestro, so had been looking forward to Honk if you are Jesus. I can’t see how it’s the same author.

‘Honk’ is entirely predictable. Every plot turn is telescoped. And the characters! Awful examples of mere types, barely encompassing even two dimensions. There is a lonely-brilliant-cynical woman professor, a fat-gay-epicurean diva, a nagging mum, a two-faced televangelist, a scruffy-brilliant-geneticist, a trophy wife … And these are the filled-out characters!

All this is a pity. Firstly, because I’m convinced Goldsworthy can write. Secondly, because he’s nodded towards a whole library full of fascinating topics.

The story touches on: private tertiary institutions, the decline (or not?) of religion in Australia, genetics, the nature of scientific enquiry, the personality-driven nature of ‘objective’ progress , and the ethics of interference.

These wonderful ingredients, however, are poorly articulated. ‘Honk’ made me feel like it was a neat colour-by-numbers book (#1, make medical expert a cynic with nagging mum, etc).

There is one exception – the last chapter is SO MUCH better than the rest of the book. It has shade and nuance, it’s more reflective, and it hints at (not yells out) a surprising plot twist. The whole book could have been like this!

As a Christian, it’s kind of encouraging to see how poorly this book is written. There’s pressure, both subtle and direct, that tells Christians to butt out of these big topics. I hear the message that Christianity has nothing worthwhile to say about abortion, genetic engineering, medical funding decisions, etc. This book reminds me that so many Christians, simply by being interested in these things, already have a more thought-out point of view than our neighbours who float along with current popular opinion.

So, if you have an idea, speak up! Test it out. Measure the idea by the gospel of Jesus. See how to explain it to a general audience, with varied points of view. And, respectfully, speak. In other words, ‘Honk if you know Jesus.’

View all my reviews

 


 

Christians should be great at politics

I’ve long been convinced of the truth of the old saying: Politics is the art of the possible (attributed to Otto von Bismark – in German, natürlich – from 1867).

In other words, politics is about getting things done. It’s a rough tool for activity.

In other words, politics is not a place for pure ideology. It can never deliver 100% of any idea or plan. Its essence includes realism and negotiation. To place one’s hope for humanity and the world in politics is inherently foolish.

And that’s why Christians should be great at politics. Our hope is Christ (1 Timothy 1:1), whose kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). We know it is useless to place great trust in kings or war machinery (Psalm 33:16-17).

Because of all this, Christians are free to see politics as it really is – a useful tool. We’re free to engage in all sorts of politics: write to local council members, agitate for better laws, join a political party, become a parliamentarian, … as long as we remember not to get caught up in the imagined importance of this politics.

Politics is not life or death for followers of Christ. And that’s a great freedom to get involved and retain some objectivity. It’s not politics that lasts. What lasts is the love for neighbour that politics (at its best) can facilitate.

 


 

Modern conservative atheism

There was a time, it seems, when atheism tried to build new things. I think atheism has given up, and now tries to conserve old ideas from other people.

Nietzsche (1844-1900) railed against the Christian values he both understood and loathed – and he strongly urged a new way. He wanted strong people, not the Christian softness of humility. For him, Jesus’ meekness ‘as a lamb before his shearers is silent’ was pathetic weakness.

Likewise, Marx (1818-1883) was not only against religion, but actively for a new social order. He argued the need for fundamental change.

Nietzsche and Marx illustrate the line of atheist intellect that argued for something, and for something new.

In this early part of the twenty-first century, I don’t hear that kind of atheist argument. Atheist arguments are no longer for something new, but for old values. And these old values are not atheist at all – they are usually Christian (or ‘religious’, if you like).

Atheist arguments are no longer for something new, but for old values. And these old values are not atheist at all

These values include: justice, living with difference, and listening to the other. I hear atheists argue for them (great!). And when I seek to find why, there’s no answer. These ideas are assumed as good and important. ‘They’re obvious, they are common-sense.’

Even more, there’s the refrain that Christians don’t own justice, love and mercy.

But Christians do own these things. Our belief – right or wrong – is that the whole creation springs from the eternal, loving God who will bring justice to bear. In consequence, those who trust God should also live these values.

