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Monday, December 5, 2016

If we hate haters for hating...

(This is--more or less--the text of a speech I was asked to give at a recent rally at SA's Parliament House, organised by the University of Adelaide's Students Against Racism group on Saturday, December 3.)

"I'm aware that the yankee accent you hear me speaking in does not exactly do me any favours in denouncing racism and xenophobia in forums such as this.
However, despite my Nth. American accent, I am an Australian. I've been here for 17 years: I became a citizen in 2007. So I'm an Australian BY CHOICE, rather than by an accident of birth. I too am an immigrant, and boy was it easy to get in here...for me. My credentials: European descent, educated, white (all of which were the result, not of personal achievement, but of privilege).
These personal characteristics made it easy for me to get in here because they seem to indicate I would pose no threat to Australia's cultural integrity. How wrong they were...
For, like you all, I am here today (and over the years my church has been steadfast its attendance at all such rallies) to mobilize our bodies and raise our voices against the racism and xenophobia that drive our refugee policies, a human rights disgrace the whole world condemns us for. And it is important we do so, for we are aware too that the race hate and fear of strangers that fuel these policies is on the rise--a real vote-winner everywhere it seems. Witness the recent surge in nationalism and xenophobia in the UK and the USA. Witness the return of the execrable One Nation party as Senate power brokers in our current federal parliament.
And yes, it is good to come out in public, regularly and in numbers. To feel that we are not alone but are many, that we are not powerless, and that it's not US who are going crazy, feeling (as we do) so at odds with the prevailing discourse.
BUT: if we are only here at these rallies to make ourselves feel better, safer, more empowered, to get the frustration we feel 'off our chests', like some sort of personal self-help practice or pressure valve, we will fail to evolve a more humane discourse around refugees in the wider community. In fact, we ARE failing.
We are failing not just because we're talking mainly to ourselves, not just because of the 'bubble effect' that has become the new norm in the social media landscape, nor is it because of the general indifference of consumer culture to activism (I mean, look around you--what are most people concerned about here and now? Commerce.)
We are failing because the fellow Australians we take to be racists and xenophobes also feel powerless and threatened themselves, and we will not convert a single one of them by hating on them.
Think about it: when did screaming 'Racist!' at a racist ever stop them having racist thoughts? On the contrary, hating on them only confirms their sense of threat, isolation, and self-righteousness. Labelling 'Racist' can not be the end of the conversation, but the start. And this is where our task gets harder than turning up on a Saturday for an hour or so.
Yes of course we need to protest as we are today to fortify and motivate ourselves, but we also need to become smarter and stronger and better skilled at engaging hearts and minds who are terrified of change, of difference, who want to stand athwart globalisation yelling "STOP!"
Yes, fire up your commitment today, but keep your cool tomorrow, I beseech you. Try to understand their fears. (Of course they're irrational fears, but irrational fears feel the same mas rational ones.) Try to see what buttons the authorities are pushing to make them comfortable with hating.
Yeah, I know, I'm a minister and it's kind of my job to sell the idea that there's a better way than fear and hate. But don't you believe that too? That a life not enslaved to these emotional states is simply a better life?
Of course you do, so don't just protest...become a teacher, say. Teach people to think about their thinking. Or if not, actively support the many refugee organisations you see represented here today. Or learn to take what capital you may have away from companies and businesses that support and profit from hate rhetoric and human misery. Educate yourself beyond this bubble of like minds.
In your personal networks, commit to engage day after day with those who do not think and feel as you do. Listen to them. Be patient. Create opportunities for them to engage with people who are different from them and they will see (must see) that they're not so different.
Most importantly, engage them in a spirit of loving kindness, for in truth, "they know not what they do."
I'm sorry: this is a hard message to hear. But it is so easy to become the thing you hate. But if we hate haters for hating, how are we any different? Where is our moral advantage? Yes, it's hard to exercise self-control, but the alternative is what we have--polar division, cultural warfare, take-no-prisoners smackdowns. You want to be truly radical? Make peace instead.
When I moved here, decades ago, what I loved about this place was that you could walk down the street and hear Greek, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indigenous languages, Polish...even Canadian, eh. The country I fell in love with speaks Spanish and Arabic and Thai and Urdu and Farsi and North American English, It wears a hijab and a yarmulke and a turban and a baseball cap and eats everything from halal kangaroo to vegan hamburgers.
Australia was at one time the shining multicultural success story of the world: incorrigibly plural, generous, imaginative in social policy. That default mode still lives in us and can never be lost, so let's make it so again. With generous hearts, imaginative minds and a commitment to making our country safe for everyone born, no matter where they were born.
Thank you.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Oh please do come in, Mr. Wolf!

