Did you see the dancing bear? A reflection on the conclusion of Micah Challenge Australia

A few years back a brilliant tv ad was created which showed 2 teams of people passing a ball. You the viewer were asked to count how many times the white team passed the ball. And so you count…1,2,3,4,5. The ad ends, the correct answer is given and just as you are basking in the glory of getting it right the narrator asks “but did you see the dancing bear?” Dancing bear? The ad is replayed and you see some guy in a bear suit dance right through the middle of the teams passing the ball. And you missed it! It should have been bleedingly obvious but you missed it!

I grew up in a church that knew Micah 6.8: God has shown you what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. We even immortalised the words in a popular Sunday school song, but somehow we didn’t see the call to justice. We were big on mercy and walking humbly with God; it was a church where people were extraordinarily generous and sacrificial in showing kindness; that nurtured a deep devotion to Jesus, but justice? It just didn’t register on our radar, and when it took the form of social justice it sounded altogether suspicious. To paraphrase a South American bishop, when he fed the hungry we called him a saint; when he asked why they were hungry we called him a communist.

The church of my youth, like most Baptist churches of the era, embraced a theology known as premillenial dispensationalism.Indeed to be a member one had to agree with this doctrine. Among other things this held that the world is getting worse and until Jesus returns would continue on a downward spiral to chaos. To this worldview individual acts of mercy made sense, but the pursuit of social justice was futile. It simply could not be achieved, and if by chance we did have some limited success, we would only be delaying Christ’s return.

Your church may have theologised it differently, but with a few notable exceptions, in mid twentieth century Australian churches justice was a missing dimension of discipleship.

By the turn of the millennium this had started to change. Churches were learning to see all of micah 6:8 – justice, mercy and walking humbly with our God.

Micah Challenge both reflected this changing paradigm and helped shape it. We were a campaign that did 4 things:

1. MC helped Christians see that poverty was an issue that should be front and centre for us. I remember reading John Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today when it was first released in, I think, the early eighties. Stott observed that every generation of Christians has a blind spot and that in his opinion the blind spot of Western Christianity was the scandal of global poverty. MC set out to change that, to help us see the great focus on poverty in the bible.

2. MC helped Christians see that engaging with those living in poverty demanded more than personal acts of kindness. It meant grappling with the fact that poverty is created by systems that are fundamentally unjust. If you were a follower of Jesus your generosity in sharing your wealth must be matched by a commitment to buying goods made ethically, to a lifestyle that was ecologically sustainable, and wherever and however one could to combat the deleterious impacts of social, economic and political systems that trample on our fellow human beings

3. MC helped Christians see that following Jesus had a prophetic edge, that the Church’s role was not to be chaplain to the state nor a sect cut off from the state but to be prophet, to call the State to a just use of power. One of the great tasks of the church of our age is to discover what it means to be the church in a post-Christendom world. What does it mean to be the church in a world where we are no longer at the centre, where what was, I suspect, only ever a thin veneer of Judaeo-Christian values is replaced with a commitment to pluralism? MC helped us see that in part at least, it means becoming prophets, advocates and agitators for change.

4. MC gave Christians the tools they needed to exercise their prophetic voice. Once we discovered the call to justice we needed a way to do it. For many MC was that tool. For the first time ever they wrote a letter to a politician or signed a postcard or mustered the courage to visit their MP. Church leaders were emboldened to preach about poverty and not only our responsibility to share but our culpability in creating the conditions that kept people poor.

Of course MC was not the only factor responsible for this shift, nor for many even the most significant factor. Like most shifts in communities the shift to justice was multidetermined. But for many of us MC was our entry point to lived justice, the movement that helped us see the dancing bear. For others MC was a valued partner in a journey they had already begun. But for all of us mc helped us see and live all of micah 6.8: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

TRANSCRIPT OF A TALK DELIVERED TO MARK THE END OF MICAH CHALLENGE AUSTRALIA (TO BE REPLACED WITH MICAH AUSTRALIA LTD)

Prophecies were made to be broken. Why restoration might be the last word.

