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.

Life Skills for an Age of Populist Rage

Populism is everywhere at the minute. It’s particularly pronounced in the rise of Trumpism and Hansonism, but is found on the left, the right and the centre whenever people seek to win over an audience with arguments that confirm the fears, biases and prejudices of that audience but fail to take account of the breadth and complexity of  the issue being addressed. And although I try my hardest to avoid it, I dare say that in the 400 odd posts in this blog, I may well have had occasions where I too have been guilty of populism.

Populism is ugly  because it posits simplistic solutions to genuine problems, and in the process people get hurt.  Here are eight principles that may  lead us to a better path.

1) Always read/dialogue with those who disagree with you with the intention of learning from them.

For many years of my life I read only those who saw the world through the same framework that I did, and surprise, surprise, the arguments of those I opposed seemed so fragile I almost felt pity for those who held them. When however I started to read the best representatives of the views in opposition to mine I discovered not only that they frequently possessed intellectual rigour but that they helped me see the issue more clearly.

2) Be critical of power, including  your own.

Some people have a rather benign view of power, assuming that people and institutions always act with purity of heart and mind. Others have a cynical view of power, assuming that those with power always use it in their own interests. The first approach yields uncritical trust in power that treats its favoured leaders as though they were Jesus himself, while the second yields a biting cynicism that can see nothing but the devil. Yet the world I live in is one in which people which human beings are neither all good or all bad. As Aleksander Solzenhytsen put it:

“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” The Gulag Archipelago

I expect those with power and the institutions the stand behind them to be capable of both misplaced self-interest and enlightened other-interest and to be capable of both at the same time. This demands that I be critical, recognising and exposing naked self-interest and praising genuinely good other-interest. It demands I do the same for myself, learning to practise the discipline of self-critique.

3) Listen to the affected

The most powerful moments of change and repentance in my life have come from listening to the stories of those who were most impacted by particular policies or practices. My views on refugees, indigenous well-being, poverty, sexuality and so much more have all changed as I’ve listened to the stories of those  who are marginalised, trodden down, and exploited. They taught me to  see the impacts of policies  and practices on real human beings and impart a wisdom that only those on the underside of an issue possess.

4) Remember that our most valuable institutions were hard won but easily lost

Some of our social institutions serve to do little more than entrench the power and the interests of the elites, but the central institutions of liberal democracy that provide the foundation for the ways we  live took centuries to develop. Yet they can be quickly lost to populism. Freedom of speech, conscience and religion; respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being; the rule of law; freedom of the press;  prohibitions on discrimination against people on the basis of their religion, sexuality or gender; and the like  should be protected with tenacity. This is why  I was alarmed by the recent outbursts of President Trump  declaring the press to be “the enemy of the people”  and declaring that the judges who struck down his  immigration laws were “bad judges”. By all means let us disagree with what the press  says  and launch legal challenges to  the judgements of courts, but when we start defaming the institutions themselves, we begin wandering down a very dangerous path

5) See the yearning that lies behind the rhetoric

It has been my experience that  behind deeply objectionable and offensive ideas/behaviours frequently lie yearnings  that are good.  For example, many of those clamouring for  harsh treatment of refugees are driven by a yearning  to live in a community that is safe and that feels like home.  These are good yearnings  and by identifying them  and honouring them it is often possible  to find a shared space that allows us to identify better ways to satisfy those yearnings.

6) It matters what you value and dream about

When we are faced with difficult choices, and particularly the choice between easy self-interest and the more difficult  pathways of love, generosity and grace,  it is our values and the kind of world we dream of belonging to that provide us with the fortitude to either take the more difficult pathway or surrender to self-interest.

7)  The right to have an opinion doesn’t make it a good opinion

Everybody has the right to their own opinions, beliefs and values,  but this does not mean all opinions are equally truthful.  People should always be treated with respect, but  ideas and argument should always be open to critique, evidence and debate  and we should not be afraid of saying that some arguments are simply weaker than others.