We live in a time in history when most church attendance and membership is in steep decline. This has produced an atmosphere of insecurity, a desperation for growth, even leading to---gasp--marketing/branding strategies to invite, include, draw the digitally-jaded, over-worked, alienated, and media-distracted secular public into the fold.

Half the damned  articles in my news-feed come down, basically, to how to buck this general decline.
  • "Is your church too Inward?"
  • "Does your church have a clear mission?" 
  • "8 signs of a dying church"
  • "15 ways to strategize to strategize your outreach."
  • "Refresh your welcome"
  • "10 things Millennials are looking for in church"  
I have read them. All of them.

I've sorted and archived them, and shared them with key people. Policies around welcome, media, and the physical building itself have been changed because of the dissemination of them. If I were to print these digital articles, I'd be knee-deep in dead trees and eco-guilt.

But I have lately become aware that the general push to get EVERYONE POSSIBLE into your church is developing a huge blind spot in our thinking, and puts at risk those in our charge. Inviting newcomers and seekers is a theology of inclusion, common in many churches, and certainly one of our core UU values. But the general, panicked push for the fullest possible church inclusion can usher wolves into the paddock along with new sheep.

It is well to remind ourselves that Ministers are supposed to be both the vigilant SHEPHERDS who protect the vulnerable flock, as well as the sort of earnest rubes who chase after the odd lost sheep. How to gate-keep the paddock without appearing to exclude for the sake of exclusion (as it was in the days of the bad old church)?

The stone cold fact is that there are those who look at a congregation that is (think about it):
  • a ready-made community 
  • of open-hearted people
  • seeking meaningful connection
and see only--Supply. Opportunity. Resources. Fresh meat. Here are some examples of wolves masquerading as sheep that I have encountered first-hand:

Wolf #1--I am a lonely older person looking for love (or a lay...the two can get so muddled up)

In general, these are male, although recently-divorced females prowl the territory too. This can be pastorally tricky, since we are called to build intentional communities that push back against the epidemic of loneliness created by our broken socio-economic system. And of course, you can't and shouldn't try to stop relationships forming between consenting adults. But churches are supposed to be rather more than free hook-up spots for lonely superannuants and divorcees-of-a-certain-age.

Social skills (or lack of them) might be an indicator of whether pastoral intervention is called for. Is the person in question hitting on most everyone in their age range? Do they stare for prolonged periods at more youthful members of the opposite sex? Do they corner them in conversation, or otherwise make them feel uncomfortable? Discretion is called for here, and pastors would need to set aside extra time to engage the wolfish member in constructive conversations about what they have really come to church for.

(And a caveat: A vibrant church with a good range of ages is awash in unseen sexual energy, and since ministers are usually focal in live worship, they have the potential to become animus or anima figures for sexually frustrated/repressed members of the congregation, regardless of age or gender. It is impossible to overstate here the importance of a minister's personal boundaries. You are not their friend, you are not their son/daughter, you are not available to them outside a professional context. Period.)

Wolf #2: I'm building my own guru brand and would rather not start from scratch, so I'll just gather some of the sheep in the ready-made community around me and be off. Cheers.

Or, "I'm really interested in counselling/reflexology/Feldenkrais/Lucid dreaming/Ayurveda...whatever. Do you think I could use the church/hall/whatever? Do you think any of our members would be interested in something like that?"

Our emphasis on pluralism, diversity, and individual experience of the sacred makes us fare game for just about any fringe spiritual chancer. Basically, such wolves want to minister in their own special way to their own little congregation of the like-minded. Obviously, this is another wolf working out a deeply felt personal need for connection and usually some control issues as well, and thus is an opportunity for pastoral engagement about these issues. My experience, though, is this: discussion of their spiritual needs usually acts a wolf-repellent, and they're usually gone like the morning mist soon after.