The most horrific of all Christian doctrines is the doctrine of the eternal judgement, the declaration that vast numbers of humankind will experience eternal punishment at the hands of their Creator. In its most extreme form it imagines a house of horrors in which people experience excruciating torments that never end and for which there is no hope of an end. In its milder forms it imagines those who don’t embrace Christ as simply passing out of existence. While the extreme form turns God into a monster, the milder form leave him a failure, an omnipotent God who cannot bring about the redemption of the bulk of those he wishes to save.

For those who ascribe authority to the teachings of Jesus and Scripture it seems that only one of these two options is viable. Or is it? One of the great challenges in reading the New Testament is how to make sense of the relationship between what I call “one group” and “two group” texts. Both sets of texts imagine what the future will look like. The two group texts see humankind divided into two groups, one which goes off into eternal life and the other into eternal punishment. This two group approach can be found in Jesus’s parables of judgement and talk of the eternal destruction of the wicked in the New Testament letters and the book of Revelation.

The one group texts, on the other hand, speak as though all humankind is to be saved. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul contrasts the act of Adam, which was to bring death to all humanity with the act of Christ which was to bring life to all humanity. In Colossians 1:15-20 Christ is described as reconciling all things to himself. In 1 John 2:2 it is stated that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and also for the sins of the whole world. In Romans 10 we’re told that salvation comes via the confession that Jesus is Lord, then in Philippians 2 that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord.

If all we had were the two group texts it would seem clear that some humans will experience eternal life and some will experience eternal judgement. If all we had were the one group texts it would seem clear that eventually every human being that has ever lived will be reconciled to Christ and experience salvation. Clearly both can’t be true.

The standard evangelical approach is to take the two group texts as iron clad descriptions of the future and to read the one group texts in a way that fits with that. The all who are saved in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 are not all human beings but all who place their faith in Jesus; the reconciliation of all things in Christ spoken of in Colossians 1 does not refer to making peace but to the subjugating of all; the confession of Christ as Lord in Philippians 2 is not a willing confession, but forced through gritted teeth; the atoning sacrifice spoken of in 1 John 2 is for the whole world that it’s effective only when it is received by faith.

I find these interpretations unconvincing. They only work by altering the natural meaning of the words. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 the suggestion that the all who are saved refers only to those who place faith in Christ completely evacuates the texts of their force. The argument is that Christ has more than counteracted the consequences of Adam’s actions. That only makes sense if the all who benefit from the work of Christ are the same as those subject to death as result of Adam’s actions, which is what the text actually says. Otherwise Christ has failed and has not counteracted the consequences of Adam sin.

Likewise, the suggestion that the “reconciliation” of all things to Christ in Colossians 1 actually means the “subjugation” of all things plays fast and loose with what is a rich theological concept in the writings of Paul. To reconcile in the Pauline corpus is always to bring about a state of peace, which any first theology student will tell you means not the absence of conflict but the presence of harmony, well-being and right relationship. The subjugation model suggests that in this one instance alone and without any signals that he’s doing so, Paul abandons this rich notion of peace shaped by the Old Testament and instead imports into its place the notion of peace as subjugation employed by the Roman Empire, a notion he has rejected his entire ministry.

Is there a better way of making sense of the two group and one group texts? I suspect there is.

Judgement serves three purposes in the Bible. First it rescues people from those who exploit and oppress them, such as the Israelites being rescued from slavery in Egypt. Second, it calls us to account for how we have behaved. And third, it prevents evil from occurring in the future.

These ends can be served either by retributive justice or restorative justice. Retribution achieves the three goals by imposing penalties and, if necessary, removing the offender from the community. As such it is always incomplete, for it leaves people and communities broken. It may be the best we can do, particularly when there is no repentance on the part of the offender or an unwillingness to forgive on the part of the victim, but it falls short of healing both offender and offended. That end is only achieved through restorative justice, a process that sees the offender confronted by his victim, forced to acknowledge the pain and suffering he has caused, and then offered forgiveness and the chance to heal. To those who can think only in retributionary terms this seems a weak justice, but the experiences of communities in South Africa and Rwanda where people were victims of almost unimaginable violence suggest otherwise. It could not always be achieved, but when it was, the open, public acknowledgement of wrongdoing was healing for the victims of violence, the shame felt by the offender was a catalyst in their transformation, and the forgiveness offered by the victim somehow rebalanced the equation so that things were rightly ordered once more.

