I found myself screaming obscenities at the TV screen last week as I viewed footage of Syrian children killed by a chemical weapons attack. Just as the body of a Syrian child washed up on Europe’s shores fixed the world’s attention on the desperate plight of Syrian refugees, so this footage concentrated our attention on the violent abuse of power by the Syrian Government against its citizens. The final verse of Bob Dylan’s bitter deconstruction of the military-industrial complex that profited from manufacturing weapons, Masters of War, replayed over and over in my heart and my head.
“I hope that you die
and I hope that it’s soon,
I’ll follow your casket
the pale afternoon,
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
To your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
Til I’m sure you are dead.”
Dylan penned those words in 1962. They’re filled with rage and bitterness, and they captured exactly my sense of outrage at what is happening in Syria today.
But I did not feel vindicated when President Trump launched his much lauded retaliatory strike. It let me even more numb, for though it’s target was the airbase from which the chemical weapons attacks had been launched, this also meant accepting the “collateral damage” of the death of Syrian men, women and children who had nothing to do with those chemical weapons. Is it not both absurd and obscene that we sent a message that chemical attacks against children would not be tolerated by launching tomahawk missiles against children? Western civilization is built on the notion that the powerful do not get to bypass the law but must be subject to it and that the instruments of the State must be used to protect the life and liberty of even the lowliest member of humankind from the power games of the elite. Both these core values were betrayed the moment those tomahawk missiles were launched. How is it we so quickly suspended the very things that make Western civilisation civil? How is it we so meekly surrendered our conscience to pragmatism, to the calculus of expediency?
Which brings me back to Dylan’s song. It is part of a genre of writing that goes back at least as far as the psalms of the Old Testament. “Lament” allows us to express the depth of emotion we feel when injustices occur and things go badly awry in our world. It is not careful speech. In lament I give full expression to my rage, anger, and confusion. Lament does not suggest that my murderous feelings, my lust for revenge and my desire to retaliate by inflicting pain are good. They are not, and if ever enacted would be worthy of fierce condemnation. Lament does however provide a legitimate space for us to give voice to the dark feelings within, so that our sense that words must be said, that the outrages committed demand the strongest condemnation, is met. Having vented we can then turn our hearts and minds to what is a just and good response.
In the biblical tradition the venting takes place when the people gather for worship. They pour it all out before God, even their doubts about God’s goodness and greatness. But they do not remain in this space. They return to their past, both personal and collective, remember those occasions in which God was clearer to them and God’s love, justice and goodness were established. This causes them to move on, to trust again that God will bring justice, and to remember their calling is to love, grace and faithfulness to the way of God.
Could it be that we have lost our capacity for lament? That we no longer have the collective spaces in which to vent our grief and rage without harming others, and so are losing the capacity to return to our core convictions, to reclaim those grand moments in our history when we grasped a larger vision of ourselves, our civilisation and our way in the world? Does the absence of a publicly shared liturgy of lament mean we have lost the artform required to navigate a way from the raw viscerality of our darker selves to the humanising nobility of our better selves? And if so, how do we get it back?
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.
In the last year or two domestic violence has loomed large in public discussion. No-one seems to know quite how prevalent it is, but we know that 2 women die each week at the hands of their partner and that surveys consistently show up to 1 in 4 women over the age of 15 have experienced at least one episode of violence from an intimate partner.
1. Family violence is overwhelmingly a male problem.
Certainly there are men who are victims of domestic violence, but the proportion of men who report having experienced violence from a partner are vastly lower than those reported by women, and some research suggests that a large proportion of the violence committed against males is by women who are fighting back after extensive periods of being victims of violence.
This suggests that we men need to take responsibility for our violence and encourage a culture in which men know how to use power. I remember, for example, child psychologist Steve Biddulph commenting in one of his books that it was important for fathers to wrestle with their sons, for it taught their sons how to place restraints around the use of physical force. From our earliest days we men need to learn how to negotiate our way in the world gently rather than coercively.