Or, the more skillful learn to evade or deflect your pastoral concern. They stay and form a silo of people they've befriended or charmed. Then, they'll be off, thanks, with a chunk of your congregation, whose spiritual needs are being met by whatever it is they offer. Maybe that's not a bad thing. But it won't look good for you, Mr. Shepherd. The best way I've found to deal with any silo-group (wolf-led or not) is to keep insisting they share what they're doing with the community as a whole. That way, whatever good they're offering will be folded into the general practices of the church, and their brand loses its 'specialness'. Also, the minister positions themselves as the default arbiter of the church's spiritual offerings, which is what they are, in part, paid to do.

OR, in some extreme cases, when the minister's contract is up for renewal, they'll mount a putsch. There will be some conflict and tears and hand-wringing. But in such situations the peace-mongers always prevail and propose some sort of compromise that effectively means that ministerial authority is fatally undermined. If that happens, you should quit as gracefully as you can without a moment's hesitation, and at least you'll be outside the paddock when the wolf starts to eat and the screaming starts.

Wolf #3: I'm Baron Munchhausen: come to my caring embrace, my ailing little proxies.

"It's really simple, this, so here's the deal: I need you to be spiritually/emotionally/socially needy. I will make a great show of caring, supporting, befriending you. But do not get better. If you get better, I will lose my reason for being. So I will need to keep you broken. Your brokenness is my meat and drink, because it obliterates my own brokenness. So....poor you. Poor, poor you!" 

It is astonishing how well this dysfunction blends into what we think church community is supposed to be--caring for each other, making each other whole and strong through mutual loving kindness. Maybe Jesus was a Munchhausen's Syndrome by Proxy sufferer. I'd like to think not...

The best way to test this is by outcome: does the person the wolf has latched onto ever gain any personal autonomy through their caring efforts? No? Why is that? Not caring enough? Or too much?

The worst cases of this happen with congregants at the end-of-life. A positively ghoulish hovering near the dying. As if the dying haven't enough to contend with, they've got to take care of the wolf's feelings too. And of course, the risk of elder abuse is very great is such cases, leading to the entry of the most sinister wolf of all....

Wolf #4: Wolf, the Legacy Hunter

Once upon a time in Hyde, Greater Manchester, there lived a kindly doctor-wolf who sidled among the eldest sheep in the paddock and went to great lengths to look after their pain management, health care, and end-of-life planning. The sheep were so grateful for his kindness in their time of greatest need, that many included them in their wills. Right before they suddenly died.

Yes, children, it's the story of Dr. Shipman, who gobbled up the assets of scores of elderly, not-quite-all-there patients before he was exposed as the serial killer he was. Most of these elderly sheep are now in the graveyard of the Unitarian church where they worshipped, or that of the nearby Methodist church. Both paddocks offered an ample supply of ready-made, credulous, dependent sheep.

Imagine that. A nice, caring, church-going doctor using his professional standing to prey on elderly fellow-members! Well, here's a shock--doctors are not the only people in church communities to use their professional standing to further their own material ends. Legacy-hunting is not unknown among Ministers too. Look for the signs: excessive, almost exlcusive, attention to the oldest and sickest; special arrangements with funeral directors; personal attention to wills; a fat retirement.

Oh yes, Ministry can be a very handy guise for any of the wolves I've listed above. Sexual and financial predation, narcissistic cult-formation, and a need to keep people needing them.

Enter the unreliable narrator. Maybe I'm a wolf too.

The folk wisdom is that people go into the professions that offer what they themselves need or desire: many doctors are hypochondriacs, many psychiatrists are nuts, many cops have thuggish inclinations, and many ministers need to be ministered to. The bar for who gets to lead a ready-made community of vulnerable people seeking meaningful connection, cannot be set too high. Someone needs to be vigilant and that vigilance needs to be trust-worthy--and trusted.

There is a UU trend lately to do away with the notion of professional ministry, citing our commitments to democracy and equality, and with the Information Age  doing away with the minister-as-in-house-scholar.  After all, if you really want to know anything about religion or spirituality, or anything, you only have to Google it. And since as a church we do not insist on the existence of God, still less on a priestly-class of ontologically higher beings, why spend all those precious church resources on a minister at all? You're not the boss of me, man!

Models that ‘dethrone’ the ministerial role are perhaps a bit disingenuous. Or worse. Without someone to gate-keep, rightly or wrongly, we leave our communities open to exploitation in a world full of people so broken that they do exploit. We shouldn't let our insecurity about decline blind us to keeping safe those in our charge.