8)  We need respectful but robust debate

On any given issue we need to treat each other with respect, kindness and generosity, but at the same time we need to be able to disagree, to push each other on the merit of our arguments  and their consequences intended and unintended.  It is debate like this that exposes the weaknesses and fragility is of our arguments and enables us to  collectively embrace that which is strong.

These principles are of course easy to lay out, but more difficult to follow. Yet in this age of populist rage I think we need to work harder than ever  to live them out.




Challenges for the Church #2. Living as a Minority in a Pluralist Society

One of the great achievements of Western society has been its embrace of religious and political pluralism as a way of enabling peaceful diversity. Throughout history diversity has commonly been met with violence, either the state enacting violence against dissidents, or conflict between groups. We easily forget that the sort of conflicts we see between Islamic groups in the middle east today was also found between Christian groups in pre-twentieth century Europe. Pluralism operates within the framework of Western liberal values of individualism, freedom, and rights. That is, with a shared commitment to the common good and respect for one another’s freedom, diversity of religion, values and lifestyles is protected by the state and seen as a good.

For many Christians this has been a difficult experience. First, it has meant surrendering the privileged status Christianity enjoyed for many centuries. Second, Christians operate with a vision of the reign of God in which all things reflect the vision and values the Creator. This makes it very difficult for them to celebrate a pluralist narrative. Third, with the rise of secularism and other religions Christians find themselves far less influential than in the past. In November 2015, for example, an episode of the ABC’s Q and A program focussed on euthanasia. None of the panellists was a religious practitioner or faith-based ethicist. If the program had been held 20 or 30 years earlier it is difficult to imagine a religious voice being left out.

It is no surprise that many Christians have yet to come to grips with this. Rather than viewing the public space as a place in which groups with different value systems share life together in a cooperative fashion, some Christians see it as a space of conflict in which only one set of values and one vision for life can triumph. Every time Christians lose voice, and every time legislation is passed that fails to reflect Christian morality, they see it as an attack upon their faith, upon the Judeo Christian heritage of our nation, and the rise of an alternate social/religious philosophy above Christianity. Every interaction in the public space is viewed as a competition for dominance and Christians perceive they are losing. The introduction of ethics classes as an alternative to scripture lessons, the safe schools program, the possible legislation of same-sex marriage, the absence of Christian symbolism from Christmas celebrations, Muslim migration, are interpreted through this narrative.

If faith is to flourish in this environment we need to find a better way forward. In his highly influential To Win the World James Hunter Davidson argue for “faithful presence”. In the Australian context I think this works itself out as follows:

Call for justice, practise mercy, live faithfully

Micah 6:8 issues the well known declaration that what the Lord requires of us is to “do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God”. This threefold summary of godly living was reiterated by Jesus (Matthew 23:23). It remains relevant for us today, with appropriate nuancing to the context of a pluralist society. First, let us act justly in all our relationships and call on the State and corporations to practise justice. Glenn Stassen and David Gushee’s widely referenced text on Gospel-framed ethics defines biblical justice as “delivering justice”. They argue that the biblical image of justice is of people being delivered from exploitation, oppression and evil. This also happens to be a key role of governments in a liberal, pluralist society.

When it comes to public engagement this is where our focus should be. We rightly celebrate the work of William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect in opposing the transatlantic slave trade. What’s less well-known is that Wilberforce also worked tirelessly for the “reformation of morals”. This may have made sense in a State that identified itself as Christian, but it doesn’t make sense in a State that is pluralist. In pluralist States morals are not the responsibility of government; the preservation of freedoms and rights are. So let’s focus our public voice on justice. My simple rule of thumb is that this means our advocacy should always be on behalf of someone who is exploited, oppressed or marginalised. If we are not doing this our advocacy has passed from justice to the wider set of Christian values and is inappropriate.