But if the material world is all there is, it is very hard to argue for universal and enduring values. Mercy might make us feel good – but hormones are a sufficient explanation for that. It’s a big stretch to suggest our emotions infer universal moral order.

(Here’s an example, in a fascinating article. The author views religion or atheism as not really important. What counts is a liberal social and political system. But why? It just is, that’s all.)

Why point this out? Two reasons.

First, if I am right, it’s handy to know the change in feel and argument that has happened over the last century. When any person makes any point it’s polite to listen. I am trying to listen to what’s being said today.

Secondly, I think the change indicates a number of underlying issues. It may be a sign that creative and constructive atheism has failed. It might also indicate that atheism’s important intellectual problem right now is the problem of good (the mirror of theism’s problem of evil). These two require argument, of course, but they arise from a real observation.

So, over to you. Is there any merit in my observation? Could things be explained differently? Does it really matter?

 


 

It’s easy to change the laws

Shall we just ‘change the law’ to fix want we want to regarding marriage, theft, lies …? Here’s a snippet from Utopia on just this question. (Written in 1516, books like this deflate the modern boast that we’re dealing with ‘new things’, and cannot learn from those old thinkers.)

But if one shall say, that by that law we are only forbid to kill any except when the laws of the land allow of it, upon the same grounds, laws may be made, in some cases, to allow of adultery and perjury: for God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorise man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this but to give a preference to human laws before the divine?

The existence of a written law, fully complied with, does by no means guarantee justice or truth. It’s interesting when people agree in law-making, but not convincing.


 

Politics: don’t get your hopes up

It’s election time in Australia!

If that did not excite you, try this. It’s almost the end of election time in Australia!

Many voters are tired of the campaign. One of my pet hates is when one politician repeats known untruths simply because they make an opponent look bad. I want to yell out, ‘If you and I both know you’re pushing a lie over here, why do expect me to trust you over there?’ (OK, that’s just me venting. Sorry.)

Another thing I’ve noticed is in the way we talk about political issues. We love to promise/demand perfect solutions.

Considering military action after use of sarin gas in Syria? ‘There will be no bombs.’

Responding to asylum-seekers floating to Australia? ‘There will be no boats.’ Or, ‘We demand all arrivals to be housed.’

Thinking about small business? ‘There will be no red-tape to tangle your productivity.’

Education? ‘Every child in Australia will reach his or her full potential.’

The kingdom

As a Christian, I recognise the shape of these statements – they are all eschatological. Eschatology is the teaching of the last things, the time when all God’s perfect standards are perfectly honoured. Eschatology looks ahead to the consummation of all things.

The prophets spoke of these days of completeness. Have a look at Isaiah 11:1-9, or Isaiah 65:17-25. They promised a sword recycling programme to provide what’s really needed – farm implements (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3). The Bible finishes with strong confidence in God’s promise:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)

These promises are affirmed and guaranteed by the ministry of Jesus. He who crushed sin and defeated death will take history to this long-desired end. This is the good news of Jesus the king! We pray, ‘Your kingdom come.’

Not the kingdom

Australia, despite having a royal head of state, is not to be confused with this kingdom. No mere nation can fulfil the hopes of these scriptural promises. Every nation is weighed and found to be like dust on the scales, too insignificant to move the balance.

No nation is the kingdom. Therefore:

  • no government, or aspiring government, can promise the kingdom
  • no voter can demand the kingdom

If either of these happen, move right along. This is not meant to bag politicians, by the way. The really important one of these is the second. That’s where most of us live. Politicians’ most extreme promises gain life from voters who listen to them. Hearers, by reception, provide life-support for promises that should die a peaceful death. We place our hopes in politicians. They promise to fulfil our hopes. When they fail – always – we blame the parliamentarians, rather than admit our foolish hopes.

The art of politics

This might sounds like a vote of despair in all politics (pun intended). Not so! It is, rather, a call to let politics stay as politics. Let’s not force politics to also be theology, eschatology, faith and truth.