And just maybe, casting the widest possible net to top up our ever-dwindling memberships doesn't preclude discernment about who we actually haul in, and who we should throw back into the sea.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Terror Behind the Privileged Life

"Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You'll call it a procedure, but it's a surgery."
--City Slickers

This past Monday, a man I barely knew, apart from his credentials, was inside me for four hours. (Nobody else can claim that distinction.)

Nobody else has ever touched me so deeply, right into the very core of my living heart. I was in a drug-induced swoon, of course; I'd never have consented otherwise.

Ours was a complex intimacy: at once tender and violent; detached and as close as breath; life-giving and death-dicing. It was a charnel of blood and burning flesh. And it involved pitiless implements like needles, tubes, clamps, catheters...all the Inquisition could have wished for to bring reprobates face to face with the one true God--a God both beautiful...and terrible

I walk about now, days later, for the first time like the genuinely old man I now qualify to be--racked, stiff-limbed, sore, bruised, aching, breathless. (Oy...) Some sort of threshold has been crossed; I'm not the same guy that went in.

Meet the new boss...
This will seem a too-perfect karmic 'gotcha' to ex-wives and girlfriends, when they learn that (a) I actually possessed a heart and (b) yes, that heart was defective. About 5 years ago, I developed a condition called Atrial Fibrillation (A-Fib for short). It's a wiring problem, basically, as opposed to a plumbing problem. The nerve wiring in my heart muscles must have frayed somehow or were prone to fizzling out from birth, and began to short-circuit, kind of like a classic European sports car left out in the rain too long. This short-circuiting suddenly and without warning would, from time to time, re-order my normal sinus reggae-rhythm into something more like free-form Jazz. It feels unpleasant and a little worrisome, but is not actually terribly painful.

How frequently? I was having up to 40 such events a day. Unlike a badly-wired sports car, it won't catch fire or anything, but (and this is why A-Fib used to kill people) it can cause eddies in the flow of blood inside your heart valves. The blood coagulates, then can clot. The clot eventually leaves the heart. Then hey presto, you're either dead or wishing you were.

The schematics of privilege

The treatment is a keyhole 'procedure' called an ablation. The keyhole in question is your groin. To 'ablate' is 'to remove or dissipate by melting, vaporization, erosion'. In fact, a hot needle is used to burn the offending nerve endings, rendering them incapable of ever firing again.

It's not so much fairy lights as "BUZZ, ZAP, POP, CRACKLE"

All this you can look up on WebMD of course, and in any case, a blow-by-blow of the surgery procedure is not why I've tried to detain your attention with this post. I've written this to you because I finally, really understood something about privilege. And it's not what you might think.

If it's one thing that really boils the blood in my veins, and could turn me into a Grand Inquisitor, it's privilege. So much health, wealth, and power, so unearned, all around me, in a world where the vast majority of people have, and will have, NONE. Nothing makes people angrier than to suggest they haven't merited what they've been given, and should maybe think about giving back as much as they can, into the web of relationships that held, sustained, and favoured them. Folk will defend bitterly what objectively amount to accidents of birth: where that birth happens, to whom and in what class, what race, what complex cocktail of genetic material got all shook up to make their uniquely-coded selves...blue eyes, white skin, sound bones, cancer-free organs...

But lying on the gurney under the fluorescent light, with a spike in the back of my hand to admit the chemical oblivion of anaesthesia, I realized that nothing before in my life had prepared me for this. My health had always been insanely good, despite much tempting of fate. I'd never had to think about serious ailment or spend much time in hospitals. And I had done nothing, NOTHING, to merit that. This is why people are always desperate to protect what privilege they have. Not just that they know deep down they haven't really earned it, but--more terrifyingly--No ONE deserves most of what they get. It's all a crap-shoot.

And if it's all chance, we're in a pointless, pitiless universe, and the best we can do is protect what advantage we have in this bitch of a life.

From that defensive posture of privilege: racism, classism, sexism, the hoarding of wealth and power, and that most deformed child, nationalism.

When you see your privilege is JUST privilege, it's a terrifying inquisition demanding you confess what your ultimate meaning is. Randomness? Order? Chaos? God? Speak, man, or we'll use these sharp implements...!

As these thoughts fell into place, I found that tears were trickling out of the corners of my eye onto the gurney's clean white sheets, and to my increased shame, the big blokey male nurse stroked my hair and said, with a warm and infinite kindness, "Don't worry, mate. You'll be right as rain."