Could it not be that this is the model for judgement that we are presented with in the death and resurrection of Christ? In the cross of Christ we’re confronted with our evil, forced to acknowledge that we’re no better than those who cried “crucify him”, nor those who engineered his death. We’re forced to recognise the ways we behave towards God, others and creation that is self-serving, destructive, exploitative, oppressive. And at that very moment of realisation we are confronted with the extraordinary graceful and humbling response of Christ, which is not to exact vengeance, but to absorb the pain we have inflicted and instead offer forgiveness and resurrection. Forgiveness opens up the possibility of a fresh start and reconciliation, while resurrection offers the promise of transformation, the capacity to be the people were created to be.

It’s against this background that the judgement texts can be read. They operate with the logic of retribution, the only justice that can be achieved without repentance on the part of the offender and forgiveness on the part of the offended. But the very intention of judgement texts is that they not be fulfilled. They are in fact designed to drive the offender to repentance and so open up the possibility of restorative justice. This principle is played out in the story of Jonah. Sent to Nineveh to declare the judgement of God upon the city, Jonah flees because he knows that God’s intention was not to punish Nineveh but to save it. Yet Jonah’s message was given in absolute terms:”40 more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” There was no conditionality, no declaration that should the Ninevites repent God will withhold judgement. Just the bald assertion that Ninevah’s time was up. The goal however of driving the Ninevites to repentance was successful and God repented of the destruction he was going to inflict. What began as the declaration of retribution served to achieve an outcome of restoration.

Prophecies of judgement then, even when stated in categorical unconditional terms, are never meant to be read as ironclad predictions. Rather they are declarations of the consequences that should rightly fall based upon the current behaviour of human beings according to the logic of retribution. They declare the only justice that is possible when there is no repentance on the part of the offender, yet as such they are designed to bring people to a place of repentance.

For years I was taught that it was inevitable that the scenarios depicted in the texts of judgement would be played out, for there was a cut-off point after which there was no further opportunity for repentance and the cut-off point was death. Retributory justice would be the final word in the universe.

The problem is that the Bible actually doesn’t say this anywhere. People keep quoting the verse in Hebrews that it is appointed to humans to die once and after that the judgement. But that doesn’t say anything other than we all face judgement sometime after our death. Not only does the Bible nowhere teach a cut-off point for repentance, but those who argue for it face a terrible dilemma. Either they suggest, like Jonathon Edwards in his famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”, that a time is reached where God ceases to be forgiving, ceases to be graceful, ceases to be merciful, where he will shut off his heart to those seeking reconciliation, an argument that turns on its head everything Jesus taught us about God, or they follow the path of great thinkers such as CS Lewis who argued that the door to hell is closed from the inside, that is, that after death human beings who are already turned against the Creator become increasingly more opposed, that they remain defiant and will never repent.

But what if the opposite holds true? Assuming there is some kind of afterlife in which we retain consciousness, what if people are actually more inclined towards God? What if they now see more clearly than ever before the reality of God and fall on their knees seeking mercy? And what of those alive at the time Christ returns? What if their bewildered “Lord, Lord when did we see you hungry and not feed you?” is followed with a recognition that Christ is right and a desire to turn and be the very people were created to be? If there is no cut-off point for repentance can we imagine God doing anything other than embracing them? Could it not be that declaration of retribution brings about the restoration of all?

Of course this is speculative, but no more so than the assertion that the opposite holds true, that people will become more intensified in their opposition to love, grace, generosity, justice. Could it not be that God will keep seeking people for as long as it takes for them to be transformed, that nothing will exhaust the determination of God to win back that which is lost and heal that which is broken? If so, restorative justice not retribution will win the day. And if that is the case there is no contradiction between prophecies of judgement and those texts that speak of all creation being redeemed, for the former speak of what should be on the basis of the current unrepentant behaviour, while the latter speak of what will be on the basis of the rich grace and generosity of God.

is God’s justice retribution or restoration? The apparently benign question that changes everything

Over the last 25 years there have been dramatic shifts in the way I understand and frame my faith. Throughout my journey the one constant has been Jesus Christ and my devotion to following him. But I’ve realised that the classic evangelicalism I inherited has at its core two ways of framing the Jesus story:   a retributive understanding of justice and duty-based understanding of ethics. These shape almost every part of evangelical theology and practice. In this post I will offer a brief comment upon the first.