Second, let us practise mercy. Mercy is inherently inter-personal. It is to respond to those in need and vulnerability with generosity and grace. It is to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner as suggested by Jesus in Matthew 25. It is extended to the deserving and the undeserving alike. Jesus’s justice delivered a woman caught in adultery from a mob of angry men. His mercy meant that despite the fact she was guilty of adultery he extended grace to her.

Third, let us live faithfully before God. Let’s cultivate strong, fulfilling and mutually enriching marriages; households where we learn to live together with love; honesty and integrity as we go about our work; church communities where we both challenge sinfulness and forgive from the heart.

Practising justice, mercy and faithfulness would lead us into a very different public engagement than the attempt to hang onto the last vestiges of Christian privilege or recreate a mythic “Judeo-Christian” society.

Commonality, complementarity, contrast

Second, could we not adopt a more nuanced approach to our relationships with other religions and secular bodies? Rather than a conflict narrative, would not a cooperative narrative prove more fruitful? When we look at other religions and groups in society we will find points of commonality – ie we affirm the same things; points of complementarity – ie we may not share the same outlook/value/insight but these are consistent with the Christian narrative; and points of contrast – ie our outlook/value/insight and those of the other are contrary to one another.

Rather than seeing everything through the lens of a competition for dominance, can we not accept that diversity is here to stay and look to cooperate with other groups where there is commonality and complementarity while at the same time respectfully acknowledging the contrasts? Thus would mean seeing ourselves not only as Christians but as fellow human beings and fellow citizens working together for the good of all.

What might this look like in practise? It might mean Christians abandoning the crusade against same-sex marriage and instead advocating loud and clear for the homeless, poor, disadvantaged, marginalised. It might mean Christians and Muslims working together to build mutual understanding in our communities. Although this is not widely reported it occurs frequently in many so-called “developing countries” – imams taking Christians into the mosques to protect them from fundamentalist violence and Christians helping Muslims rebuild a mosque destroyed in a natural disaster. It might mean more focus on ministries of mercy into our local communities and giving time in our personal lives to listen, care for and love people. It does not mean surrendering our distinctives but it does mean celebrating commonalities.

These approaches would, in my opinion, energise faith, build our churches and strengthen our witness.

A doctor, five nuns and the Concorde. An unexpected tale that will warm your heart

I read a delightfully heartwarming story this week. In September 1989 Dr George Lombardi received a phone call. On the other end of the line was a woman wanting to know whether he was the Dr Lombardi who was an infectious disease specialist. She introduced herself as the representative of a world figure and Nobel Laureate who was suspected of having a viral haemorrhagic fever and wanted to know if he would consult on the case.

The Nobel laureate was Mother Teresa and 10 minutes later Dr Lombardi was on the phone with her doctors in India. An hour later the woman he had first spoken to rang back to ask if he would be available to go to Calcutta the next day. George Lombardi explained his passport had expired three months earlier, but he was assured that would be no problem.

The next day he was picked up at 7 AM in a woodpanelled station wagon and driven to the State Department. It was a Sunday morning, but an official came in, took his picture and in 15 minutes handed him a brand-new passport. The next stop was the Indian consulate where the entire staff came in full dress uniform, he was ushered into the consul general and provided with a Visa.

The woman dropped him home, promising to return at 11 AM, which she did with five nuns from the Sisters of Charity packed into the back seat. When they arrived at JFK airport Dr Lombardi enquired why the nuns were accompanying them. He was informed that they had not been able to secure a confirmed seat on the Concorde. All they had was a standby ticket. The Sisters of Charity were there to change that. They proceeded to go up and down the line of passengers until they convinced one of them, a businessman, to give up his seat for Dr Lombardi.

24 hours later Dr Lombardi was in a room treating Mother Teresa. Very weak, she called him over and instructed him that whatever he did he was not to leave her Indian doctors embarrassed or with loss of face, for they were the ones who ran clinics.

