The dividing line between good and evil…A response to the conviction of George Pell

The dividing line between good and evil…A response to the conviction of George Pell

When I heard the news that Cardinal George Pell had been convicted of the sexual abuse of children I felt sick in the stomach. I felt disgust at what he had done; sad for the boys he abused; grieved when I learned that one of the boys had taken his life; and fearful at the damage it would do to people’s capacity to hear the gospel.

Like many others, I read the articles suggesting the verdict was questionable. I wanted to believe they were right. I discussed the possibility with Sandy and a couple of friends. I stopped this when I heard survivors of child abuse describing the pain such discussion caused them.

Cardinal Pell no longer has the presumption of innocence. He has been found guilty by a jury of his peers and all our discussion should proceed on the assumption that he is guilty. Attempts to second-guess the verdict or to retry the case is our own imaginations are inappropriate. We have not sat in that court room, we have not heard the evidence presented, but we do have the best system in the history of the world for acquitting the innocent and convicting the guilty. Twelve jurors had to be convinced that the evidence showed beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty of sexual abuse. They had a well qualified judge to ensure both sides made their case in a fair and reasonable way. And the jury found him guilty.

Juries can make mistakes, which is why we have an appeals process. But just as we insist that a person is innocent until proven guilty, so we must insist that a person who has been found guilty is guilty until found innocent.

For many of us this creates a sense of dissonance. John Howard, Tony Abbott and a host of others have testified that Cardinal Pell is a good man. I’ve never met Cardinal Pell, but I have no reason to doubt what two former PMs have found – that Cardinal Pell is a man whose life has been characterised by a deep commitment to his church and the values of grace, compassion, generosity, justice and love. Yet I also have to assume that on at least two occasions in his life Cardinal Pell betrayed those values, took advantage of his position and used his power in a vile and despicable way to sexually abuse two boys. And then there are a host of others who speak of George Pell as aggressive in the exercise of his power, parents of children abused in the Catholic church who describe him as having a “sociopathic lack of empathy“*.

I want to believe that abusers are monsters, human beings devoid of any redeeming virtues. No doubt some are. But most are not. I am forced to the terrifying truth that good people commit evil deeds. Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn discovered this disturbing truth in a Communist concentration camp:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The Gulag Archipelago

We will come to grips with the evil in our midst only when we come to grips with this awful truth. The problem is not “a few bad apples” that we must get rid of. The problem is that every apple has the capacity to rot. This is why each of us must be ever vigilant to the state of our heart and mind, to have people in whom we can confide when darkness starts to grip us. It is why our institutions must have systems that disperse power and wherever inequalities of power remain that we have transparent and open systems of accountability.

A recognition that people who can do good in some relationships and areas of their life but do evil things in others enables us to respond appropriately to their evil**. We must not allow our experience of their goodness to blind us to their evil. Cardinal Pell has been found guilty of a horrendous violation of two human beings, of momentary acts that left two boys with a lifetime of destruction, of the most devastating betrayal of those boys, his church and his God. I weep for those boys and the damage done to them. I am filled with indignation that this was done to them by someone in a position of trust. I hope that the surviving man can find healing, justice, recompense and a better future.

At the same time I grieve for Cardinal Pell. I don’t want these acts of evil to blind me to his goodness. A powerful man who dedicated his life to doing what he thought was the good has been brought low, humiliated, shamed and will spend time in the dreary, humiliating and shameful reality of prison and the public exposure of his crime. It is deserved. Such evils as child abuse need to be met with the strongest response, a societal declaration that those who commit such deeds will meet with our disapproval and severe penalties. Yet this is not simply a story of crime and punishment. It is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the perpetrator. The one dimensional caricatures that portray Cardinal Pell as as a ruthless, power-mongering, child-abusing shell of a human being or as nothing but saintly confirm our prejudices and perpetuate the myth that good people only ever do good things. Our human experience is that good and evil lie within all of us. At the same time I decry the evil of which Cardinal Pell has been convicted, I also feel for a man who has given so much to his faith and his church, who has achieved much good and positively impacted many lives but finds that all undone. I will pray for the Cardinal to begin his own journey of healing and renewal.

I am reminded again of the need to guard my own heart. Good people commit acts of evil. For some it is the dark shadow of abuse. For others the shadows threaten to darken other parts of their humanity. But I dare not deny that shadows are found somewhere in all of us and need to be exposed before they lead us down paths that we never imagined we are capable.