"Oh Jesus, sweet Jesus," I think I said.

And then I woke.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Lost for words

The following is a response to a frightful, xenophobic, and (forgive me) un-Unitarian article in a recent publication from a sister church here in Australia: "Australia Under Threat". Thankfully, it's buried on page 4. You'd need to read it, if you can bear it, to get the critique:

Peter Crawford’s Literary Offences

Dear Sun editor:
I refer to Mr. Crawford’s recent article in the SUN (“Australia Under Threat”, The SUN, Dec 2015-Jan 2016).

I am unaware of what, if any, editorial policies govern the inclusion of material for this publication. Policies may be predicated the broadest definition of free speech Mr. Crawford both misquotes and mistakenly attributes to Voltaire. If so, it may be a good idea to consider the difference between liberty and license (that we are not free to deceive, or to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre full of impressionable people, and rightly so). Yet he is given license to do both these things in your pages. But more on that later, as freedom of speech is one of the many red-herring arguments Mr. Crawford scatter-shoots across the two-page spread the editor has allowed him.

Or perhaps, editorial policies are predicated upon a PR model—material most likely to attract and resonate with like-minded people. If so, I would be interested to learn the publication’s distribution numbers and market area reach. As it happens, this issue reached my desk at the Adelaide church, and I shared it with a few congregants who, like me, searched Mr. Crawford’s article in vain for anything resembling content that might attract and resonate with those likely to happen upon Unitarian publications. Still, good to get all views in, I’m sure.

Whatever the editorial policies are, it is clear that rhetorical standards higher than middle school are not among them. Indeed, having taught undergraduate writing at universities for many years, I should have been compelled to hand this back as a ‘fail’ if it had been submitted by any of my students. The essay is replete with factual error or misdirection, logical fallacy, and emotive dog-whistling, but is sadly free of much evidence, balance, or knowledge of the broader context of his subject. The net effect is of shrill, bilious, fear-mongering that leaves the reader suspecting that Mr. Crawford merely needed to get something off his chest, and could perhaps benefit from a few sessions of counselling. He is clearly frightened out of his wits, but his two-page nervous breakdown will be edifying to precisely no-one else.

He begins defensively (never a good rhetorical move), devoting the first two-and-a-half paragraphs to inveighing against political correctness, insisting it muzzles the very freedom of speech he is exercising by writing that it is doing so. Well, clearly not. Or perhaps he has simply been frustrated by being unable to get his views aired on the outlets his freedom of speech has been unconstricted by. The literary offenses in this article may give an indication as to why the ABC has not knocked on his door for comment. How is he or anyone expounding similar views ‘persecuted’? In any case, it would be tedious to list the more widely-read ‘honest comment’, very like his own, that does indeed get published. Andrew Bolt’s regular column is but one example, and, one imagines, an inspiration for Mr. Crawford.

That circularity is not the end of Mr. Crawford’s difficulties with logical argument. Straw men litter the essay. There exist, apparently, immigration lobbies, sleep-walking politicians, unwitting refugee advocates, European political elites, and a tyrannical UNHCR. None of these shadowy cabals apparently have any redeeming points of view worth considering. False choices abound: ‘if I don’t get to air these views, human rights agendas aren’t meaningful.” “If you do not accept we are under threat of a terrorist attack, you are delusional or in denial.” “Charity alone discharges our international responsibilities.” “Refugees brought by smugglers are ‘impostors’.” We are in a simplistic either-or land throughout the piece. But nuance is an enemy to gaseous polemic.

Circularity and false choice are not the least of Mr. Crawford’s offenses to logic. Far worse is the ‘slippery slope’ or ‘thin  end of the wedge’ fallacy that he saves for his emotional coup de grace: we will be ‘targeted’ by ‘millions’ of ‘self-proclaimed’ refugees (as if there’s any other kind until they are verified, but well…), creating a ‘huge’ culture that will lead to ‘out of control’ changes leading to Islamist cultural domination.

What is clearly ‘out of control’ is Mr. Crawford himself. His disdain for providing examples, data, or any clarifying, compelling evidence for his strident, overblown claims. With a student essay with words count limits, limitations of space normally allow some leeway here, but since giving him space is clearly not The Sun’s problem, this can hardly be an excuse. There are:

·        No examples of persecution of honest comment

·        No data on Iraq/Syrian intake to establish his claim that it is increasing to ‘unabated’ levels

·        False claims that the Paris attacks were carried out by refugees who gamed the system

·        No specifics on how far ‘downward’ we should revise refugee intake.