2. Churches have three ideological tendencies that exacerbate the likelihood men will act with violence or coercively
Patriarchal gender ideologies
I was shocked a few years ago to see the results of a survey of participants at the Evangelical world’s largest gathering of leaders, the 2010 Lausanne conference. Asked about their attitudes to women in the pastorate over three quarters of delegates said they believed women could serve as pastors. Yet the figures reversed when it came to spiritual leadership in the home. More than 75% of delegates said they thought men were to be the spiritual leaders in the home and over 50% also agreed that wives must always obey their husbands. The figures didn’t break down much differently when separated out between traditional cultures and the industrialised world.
I respect my friends, both male and female, who argue for male leadership and female submission. I have only known them to be generous, kind, and gracious, but I have little respect for the notion that God intends men to be leaders in the church and home. We have an epidemic of violence against women and I cannot see how this does anything other than set up the conditions that make it more likely that more women will be victims of violence. My friends try to explain that God calls men to be servant leaders, but they have a dramatically underdeveloped doctrine of sin. I think the argument is incontrovertible that if you create unequal power structures those with more power will be more likely to misuse it. It may all be very well for the highly functional, emotionally self-aware male who feels fulfilled in life to argue that leadership need not be domineering, but try telling that to the relationally dysfunctional, emotionally unaware and socially marginalised man.
High valuing of the institution of marriage
Protecting the institution of marriage is one of the great passions of conservatives. But it strikes me that we often protect the institution of marriage but not the people within the marriage. I know of too many situations where women have confided to their pastor that they are being subjected to physical or emotional abuse and they are counselled to remain in the marriage.
Often this advice is offered on the assumption that the Bible only permits two grounds for dissolution of a marriage: adultery and desertion. I find this interpretation quite baffling. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus seems to allow no grounds for dissolution of marriage; in the Gospel of Matthew sexual immorality is cited as an exception; and in the first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul recognises desertion by an unbelieving partner as dissolving a marriage. Attempts to turn these references into a law in which we seek the threshold grounds for dissolution of marriage seems rather misguided. The point surely isn’t to lay to down at a set of parameters under which marriage can be dissolved, but to recognise that despite the desire to maintain our relationships, there are circumstances in which the behaviour of one partner constitutes such a fundamental breach that the relationship is broken. Domestic violence is surely one of those situations.
An ideological predisposition to sacrifice and suffering
At the heart of the Christian gospel is a message that Christ suffered for us and calls us to follow in his footsteps. This is no doubt a culturally distinctive framework that Christians do well to embrace, but when placed within the context of relational structures in which women are kept subordinate and with a high prioritising of the institution rather than the relationship of marriage, the call to sacrifice and suffering becomes a tool of oppression.
It is almost certain that every church has households in which domestic abuse is occurring. We don’t see because rarely do abusers appear as monsters. They present as very respectable people. I remember a woman once telling me of her experience of repeated abuse at the hands of her husband and the counsel of her previous pastors that she simply continue in the marriage. I never once saw a glimpse of the violence in my dealings with her husband. When in church meetings and gatherings he was the most gentle, considerate bloke you’d find. I think every church member and every church leader needs to remind themselves that it is almost a certainty that violence is occurring in some of the households in their congregation and the perpetrators will present publicly a decent people. In these situations our obligation is clear. To stand with the oppressed and brutalised, preferencing their well-being over and above everything else.
Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which Christians remember two great symbolic acts of Jesus: the celebration of the Passover and the washing of his disciples feet. Passover festival was a celebration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, a liberation that was accomplished through the means of violence that I find almost incomprehensible when attributed to God. The text of Exodus suggests that God and Pharaoh, representing the gods of Egypt, went to war, culminating in God killing the firstborn child of every Egyptian family and then drowning the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.