How we need to do this for our own sake, but above all for the sake of those we damage if we do not. The years of dis-integration, despair and dependencies visited upon Cardinal Pell’s victims and other survivors of abuse are the disconcordant reminders that human beings are too precious and their hearts too vulnerable for us to pretend that only monsters abuse. Recognising the potential for evil that lies within all of us seems to me the only way to ensure that our presence with others will be life-giving.

*This sentence was added after the article was originally published for the purposes of clarity

** This sentence was edited after original publication for the purposes of clarity

Why empathy matters. Reading the Bible to hear the word of God #1

Why empathy matters. Reading the Bible to hear the word of God #1

I was revisiting Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament recently and was reminded of his very helpful description of how we can discern God’s word to us through the Scriptures. He speaks of a fourfold task:

  1. Descriptive Task: Reading the Text Carefully. This seeks to identify the messages of the various texts/books of the Bible “without prematurely harmonising them”. It is to make sense of a text on its own terms, within its historical context;
  2. Synthetic Task: Placing the Text in Canonical Context. How do the various texts fit together to contribute to a whole-of-bible ethical perspective? Hayes suggests that the themes of community, cross and new creation provide an interpretive framework we can employ to identify this;
  3. Hermeneutical task: Relating the Text to Our Situation. How do we bridge the “temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text…to appropriate the New Testament’s message as a word addressed to us?”
  4. The Pragmatic Task: Living the Text. How are the biblical imperatives embodied in the life of the Christian community? Hayes argues that “The value of our exegesis and hermeneutics will be tested by their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God”.

I plan to write a few posts that use this fourfold task to reflect on what I have discovered about reading the Scriptures and being shaped by them. For now I want to suggest a fifth task to add to Hays’s list. This is “the empathetic task”.

For many years I saw the first three of Hayes’ four tasks as something I could achieve within the confines of my study. Close attention to the text in its original languages, appreciation of the genres of the Bible, and critical reading of the commentaries of scholars would be the keys to success.

Yet when I look back to those occasions my understanding of biblical ethics have most profoundly changed, the catalyst was not what happened in my study, but hearing the stories of those whose lives were most impacted by the church’s ethics. It was hearing the stories of people who had been divorced and subsequently marginalised in their churches that drove changes in how I read, synthesised and applied the relevant biblical texts. It was meeting women who had been wounded by the sexist attitudes that prevailed in our churches when I was a young man (and sadly in many ways continue to do so) that led to a revision of my reading of the Biblical texts on men and women. More recently it has been the voices of gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender and intersex Christians that have caused me to revisit a biblical ethic of sexuality and gender.

I am not saying that hearing the voices of others should replace robust work across Hays’s four tasks, but that it indelibly shapes that work. So much so that I am convinced that it is near impossible to hear God’s word to us without hearing the voices of those who are marginalised, wounded and offended by our ethics.

There are, I think, at least two reasons for this. The first is that we all approach the text with assumptions, values, and biases that don’t simply impact on how we apply the text (Hays’s steps 3 and 4) but what we see in the texts (Hayes’s steps 1 and 2). This is true even for the greatest of biblical scholars. I have sufficient confidence in the capacity of human beings to communicate that I don’t buy into those theories that suggest reading the Bible is never an act of understanding another but only ever an act of self-expression. But I also accept that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation in which the interpreter is an active agent whose perspectives, assumptions, values, biases, etc shape their reading across all four of Hayes’s interpretive tasks. I think this is why hearing the voices of those who are marginalised and disempowered has been so powerful in my reading of Scripture. They see things I don’t and force me to recognise ways that the dominant readings of my particular church tradition may reflect the interests of power rather than the voice of the Spirit.

Second, history suggests that it is in the protest and pain of the marginalised rather than the intricacies of biblical interpretation, that new movements of the Spirit of God often emerge. Indeed robust biblical interpretation often lags behind the intuitions of the Spirit. It was the voices of slaves and the recounting of their cruel and indecent treatment that pricked the conscience and fired the compassion that drove the abolitionist movement. Mark Noll shows in his book on the US Civil War as a Theological Crisis, that the early abolitionist movement was driven by an intuitive sense that something was wrong rather than robust and defensible readings of Scripture. The theologies of the early abolitionists were weak and their “biblical ” arguments easily refuted. It would take some years for a robust biblical defence of abolition to emerge. Those who sat in their studies and didn’t take the time to listen to the voices of the marginalised and oppressed missed the early signals of a movement of God’s Spirit.