Over the coming days Dr Lombardi identified the source of the problem. An infection from a pacemaker that was put in some months earlier. When he removed it the thin wire connecting the pacemaker box to her right ventricle would not budge. There was a danger that removal might tear a hole and Mother Teresa could die in a matter of minutes. Dr Lombardi found himself saying a prayer to Mother Teresa for Mother Teresa and as he did the catheter came loose. Mother Teresa lived for another eight years.

Aint it grand when things happen the way they should.

(Dr Lombardi tells his story in The Moth, Serpents Tail books, 2015)

On Leaving Lord Howe

Today we fly home from Lord Howe Island. It has been a wonderful experience. The views are spectacular, the snorkelling a glorious kaleidoscope of colourful corals and fish, the people friendly and the food delicious. Yet the thing that I will carry strongest in my heart is the way this community preserves its sense of community.

Two of the greatest threats to the community are isolation and the predatory rich. Isolation has given the island a unique flora and fauna, yet ever since people settled here to provision passing whaling ships it has also left the island economically and environmentally vulnerable. When the whaling industry died out the economy shifted to export of palm trees and when that died out to tourism. With each adaptation the islanders have found a way to work together for the common good. When, for example, planes are unable to fly out due to bad weather, leaving more tourists than beds, islanders take tourists into their homes. There seems to be a strong recognition that for their community to prosper they all need to work together. Their isolation and small population requires cooperation to be valued over competition.

The isolation likewise imparts a strong sense of environmental stewardship. On such a small island where the impact of human habitation is so evident, every resident I encounter has a strong sense of the need to be proactive in protecting the ecosystem.

And then there is the threat of the predatory rich, those who, given the chance, would buy up land, build large holiday homes and visit a few weeks a year. This would turn the island from a community of islanders into a tourist playground for the wealthy. There is no chance of this. To buy land on the island you need to live here for 10 years, your dwelling can occupy no more than 15% of the block, and you must live on your allotment for six months a year. It’s rigorous and demanding but the islanders have learned that to preserve the riches of community sometimes means saying no to money.

I couldn’t live here. The isolation and in-each-other’s-pockets nature of the small community would drive me crazy. But I leave here with more than wonderful memories of spectacular scenery. I leave reminded once more that to enjoy this life and world to the full our planet must be treasured and our communities very intentionally nurtured.

Celebration and sorrow. Two keys to a life well lived

Celebration and sorrow. Two keys to a life well lived

There’s an interesting episode in the Gospels where a woman brings a jar of expensive perfume, cracks it open and pours it upon Jesus. His followers, who have caught his concern for those living in poverty, grow indignant, protesting to the woman that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to those who were struggling. Jesus stops them, telling them that this woman has done a beautiful thing for him.

The episode is a healthy reminder that as well as working for the healing of that which is broken in myself and our world, I also need to make space to celebrate that which is good.

In recent years I have embraced what is commonly referred to as “Kingdom theology”, the idea that God is at work in the world to heal that which is broken. To this I need to include the idea that God celebrates and enjoys that which is good. In other words, God reigns over the world by sustaining and enjoying that which is good and healing that which is broken, and if that is so then I participate in his reign when I do the same.

Psalm 104 tells of God’s care for the entire creation and has this wonderful expression, that God formed the whale to frolic in the ocean. A few verses later the Psalm writer declares that God will rejoice in his work. I got a taste of what God must feel a few months back when I was fishing offshore and two whales swam by. It was thrilling.

The antidote to the hedonistic culture in which we live is not to deny myself pleasure, but to enjoy the good world God has made, and the people, places, the creatures God has placed in it, in a spirit of thankfulness and worship,  at the same time that I remember these good things are to be shared, and that there are things that that are broken that God calls me to partner with him in healing. With God I want to be able to feel the sheer joys of the myriad of good and great things in life and the deep sorrows of those dark and broken places within myself and my world, and I want to make space to both celebrate and heal.

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