I don’t know what to do with that. I cannot explain how it fits with what Jesus shows me of God, that God is loving, gracious, compassionate, kind, merciful, and just. What I do comprehend is that when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples that night he invested it with new meaning. For Christians the meaning of Passover is now associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which God accomplished salvation not by violently subduing his enemies but by taking on himself all the hatred, violence, anger, and brutality that they could muster, and responding with grace and forgiveness. God triumphed not by proving himself more powerful in violence than the Romans, nor more vindictive than the powers of evil, but having exposed himself to the full force of their violence such that the life of Christ was extinguished, God did something extraordinary, something that injected a new possibility into reality. God raised Jesus from the dead, signalling that after evil has exhausted itself to the point of death God has created a new way to life.
It’s therefore significant that on the same day Jesus invested the Passover with new meaning, he knelt down and washed his disciples feet. In the Israel of Jesus day dust would accumulate on people’s feet as they travelled, so a bowl of water and a towel would be offered to guests when they arrived at a house to allow them to wash the dust from their feet. If the house had a servant, the servant may have been required to play this role, but never the master of the house. By washing his disciples feet Jesus reinforces the truth that his life, and the life of his God, was grounded in service of others.
I still don’t know what to do with the story of the Exodus. I celebrate the liberation Israel from slavery. I can even bring myself to recognize that at some level evil such as slavery and oppression have to be met with some measure of force. But the slaughter of the firstborn child of each household? The drowning of an entire army? I cannot explain these, and in one way I don’t need to, For Jesus took the memory of violence perpetrated by God and turned it into a memory of violence perpetrated against God and of God responding with nothing but a kindness, generosity and grace, and carving the new possibilities of resurrection into the hard walls of reality. That I can and will celebrate.
In Tuesday’s mail I received a nine page typed critique of a sermon I preached recently on refugees and asylum seekers. It was clear that my critic was very unhappy with a number of things, including my assertion that we had nothing to fear from Muslim immigrants. Islam, he strongly implied, was inherently violent, a claim I often hear.
Now any of us can selectively quote the Koran to demonstrate either that Islam is a religion of violence or conversely that it is a religion of peace. The real issue is not what this or that verse says, but what adherents of Islam understand the Koran to say. And here there is considerable diversity, with the Islamic faith being appropriated by groups such as Al Quaeda and ISIS to justify violence and by others to promote peace. So it would appear that when it comes to how the Islamic faith is understood by its own adherents it is not necessarily nor inherently given to violence.
But what of the fact that most of the world’s violent conflicts are occurring in countries where Islamic populations are in the majority? Does this not suggest Islam is inherently violent? A little perspective helps.If we broaden our historical perspective to consider the entire period from 1946 to 2013 it becomes clear that violent conflict has occurred across all religious boundaries. The table below, sourced from a paper by Peace Research Institute Oslo, shows the incidence of internal armed conflict between 1946 and 2013 according to the dominant religion of the country where the conflict occurred.
||No. countries in Conflict
||% countries in conflict
This suggests that either all religions are likely to produce violence or that violence is explained by factors other than religion. Both the Peace Research Institute Oslo and the Institute for Economics And Peace have explored these questions and concluded that religion is not the driving force behind the presence of conflict. PRIO state “Islam did not make a significant contribution to explaining the frequent incidents of conflict in the Middle East once regime type, level of development, and other variables had been accounted for.” (Gleditsch & Rudolfsen, “Are Muslim Countries More War Prone?” 2015)
A paper by the Institute for Economics and Peace looked at conflict zones across the world in 2013 and found that there was no significant correlation between religion and war. Of the 35 conflicts in 2013 almost all had multiple drivers, such as the desire for a change of government, identity politics, competition for control of resources, conflict over territory, et cetera. 40% of conflicts had a religious dimension but not a single conflict had religion as the sole dimension. Moreover the authors note that “when parties to a conflict are divided on religious adherents, the conflict often becomes framed as religious even though the parties have originally fought over other issues.”