·        Terrorists in Australia’s jails: how many? Evidence that refugee intake is to blame?

Tellingly, the one piece of hard data is an opinion poll from The Australian newspaper, which poll suggests Mr. Crawford speaks for the (70%) majority opinion…of readers of The Australian, he fails to add. It is hard to imagine that anyone with a grasp of the politics of the contemporary media landscape could fail to recognise that our national paper of record has consistently presented ‘honest comment’ that encourages these very views, thus shaping the terms of the debate. It would be tiresome to point out that a popular opinion is not necessarily a correct or informed one.

Perhaps if Mr. Crawford turned his attention from The Australian to actual peer-reviewed academic material on the topic, a more balanced treatment of the subject might appear in your pages. Perhaps if he were a student of the history of Australia’s complicity in creating a region so politically troubled, he might accept the simple cause and effect that if you bomb people, they tend to run, that if you topple their governments and exploit their resources and demonise them, they get angry at you.

But somehow, I doubt it very much. This article is clearly an emotional exercise in discharging Mr. Crawford’s anger and belligerence, larded as it is with scare-words like: threat (in the title and many repetitions), menace, folly, rife, wicked, impostors, unwitting, appeasement (that’s for you WW2 fans), terror, lies, never-ending influx, and on and on ad nauseum. I can reduce the sub-textual effect of his language to one word: “Boo!”

His solutions to his case for a local DefCon2 are to abnegate our responsibility under international agreements Australia not only signed, but co-authored. In effect, he encourages a national violation of law, or at least a 180-degree about-turn. For the vaguely guilt-ridden, he proposes throwing some money (no details on how much per person) at charities managing unmanageable human flows. Because what’s at stake here is OUR comfort on the North Shore. Free from fear of others, free from remorse of conscience. But it needs to be pointed out that if fear made us safer, Mr. Crawford should at least feel secure. But he clearly does NOT feel secure, and this unexamined assumption absolutely undermines and makes ridiculous the trouble he has taken to try to baffle and scare us with this article.

When I used to hand back such ‘fails’ to undergrads, the most usual bleats were “I worked so HARD on it, how can this fail” and “You just don’t agree with me, that’s why you failed me!”. Yeah, nah. I’m not convinced, and that’s because you haven’t convinced me, and you started this by picking the topic. To head off further embarrassments like this article, I might suggest an editorial policy that maintains at least a 1st-year undergraduate standard of competence in making a point with clear reasoning, evidence, and the courtesy not to employ manipulative shock tactics. The ‘Australian civilization’ Mr. Crawford worries so much about, and has self-appointed as spokesman for, would be better served.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Odd Ministerial Request #327: A Blessing for a Snowboard

This was passed on to me through our fellowship in Brisbane this past week:

"My name is _____________ & I am wondering if it is ok/allowed to have my snowboard blessed?
I am a good humble man who was born & raised a Mormon but now as yourself's (sic) have a 
more liberal look on life.
If this is rude of me to ask I apologize. I ask because it would mean a lot to me to have snowboard
blessed before my journey to Japan.
I hope to hear back from you guys"
The sincere tone and sense of child-like trust prompted a typically binary response in your humble scribe.