This is why I now find my desire to hear God’s voice on social and ethical issues takes me out of my study and into conversation with those most impacted. In their experiences of pain and struggle, of dissonance between their experience of God and the dominant theologies of the church, in the gap between their present treatment by their fellow human beings and their hope, and in their questions and their alternate readings of Scripture, is often found the whispering of God that allows us to go back into the study and together seek the mind of Christ.

Truth, Lies & the Stories We Tell

Truth, Lies & the Stories We Tell

Our lives are defined by the stories we tell. Stories give meaning to our experiences, our relationships and our places. Many of these stories are personal. They’re my story, not yours. But we all have stories that define “us”, whether the “us” be a family, a community group, a nation, humanity, or all creation.

Australia has at least five great stories (each with many sub-stories), of which the first three are uniquely ours and the last two are shared more broadly: the indigenous story, stretching back 60,000 years and involving hundreds of indigenous “nations”; the British story, which began with the invasion of Australia and continued until the end of the White Australia Policy; the multicultural story, which began with post-White-Australia waves of immigration from all parts of the planet and continues to this day; the Western story, which has been a fusion of technological development, capitalist markets, and a championing of the freedom of individuals to live their lives as they choose; and the earth’s story.

Good story-telling requires wisdom, humility, empathy, and a sense of pride and shame. Wisdom allows us to connect the dots between people, places and experiences and weave a narrative that joins them into something meaningful; humility recognises the flaws and failings as well as the strengths and achievements of any story; empathy enables us to hear the voices of all participants in a story and to let go of the demand that they tell the story the same way I do; a sense of pride enables us to celebrate and build on the good in our stories, while shame allows us to respond with sorrow and repentance to that which has been destructive.

Over the course of my lifetime I think I have gotten better at telling my own stories, as I have learned that the deepest and most truthful storytelling comes when I move beyond a defensive approach that finds its reward in only the bright and glorious parts of the narrative, and neglects the dark and shadowy part, even perceiving them as a threat.

And I think that as a nation we have gotten better at telling our national stories. Our storytelling is becoming more humble, empathetic and sensitive to pride and shame. Nonetheless, some significant challenges remain. First, storytelling that is humble, empathetic and open to pride shame is difficult and will always be difficult. It requires us to listen generously to those whose experience is different to our own, to graciously hear their complaint and their pain, and to be willing to learn and change. This is emotionally and psychologically demanding. It is no surprise that we will feel tempted to retreat into narrative-ghettoes, where one-dimensional stories are told in which everyone “other” is the problem.

Second, while we are getting better at telling and listening to our great national stories, I am not sure we have determined how to join them up. Our unease over the date on which Australia Day is celebrated, treaty, and on an indigenous voice to Parliament are vivid demonstrations of this. Most of us recognise the British Invasion and subsequent development of Australia violated the rights of indigenous nations and caused ongoing damage to indigenous communities. We also recognise the achievements of the nation we have built since the invasion. We can tell the individual stories, but we are struggling to join these two stories together.

So here’s to more storytelling that is wise, humble, empathetic and sensitive to pride and shame.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Who’s the Biggest Taxer of Them All?

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Who’s the Biggest Taxer of Them All?

As we gear up for a federal election I’m already hearing people characterise the Labor Party as big taxers and big spenders and the Coalition as the party of lower spending and lower taxes.


The chart below shows government receipts and payments as a proportion of GDP from 1975 until the present. The black line represents government payments, the coloured bar tracks tax receipts (red for years an ALP government delivered the budget and blue for the Coalition), and the gray bar non-tax revenues.

The highest taxing government in Australia’s history was the Howard-led Coalition, which had average annual tax revenues of 23.5% of GDP. The next highest taxing government is the current Abbott-Turbull-Morisson Coalition, which has collected an average of 22.2% of GDP in tax each year.

If we turn to spending, represented by the black line in the chart, the Hawke-Keating government was the biggest spender, reaching a high of 27.6% of GDP in 1984-85 and an average of 25.7% of GDP over the course of its period in power. The next highest taxing government was the current Abbott-Turbull-Morrison Coalition, which has spent an average of 25.1% of GDP each year. The spending of the Coalition led governments of Fraser and Howard and the Rudd-Gillard Labor government were almost identical: an average of 24.1% GDP for Fraser, 24.2% under Howard and 24.3% under Rudd-Gillard.