Bismarck is attributed with the saying, ‘Politics is the art of the possible.’ Politics tries to get things done, it’s people trying to get organised. Politics comes with values and vision, but is open-eyed to the need for negotiation. Politics has to set priorities: we have to this this first; we can help, but our resources are limited; that good idea has to wait; etc.

The Bible does not call politics to bring in the kingdom – that’s the task of Jesus. The Bible principle that might best apply to politics – taking it somewhat out of its setting – is this, ‘be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.’ Do what you can. Do it well. In a democracy, that includes how we vote.

 


 

Taking refuge

Yesterday Australia and Papua New Guinea announced an agreement for processing refugees who arrive in Australian waters by boat, but have no visa. Yesterday also, my social media streams overflowed with people outraged and embarrassed and who – in so many ways – were able to position themselves in the best possible light.

My social media skills fail me here, because I don’t know how to sum up my thoughts in no more than 140 characters. This post is my effort to think a bit more clearly about the whole refugee issue.

Here are some points about which I am pretty certain.

  1. Refugees need refuge
    This is basic, a foundation. Like most foundations, it’s not always at the centre of comment. Yet it needs the occasional reinforcement. I think Australia is well-placed to provide refuge for people in great need. And what an astonishing thing that the world has refugee conventions, workers dedicated to refugee care, international law, … Even though they don’t work perfectly, I thank God for these.
  2. Boat trips to Australia are unnecessarily dangerous
    SIEV-X is a famous example of tragedy in dangerous seas, but not an isolated one. I write ‘unnecessarily’ because there’s always danger, and I assume many people in flight have already been through much that is unsafe. Yet it would be good to eliminate this risk.
  3. Refugee camps hold people too long
    In my region, Albury-Wodonga, hundreds of Bhutanese refugees have been resettled after up to 20 years in camps. At first, I was incredulous at such a delay. An often-linked article this week says that asylum-seekers in Indonesia may wait 20-30 years for settlement in a third country. Wouldn’t it be good to see substantial change in this figure!
  4. I don’t know
    I don’t know international law. I don’t know how to formulate national policy. I don’t know what it’s like for the navy, customs and quarantine to implement boat policy. I have no insight into the motives of prime minister, opposition leader or others who speak up. I am the definition of ‘all care but no responsibility’ – the perfect place from which to pontificate.

So what?

  • So … I feel unable to form an opinion about the Australia-PNG agreement. It might be good. It might be bad. It could be both good and bad.
  • So … I’m not going to blame ‘the politicians’. We’re all involved: electors, media, politicians, employers, unions – everyone. The problem is not them, the problem is us.
  • So … I suggest we truly talk to those who have influence on refugee policy. Enquire and listen, then communicate. There’s the local federal parliamentarian. No doubt there are others, too. A good topic to keep raising: that Australia continue its humanitarian refugee intake.

Those who read the Bible have plenty of reason to sympathise with refugees. The Israelites, after Passover, we taught to remember that they were once aliens (Exodus 23:9). Jesus’ family fled to Egypt away from Herodian danger (Matthew 2:13-15). And Christians are people named as travellers and exiles who received needed mercy (1 Peter 2:9-12).

None of these verses make resolution of the refugee problem easy. Nor do they give us direct insight into policy. But they all spur Christians to compassion, mercy and the openness of love.

 


 

Good-bad or good-better

You have a decision. You want to choose something good. But what will you call the option you don’t choose?

There are two ways of viewing this choice. Both are helpful, in the right place. I think one has come to dominate our thinking, unhelpfully. What I call good-bad thinking has taken over. I want to keep it, but also hold on to good-better thinking.

Good-bad

Good-bad thinking is just as the words suggest. We choose what is good, and what we reject is bad. I choose to drive at the speed limit (good!) – and choose not to fly through the red light (that would be bad).

Politics and election advertising communicates is always good-bad. Choose Party A, we’re good. Reject Party Z, they’re bad.

Unfortunately, the good-bad division has become a reflex way to think. It’s automatic. It’s so deeply-held that, when we say one thing, our listeners hear two things.