On the one hand, I was strongly inclined to disabuse him of the notion that some words written by someone he'd never met would have the least effect on the performance, efficacy, or indeed safety of something he's proposing to hurtle down an ice-glazed mountain upon. I was going to say that he if he wanted to be blessed in this endeavour, he'd do better to bless himself by taking lessons, wearing safety gear, or maybe not undertaking what amounts to 'extreme sliding' at all. Snowboarding is a dangerous sport.
Further, I thought it my duty to develop his 'liberal look on life' by suggesting that he liberate himself from magical thinking (surely a persistent hangover from his lapsed Mormonism). That blessings are mere well-wishing, and you don't need clergy to do that. I have no magic powers to spread over the board like wax.
And yet...
On the other hand, liberal ministry (and contextual theology more generally) has to begin where people actually are, rather than where one would wish them to be. Anybody in a place of spiritual transition is a delicate alpine flower that wants slow and careful opening to allow them to adjust to environmental conditions that can be as harsh as a winter blast to a new awareness. Besides, if blessing his snowboard gives him relaxed confidence in its powers, he may ride better.  
Thirty years ago, I was trying to learn to ski in Saas Fee, Switzerland (on a glacier no less). I resisted the extreme sliding with every fibre of  my being. I trusted nothing--not the snow, or the ice, or the skis, or the poles, or myself, or the instructor. And for that lack of letting go... I fell. I fell often and so hard that my instructor told me he'd never seen a person hit the ground so hard and get up again. 
Finally, I twisted my knee hurtling through an appalled crowd and into a snow bank, and gave up to drink Gluwine in the chalet. 
If my correspondent trusts in the efficacy of blessings, maybe I might be good enough to overcome my own peevish lack of trust that "there are more things in heaven and earth..."
So I sent him this:
"May this board that carries me, carry me for joy: joy as pure as the snow it glides upon.

Let forces of gravity, friction, and torque work in harmony with the sparkling miracle of my inner ear's balancing act,
Like a spirit level on the moving ship of my soul's deep delight.
 May it ever keep me mindful that the joy of living gleams just at the sharp edge of risk.
And at the end of each day's use, may I be thankful for its part in my safe return to the level plane of home."
There's no God in it for my snowboarding friend. None at all. Or is there? When we put aside our Pharisaic insistence that our way of seeing the world is right, and just try to use what gifts we have to help someone take the next step in something like comfort and perhaps joy, maybe that's all the God we get to know.
Someone said 'God comes into the world disguised as your life.' The me that tried and failed to ski thirty years ago could not let go, and so he crashed and crashed and quit.
This me can let go, a bit. And I know which feels better, and makes the downhill plunge that is called 'life' a bit more fun. Fun and...what's the word?...Blessed.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"I'll choose what to wear, thanks"

These are the opening remarks I prepared for the opening of Catherine Lambert's exhibition of paintings, featuring iconic women wearing niqab. Present were federal Senator Nick Xenophon and the Muslim Women's Association of SA. (You'll have to read to the end of the post to see samples of the work.)

I’m deeply honoured and flattered to be asked by THE one and only Catherine Lambert to open her first ever exhibition of a series of paintings I first saw a couple years ago in the early stages of development. I liked them immediately and immensely: they are technically accomplished, crisp and draughtsman-like in their rendering, gorgeously, lusciously colourful, and boldly composed. But moreover because I found them provocative and very, very timely in touching a couple of intersecting subjects that lie like exposed nerves in the tissue of our culture: gender equality and Islam. Touching either of these is like touching a live wire—it doesn’t take long before someone’s jumping up and down with their hair on fire.

I admired Catherine’s brave and accomplished work so much that when I was asked as her church Minister to open the show, I very nearly declined. Because when I thought about speaking about it to room full of the sort of people likely to be here, all I could think was “Yes, I’m sure these people will be just dying to know what another white, western male clergyman thinks of art which intersects feminism and Islam. I’m not a Muslim, and I’m not a woman. What right have I speak about such things?

But thankfully your identity isn’t your destiny and further reflection helped me see that the audience these paintings seem to seek to engage (nay, confront) are neither women, Muslims, nor Muslim women, but people for whom the in-your-face contrast in the paintings might just jolt into something like a new way of considering these two very live issues of our times, issues that are poised to evolve and must evolve for all our sakes. For all our technological advancement, we are still in the dark ages about gender equality and about freedom of religious expression in pluralist, multicultural societies.


An anecdote to illustrate: I recently had to endure one of those leafy neighbourhood dinner parties so saturated by grog and privilege that your antennae are on high-alert for the moment anyone blithely strolls into the minefield of politics or religion (this is an occupational hazard of ministry). One gentlemen was in high dudgeon about how Islam oppresses women. He was morally certain that any woman wearing hijabi (burqa, niqab, etc.) was necessarily coerced into wearing it, therefore cruelly oppressed, by being denied their fundamental right to choose what to wear. Allowing that this was not some half-baked brain-belch from a mono-diet of the Murdoch press and talk-back radio, I helpfully, I thought, pointed out things like World Hijab Day--the movement within Islam to frame the wearing of hijabi as an expression not of absence of choice, but of a particular kind of choice—a choice for modesty, piety, and their inherent worth as children of the God of their understanding, rather than any apparent worth as objects of the male gaze. That true freedom might just have more to do with expressing your essential being than with conforming to current western notions of female beauty.