The Howard Government budget surpluses were not achieved on the back of rigorous cost-cutting or having superior economic management but by having the highest tax revenue in Australian history. China’s booming demand for Australia’s resources saw an increase in company profits and wages, which in turn meant the volume of taxes also increased. Tax revenue from company tax increased from 17.1% of government revenue in 2001/02 to 27.4% in 2007/08.

The arrival of the Global Financial Crisis brought this boom period to an end and had the double whammy effect of decreasing tax revenues while requiring the government to spend more to keep the economy stimulated.

So as we approach the next election let’s abandon the myth of a tax-and-spend Labor versus low-tax-low-spend Liberals. If we can get past the ideological rhetoric we can possibly have serious debate about what things we want to fund and the tax revenues we need to raise to fund them.

My kids reckon I will be an ugly bald man. A health update

My kids reckon I will be an ugly bald man. A health update

Many of those who follow my blog are aware I have Parkinsons. Less well known is that the same year (2012) I was diagnosed with Parkinsons I was also diagnosed as having Chronic Lymphomatic Leukemia (CLL). CLL usually progresses very slowly and doesn’t need treatment for many years.  So at my last six monthly checkup I was expecting my Doctor to give me the same message I’ve heard at every checkup before – that my white blood cell count has only increased by a marginal amount and there’s no need for treatment for a long time yet. Instead my doctor told me that my white blood cell count has more than doubled in the last six months, which is the trigger for starting treatment.

So it looks like I’ll be starting a 6 month course of chemotherapy in February next year.

The timing is not the greatest. Those of you who see me regularly will have noticed my Parkinsons symptoms have grown decidedly worse over the last 6 months. I now spend large parts of each day with tremoring limbs and very tight muscles or my body in a kind of funk that I call my “drunk phase” because I sway uncontrollably and my speech can get a bit slurred. I do get periods where my body kindly cooperates and I am able to function quite effectively. These periods are however becoming shorter and much less predictable. To date I have been able to time my medications so that I would be in one of those functional phases when I had to go out to meetings, gatherings and the like. It’s becoming harder to do this.

I was due to scale up to a new Parkinsons treatment in February. This promised to give me much greater symptom control and potentially take me back to where I was a number of years ago. Unfortunately having this treatment while having chemotherapthy is not advisable and it looks like my upgraded Parkinsons treatment will have to wait until the chemo is completed. I had been looking forward to the big health boost this treatment promised, so the delay is disappointing and when combined with chemotherapy will make my life challenging (and in the process make it challenging for those around me too).

The journey so far has had its difficulties. I have sat on footpaths, train stations and ferry wharves, sometimes for hours, waiting for my legs to remember how to walk. I have exhausted the supply of good TV shows on Netflix, Stan and Amazon Prime as I lay awake through the long hours of the night waiting for the tremoring to stop so that sleep can begin. I mourn the lost opportunities to do things with Sandy and the kids. Lachlan in particular, being our youngest, has missed opportunities for doing dad and son stuff together, which fills me with regret. I grow bored at being house-bound and disappointed that I cannot contribute to my family and community in ways I once took for granted.

Yet I am in good spirits.

In the last few years I have discovered myself, life, God, and grace in ways that I never expected. In many ways my life is richer, my heart more thankful and my joy deeper than ever before.

I have brilliant doctors, a Parkinsons specialist nurse who is unbelievably good at her job, live in a country where very expensive medicines that I need are made available either free or at affordable prices, and have a form of cancer for which the survival rates are very high.

I have a life partner, Sandy, who takes my breath away with her love, generosity, kindness, care and extension of herself in a myriad of ways we never imagined either of us would need to. I have children who bring me joy, make me laugh and love me deeply (even if they insist I’ll be an ugly bald man!). I have a mother, brothers, and sister who are incredibly loyal, generous and supportive.

I belong to a church which is full of people who surround me with constant and generous lashings of love, kindness, support, and prayer. I am blessed with friends near and far who do the same.

And I have faith in my Creator,  the ultimate source and originator of love, grace, generosity, kindness,  compassion and hope, and who fills me with a sense that whatever lies ahead – whether the realisation of our worst fears or the triumph of life – that nothing can separate me and my family from love, from hope and from grace.

Blessings my friends.

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