At the heart of classic evangelicalism stands the death of Jesus. His death is understood in terms of retribution, which demands that good actions be rewarded and bad actions be punished and in each instance that the reward or punishment be strictly proportional to the act. Human beings are defiant rebels against their creator, whose actions merit eternal punishment. This places God on the horns of a terrible dilemma, for he is both loving and just. His justice demands that he punish us for our wrongdoing, while his love drives him to want to save us from that punishment. The tension is resolved by God becoming incarnate and taking upon himself the penalty we deserve. This makes it possible for God to offer us forgiveness and to begin remaking us into the people we were created to be. Those who accept God’s offer find forgiveness and salvation, and those who do not will be punished eternally.

The problems with this understanding are legion. How can it be that the actions of a short lifetime merit eternal punishment? How can justice, understood as retribution, possibly be effected by an innocent taking the place of the guilty? How can the death of Christ, which was not eternal punishment, be considered an adequate substitute for the penalty we supposedly deserve? How is it that the death of Christ becomes the great game changer when the New Testament writings focus upon the resurrection of Christ as the great game changer? How is it that God can pay the penalty for our sin on the cross, yet demand that the penalty be paid once more in the future by those who reject Christ?

In recent years a number of biblical scholars have drawn attention to the idea that justice in the scriptures is not predominantly focused upon retribution but upon liberation, deliverance and restoration. In Kingdom Ethics. Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen Stassen and David Gushee use the term “delivering justice” to describe what justice means in the Jesus story.

“If we look carefully, we discover that justice has four dimensions: (1) deliverance of the poor and powerless from the justice that they regularly experience; open (2) lifting the foot of domineering power of the neck of the dominated and oppressed; (3) stopping the violence in establishing peace; and (4) restoring the outcasts, the excluded, the Gentiles, the exiles and refugees to community.” Page 349

Christopher Marshall explores the theme of justice in the Old and New Testaments and reaches this conclusion

“The justice of God is a dynamic, active power that breaks into situations of oppression and evil in order to bring liberation and restore freedom. Its basic concern is not to treat each person as each deserves but to do all that is necessary to make things right, even though it is totally undeserved and immensely costly. Is it a restorative justice more than a retributive or distributive justice. It is God acting to end oppression and secure harmony and well-being, especially by meeting the needs of the disadvantaged and downtrodden.” Beyond Retribution

This understanding of justice revolutionises the way we read the justice of God, the nature of humankind, the work of Christ, and the end of the world. God’s basic orientation to the world is not that of angry creator and lawgiver, but that of a longing, loving Creator who is angered by oppression and exploitation but resolved to restore things to what they should be. Human beings are not primarily rebels but amazing creatures who experience varying degrees of brokenness and need to be liberated from the power of death, sin and decay which binds them. The death of Jesus does not become the resolution to a dilemma in which the only way God can resolve the tension between his love and his justice is by pulling a logically tenuous theological swifty, but is the ultimate display of God’s willingness to absorb all the evil we can muster and meet it not with retribution but with resurrection, the offer of reconciliation, a fresh start, and being remade. The end of the world is not about fire, brimstone and the destruction of humanity, but about the restoration of all things.

It’s not just theology that changes. Think of the difference to discipleship. In my experience, retributive theology seems to reinforce the individualism of our age, allowing people to be preoccupied with their own individual salvation and issues of personal/private morality. A restorative/delivering understanding focuses our spirituality on being delivered from that which binds us (for example, being delivered from greed) and on working with God for the freeing of those who are exploited and oppressed. Moreover, it provides a far better framework for theologising about the entire creation.

When we embrace a delivering or restorative model of justice the framing of our faith changes completely. Sure, bound by brevity, I have stated the contrasts between a retributive and a restorative framing in fairly binary terms. As these things get teased out there needs to be nuancing. But my point is that the tone of almost every part of our theology will shift dramatically if we embrace the restorative/delivering view of justice.