Of course, I failed to sway him, but my neighbour’s view is far from aberrant, and is supported by more sober and thoughtful folk. The ex-Muslim feminist writer Arshia Malik, writing in theNation says that when Muslim women claim wearing hijabi is about the freedom of choice of clothing, they deny the freedom to those women who would prefer to reject it as a sign of oppression. The "freedom to wear what I choose" argument, she says, is in fact sustaining the patriarchal order of Muslim society.

Anyone with any experience in student politics will recognize this as the old ‘false consciousness’ argument: you poor darling, you only THINK you’re free, and any claim you make to freedom of choice is but more proof of your self-deluded enslavement. False consciousness is an insidious form of argument because you can’t disprove it! Like the old doctrine of sin: “The sinful don’t know they’re sinning because they’re sinful”. Or the psychoanalysis trap: “The more you resist psychotherapy, the more you clearly need it.” There is no escape.

Thankfully postmodernist thinking has exploded that old trick: when people claim to be exercising agency, exercising freedom to choose despite (or in accordance with) their enculturation, you have literally no way of knowing that they are not doing so freely. No one has a clear, comprehensive, and objective window into another person’s thoughts. There can be no moral certainty about the inner life of another.

This exhibition is titled, with disarming directness, “I’ll choose what to wear, thanks”, and celebrates and makes visible that free inner agency. I was taught by nuns who wore the full wimple (practically indistinguishable from the hijab). In my youthful innocence, it never once occurred to me that the nuns hadn’t freely chosen to don that striking and inconvenient garb, just as freely as the many nuns who later chose to take it off. I am the father of two grown daughters. In my paternal innocence, it never occurred to me that all of the ways I watched them accommodating their identity to the male gaze—hair colour and style, makeup, jewelry, clothing, tatts, and piercings—was not something they too were freely choosing . If the patriarchy is so comprehensive and inescapable, can anyone exercise a truly free choice unconstrained by the power of patriarchal norms and expectations?

I’m not so sure. To say there’s no free choice in such matters is to deny the very existence of free will, an essential quality that makes us human. The common-sense materialism of our times suggests we are mere matter, mechanically running a DNA program, and thus choice and free will are an illusion we’ve developed to give ourselves an empowered self-image we can live with, and thus gives us the self-confidence to reproduce the DNA program.

But free will is the ghost in this machine. Think of the difference between just wanting something and wanting to want it. If you put 6 kinds of cat food in front of the cat, you aren’t giving it free choice. The cat will be driven to eat something if it’s hungry. But a cat can’t decide to want to want the food. The cat can’t decide for example to go on a diet-- or starve itself to waif-like thinness (speaking of accommodating yourself to the male gaze). Human beings can want to want things, or not. That’s free choice.

So when we speak of free will and free choice, we speak of a mental event, an event un-locatable in space and time, unmeasurable, and therefore beyond the reach of science. Something of a mystery. It certainly feels autonomous. Whether it is real or not, whether it IS actually as free as it feels, is a much-contested philosophical question, and (you’ll be glad to know) beyond the scope of this chat. But I would ask you to consider if life would be worth living if free will and choice were just illusions. What of personal responsibility? Praise? Blame? The notion of morality itself presumes freedom of choice. Without that mental event we call a free choice—a mystery I would claim is evidence of something very like a soul—what would we be but automata?

We may still be in the dark about truly knowing ourselves as much as we are about gender equality and religious freedom, but Catherine’s paintings fairly burst--not with darkness--but with spectral light—a light that is only partly veiled by the hijabi...like fig leaves that almost ask to be whipped off to reveal the starkness of this truth—that choosing or not choosing to wear something is not where our fullest human liberation lies, but in the act of choosing itself. It does not skill to ask ‘how free is that free choice’. We’ve little enough knowledge of our own minds to claim exact knowledge of the mind of another. And this should counsel humility, even (dare I say it) modesty best expressed by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

This should apply to anyone—man, woman, Muslim, white western clergyman… whoever. That understanding takes mindfulness and imagination. That sort of thinking is hard, and judging is easier, so mostly people judge. Catherine, it seems to me, wants you instead to think, and this striking series of paintings makes you do just that.