We say, ‘Evolution fails to explain all reality’ and people hear, ‘We reject science.’
We say, ‘Same-sex relationships are not marriage’ and people hear, ‘I hate gay people.’
We say, ‘Evangelism is of utmost importance’ and people hear, ‘Don’t bother caring for the poor.’
We say, ‘Don’t legalise euthanasia’ and people hear, ‘We don’t care about suffering.’

We did not say that second thing, yet it becomes the centre of the discussion argument.

Good-better

Some decisions – perhaps even the most important decisions – are good-better decisions. There might be two options, both of which have appeal. There might be a large distinction between choices, or the merest hint of a difference – and yet a decision has to be made.

Good-better thinking admits that life can be messy. The non-preferred option might simply be a lower priority, or less clear, or slightly more difficult. A single man might have a couple of ‘just friends’ he could ask to the end of year formal – and feels bad because he does not want to offend one. Because of the expense, a church has to decide between new PA system or new heating. A family has to consider moving away from family for a job, or staying close with uncertain work prospects.

There are plenty of times in life when decisions are both messy and unavoidable.

At such times, it hurts people if we slip back into good-bad. All that does is stick the knife into someone who is already sore! ‘If you move away you’re abandoning family.’ ‘If you put the PA system in you’re ignoring the old folk who feel the cold.’ ‘You asked Grace to the formal because who haven’t forgiven Pearl making that joke about you.’

So what?

My advice – my advice to myself – is to listen better. Do a James 1:19. Be quick to listen, be intent on truly hearing what is actually said. Do not rush into implications, therefores and hasty conclusions. Keep a lid on the righteous (!) anger but hasten to understand. That surely is the better thing to do.

 


 

Psychology explains everything, & nothing

So many conversations involve looking inside someone’s head. Amateur psychologists are everywhere.

In Bible study: “Moses was probably conflicted”; “It must be that Joshua was feeling vulnerable”; ‘Paul’s upbringing made him overly dogmatic.”

In a planning team: “I don’t think she has the right personality to do that job.”

In disagreement: “He must have had a bad experience to think that way”; “I can’t change that, because I need to express myself.”

In these cases, I think the appeal to psychology explains everything (now we know why). And it explains exactly nothing (we don’t have to think about it any more).

My appeal is this: forget the inner forces until we’ve wrestled with the outer detail.

Take the example of reading the Bible. In the modern west, much of our literature concerns the inner life. Novels explore and express the desires, rages, fears, joy and hurts of their characters. We too easily read the Bible as if it’s the same. But the Bible has little comment upon the motives and drives of its rich array of people. It has its own way: plot and narrative, hints and unfolding drama, small details that later become huge. It’s much better if we read the Bible as the Bible. Let its details capture us, instead of forcing it to fit our kinds of writing.

So too with understanding people. Have a look at the screenshot I took from this article. It’s atrocious! The aim of the piece is to help people cope during Christmas. This section is totally superior, smug and self-satisfied. And uses ‘psychology’ to justify arrogance.

What should we do if someone says, as suggested here, ‘We have too many boat people’? I don’t think that statement is true at all, but this author gives me permission to proudly look down on one who holds this opinion.

For a start, the author has already decided it’s bigotry – no reasoning required. Secondly, the boat people opinion is ascribed to deficiency and fear: ‘lack of awareness … often underpinned by a fear of difference.’ Finally, the opinion is scientifically-proven to be dumb: ‘prejudice is linked with low IQ’.

What an arrogant smack-down!

Even better, though, is how the author tells us to exalt ourselves. Once you’ve avoided the topic: ‘be proud of yourself for taking the more worldly, compassionate, self-controlled and educated higher ground and move on.’

All this stuff couched in misused psychological terms, when I could have simply said: ‘I’d like to know your reasons for that, as long as you are open to changing your mind.’

As I said before: forget the inner forces until we’ve wrestled with the outer detail.

When we do this, psychology and the inner life will still be important. And they will be more powerful, I believe. Properly-qualified psychologists will be able to share their insight. Passions in Bible characters will stand out even more clearly (Jesus’ tears in the Garden of Gethsemane, for example). And when everyday folk talk, we will experience true listening and interaction.