A Budget is a Values Statement

A Budget is a Values Statement

As the nation prepares itself for what is predicted to be a particularly tough budget, I find it worthwhile remembering something I learnt at theological college, that a budget is a values statement. Whether a church budget or a national budget, we can never reduce budgets to simply being financial statements. Budgets require choices, and when we choose one thing rather than another we reveal the values that drive us.

It will be interesting then to see what tomorrow night’s Federal budget reveals about the values driving our government. It does appear that some difficult choices need to be made, that as the demographics of our community change we need to find a way to make our expenditure sustainable for the longer term. This makes it all the more imperative to recognise the values that drive our choices. I’ll be looking for:

  1. what happens to the aid budget. Somehow Joe hockey has managed to convince himself that despite being one of the most affluent nations on the face of the planet, we cannot afford a generous aid program. The Coalition came to government with a plan to renege on a commitment to increase aid to 0.5% of GDP on the grounds we could no longer afford it. Apparently beefing up our infrastructure was more important. That’s a value statement;
  2. what happens to the welfare budget. On the one hand, I agree it’s time that we reined in middle-class welfare. During the boom times of the last two decades, successive governments increased payouts to people who were well and truly middle-class, and now it seems that some of that is proving problematic. On the other hand, I think it will be a disgrace if the government goes ahead with plans to cut the minimum wage, pensions, or unemployment benefits. That will be a value statement.

Obviously, in focusing on these two areas I’m also revealing something of my values.

  1. I value a society that promotes as much equity as possible. I want to live in a community where we ensure that those on the lowest incomes are still able to lead a decent life, both in an absolute sense and relative to others. It’s easy to fall prey to the myth that people have what they deserve, which creates the notion that the poor are undeserving of equity. Yet I don’t see that we live in a society where financial reward and social contribution are neatly correlated. The social worker earning fifty thousand dollars a year contributes as much, if not more value to the community, than the pharmaceutical sales rep earning a hundred and fifty thousand. And even where people have made poor choices-easy to recognise in hindsight-I still want to live in a community where they are able to live in a decent way;
  2. I value a society that collects enough taxes to ensure equity and where those who have the greatest financial capacity bear the greatest burden in raising those taxes. The world’s second richest man, Warren Buffett, often points out that his massive wealth has been derived from the community to which he belongs and is not simply self-made. Where would he be without a society of people who are healthy, educated, where there is good quality infrastructure such as roads and communications systems, where people are able to buy what he is selling? For this reason, among others, it seems right that those with the greatest financial capacity pay much higher taxes. Yes, some will claim how terrible it would be to increase taxes upon the high income earners in the country as it would reduce the incentive to create even more wealth. But as Ross Gittens pointed out in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, this claim runs counter to real life, where people are motivated by the social, emotional and intellectual reward they get from their work, not only the financial.
  3. I value deficits and surpluses. The key issue is not whether we have a deficit or surplus in the short run, but whether we balance our books over the long run. When economies go through difficult times, like we did with the global financial crisis, it is the right thing to go into deficit to ensure people remain employed and public goods are provided. Then as the economy moves into a buoyant mode, those deficits can be repaid. Despite all the doomsday talk, our economy is in a pretty good state, and I suppose we should start repaying the deficits, but we don’t need to go so hell for leather that public goods and the welfare of citizens is compromised.

I wonder what values will be revealed tomorrow night?

 

A Bigger Vision for Who We Can Be

It seems that the major parties are leading us into a time of turning our backs upon our global neighbours. We are witnessing a race to the bottom on asylum seekers, both parties are pulling back on their previous commitments to increasing aid, and there is fading resolve to lead on combating climate change. Given both major parties are led by committed Christians this is tragic.

In the Gospels Jesus calls us to building community on the foundation of a radical openness to the other.

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6)

Israel’s Law created a social, political and economic system designed to ensure nobody got trapped in poverty. At any given time some families were in danger of poverty. This was a nation of small scale subsistence agriculture. Sickness during harvest season, fire, theft, frost – all these could see a household with insufficient grain to feed themselves and their animals and to set aside enough seed to plant the next crop.  The answer to this was community, a community in which there was astonishing generosity to one another.