The Institute for Economics And Peace paper found that the greatest factors influencing peace were political. Countries with low levels of corruption, well-functioning governments and good relations with neighbours were much more likely to be peaceful than those without. It seems then that it is not religion that is inherently violent, but that corruption, poor government and poor external relations can give rise to violence. In this respect it is notable that 70% of Muslim majority countries are authoritarian regimes, there are only three flawed democracies and no full democracies. There are many reasons for this, including the legacy of colonialism and global geopolitics. It is reasonable to assume that as more Islamic dominated countries become politically liberal, as poverty levels decrease and respect for human rights increases, the incidence of violent conflict will substantially decline.
I too have been shocked by the violence in Paris over the weekend. It is almost incomprehensible to me that people would walk into a public space, fire off rounds from a machine gun with the sole intention of killing people, then blow themselves up. It makes me both angry and sad. But it also makes me wonder how I should respond. In particular, how do I respond as a follower of Jesus?
Here I am left with some uncomfortable challenges, for Jesus’s instruction seems quite clear.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you love only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.
Those words were not easily spoken, nor I suspect were they easily received. Jesus spoke to people who lived under the control of an occupying army. Thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans during the time of Jesus; soldiers used their power to extort money from already poor people; indiscriminate acts of violence were perpetrated; and the merest hint of rebellion was brutally crushed. Jesus spoke to people who had very real enemies, and there would barely be a family in Israel that had not suffered at the hands of Rome and its puppets.
Jesus’s answer was not to return violence with violence, hatred with hatred, but to meet violence with kindness and hatred with love. In practical terms that meant should a soldier force me to carry his pack for a mile, I could offer to carry it for 2 miles. If somebody struck me on the cheek, instead of striking them back I could turn the other cheek, defiantly refusing to meet their violence with further violence.
Some argue that Jesus is here offering us a personal ethic, or even an ethic simply for disciples, and that the state must operate according to a different logic. I don’t buy that. Jesus calls us to love our enemy precisely because that is how God treats his enemies. So it would seem utterly strange were we to argue that the state should follow a different approach to its creator. Jesus, it seems, calls us to a completely new way, holding out the hope that love will create new possibilities.
Part of me screams out that this is ridiculous, that the only way to respond to violence is to meet it with violence; that the only way to respond to ISIS is to bomb the bastards off the face of the earth. But that hasn’t worked out well for us so far. The European powers carved up the Middle East after conquering it, creating states out of rival groups that could only be governed by a strong dictator. We went to war once more to topple the dictators, and hundreds of thousands of dead bodies later, the Middle East remains mired in tribal violence. Perhaps Jesus was right. Perhaps the only way to break this vicious cycle is to love our enemies.
What would that mean? At the level of my own personal response I think Jesus calls me to refuse to participate in the retaliatory spirit that inevitably emerges at times like these. I think Jesus calls me to pray for the well-being of both the victims of terror and the perpetrators
What would love look like at the collective level? I’m not 100% sure, but I suspect it would mean we would try to understand our enemy. We like to bathe ourselves in the rhetoric that the terrorists hate us because of our values, that they are driven by a visceral hatred of freedom. But behind every hatred of something is an aspiration for something else. Love would surely say at start by listening to aspirations.
Love surely would demand we have a fierce opposition to violence and abuse, that we do all we can to protect those who are being victimised. Maybe in a mixed up world such as the one we face, that leaves us with choices that are all bad, that some level of force is inescapable if we are to protect the vulnerable. But let us not kid ourselves. That has never been the reason we have gone to war.
Love operates with a simple maxim: you can do your damnedest, but I will meet every escalating act of violence with an escalating act of kindness. That, after all, is what Jesus did, and while it came at great personal cost it opened up the possibilities of resurrection. Perhaps if we gave ourselves both personally and collectively to loving our enemies we would see possibilities open up that we never dared to dream.