The calendar was divided into seven year blocks, with the seventh or Sabbath year being a period of release. If anyone was in need they were to be given an interest free loan to tide them over, and when the Sabbath year fell due the loan was to be forgiven. In the seventh year not only were families released from the burden of debt, any person who had sold themselves into slavery was to be set free and sent out with ample provision to start a new life. So too was the land released from overuse. It was to lie unplowed for the year.

After seven lots of seven years had passed there was a super Sabbath called the Year of Jubilee, during which all land was returned to its original owners. In the meantime anyone who didn’t have land was invited to participate in the harvest. Landowners were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and were permitted to make just one pass of the field. The landless harvested the edges and anything that was missed.

By the time of Jesus these provisions were routinely ignored. On top of the tithe, Rome demanded tribute and governors demanded taxes, leaving the peasantry with an impossible tax burden. This forced many into debt, but no-one was willing to provide interest free loans nor to forgive the debts in the Sabbath year. They were forced to sell to a wealthy elite who amassed large estates and wealth, and were deaf to the call to practice Jubilee.

Speaking into this context Jesus urges his hearers to invest themselves in the community vision of the Law. Despite things being extraordinarily difficult, Jesus called people to the open handed generosity of Deuteronomy. Give to those who ask; lend without expecting any return, ie interest free; meet insult with love; love your enemies. These were difficult words for a landless peasant living a hand-to-mouth existence day in day out. It was a call to believe that communities marked by an extraordinary generosity to one another rather than fearful hoarding was the way forward.

This was not simply an ethic for the religious minority. It was an ethic for nation building.

So what does it mean for us? We’re not a nation of subsistence farmers, so we won’t apply the values in the same way as Israel was called to, but we will own the values. It’s a call to build community based on generosity, love and openness, to see that communities like that are the solution to need. It is a call to put the interests of the other first, even when that was risky to my own interest. Shared interest trumps individual interest. It would be to fling open our gates to asylum seekers and refugees, to be willing to take the risk of love. It would be to run a generous aid program targeting need in our region. It would see us take the risk of leading the world on climate change.

 

On Killing Cats

We’re a cat family. Neighbours on either side have dogs, but we have a cat, a white and ginger cat named Mittens.

Earlier this week Mittens disappeared. Three days later we found her, lying weak and helpless in a section of our garden, one of her hind legs dislocated.

The vet concluded she had been run over. Run over! Someone had run over her and then left her wounded. Why didn’t they pick her up and take her to a vet? Cats are microchipped, so we could have quickly been found. Or did she scamper off before the driver could do anything? If so, why didn’t the driver knock on a few doors to see if any of them owned a cat?

$680 later we have her back. Maybe that’s the reason the driver didn’t act, the worry of a large veterinary bill.

I don’t know, but the episode highlights to me how much relational connections shape our ethics. The driver, I surmise, did nothing in response to a wounded cat. We spent $680 and a bunch of emotional energy. Both might give readers pause to wonder. $680 on a cat! On an introduced species that does its fair share of killing native birds! Better off to leave it for dead.

Yet relationship changes everything, trumps reason every time. Mittens has been part of our family for a number of years. We have laughed at her silly antics as a kitten, shouted at her when she clawed at the lounge, assumed responsibility for her care. And that builds connection and empathy. Yes, she might just be a cat, an introduced species that is a danger to native wildlife, but she is ours.

And the principle applies more broadly. Why are we happy to cart refugees off to degrading conditions on Nauru or Manus Island? Why do we tolerate drone strikes in Pakistan that kill thirty innocents for every ‘target’ person? Why do we spend billions on unused presents when children are dying of starvation? Is the answer as simple as we favour those with whom we have relationship and have less regard for those outside our relational circles? That for purely subjective reasons we identify with some not others?

It’s a salient reminder that we need to expand our relational circles to include those who are not like us, to allow ourselves to build empathy. But even more so it’s a signal that where we tolerate violence, degrading treatment, or indifference, the problem probably lies not in the other but in our lack of relational connection with them. Should this not give us pause to ask searching questions about the morality of what our empathy, or lack thereof, tolerates?

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