Perhaps Scott Morrison really is a daggy suburban family man…

Perhaps Scott Morrison really is a daggy suburban family man…

Since emerging on the political stage Scott Morrison has cultivated the persona of the daggy suburban family man, who loves his wife, his children, and his football team; who works hard and is duly recompensed; believes in contributing to his community; and believes in a “fair go” for everybody prepared to “have a go”. He’s not the culture vulture that was Paul Keating; the egomaniac who needs to be at the centre of every decision that was Kevin Rudd; the ideological conservative that was Tony Abbott; nor the wealthy urban banker that was Malcolm Turnbull. He’s “Scomo”, all round decent “bloke” who does what he says and says what he does.

I’m beginning to think that this is not only a carefully cultivated narrative, but that it just might really be who Scott Morrison is…and it worries me. I like “Scomo” and could imagine myself sitting beside him eating a meat pie, sharing a joke and cheering the Cronulla Sharks. But we need someone more than the daggy suburban family man as Prime Minister.

The Old Testament contains a book called Proverbs that is loved in suburbia. It is a collection of pithy proverbial sayings like these:

A slack hand causes poverty,
    but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

A child who gathers in summer is prudent,
    but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame…

The integrity of the upright guides them,
    but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.

Proverbs 10:4-5; 11:3

In the world of Proverbs actions have consequences. Wise behaviour produces good life outcomes and foolish behaviour bad life outcomes. While there may well be unexpected setbacks, if we observe the rules we can expect life to turn out reasonably well.

Suburban life is the living proof of this. It’s the place where conventional wisdom works. Word hard and you’ll get a good job. Save diligently and you’ll be rewarded with home ownership and a comfortable retirement. Do the right thing by your neighbours and they’ll do the right thing by you. But live foolishly and you will reap the consequences: unemployment; financial struggle; broken relationships.

The danger of the conventional wisdom of Proverbs is that we assume it applies everywhere, so that wellbeing is always the outcome of the individual doing the right thing and ill being is the result of individuals failing to live by the inbuilt moral order of the universe. The book of Job challenges this simplistic way of thinking. It opens and closes with Job enjoying prosperity, health and wellbeing. At start and finish the ordered, action-consequence world of Proverbs is intact. But in-between Job loses everything. His wealth, his family, his health, and his reputation. Three friends come to offer comfort and counsel. In their eyes the ordered, action-consequence world of Proverbs is still operating. They argue that disaster has struck Job because he has done something foolish. He must identify what that is, confess his wrongdoing and God will restore him. Job (and the reader) knows this is not the case, that Job has done nothing to deserve this. We are confronted with a situation where the iron clad logic of a morally ordered universe has broken down.

If Job presents us with a world where there are occasional lapses in the act-consequence ordering the world, Ecclesiastes sees a world where order is impossible to find. Rather than the predictability of Proverbs, people who follow the dictates of wisdom find themselves broken by life, while fools who perpetrate violence, exploit, oppress and plot evil prosper! In the outlook of Ecclesiastes God may have put order in the world but it is excruciatingly difficult to see. The best you can do is live in a way that honours God and receive whatever moments of love and joy you can find as the gift of God.

The Prime Minister’s policies and statements suggest that his primary frame of reference is the ordered world of Proverbs. At his opening press conference as Prime Minister he said:

“I believe in a fair go for those who have a go, and what that means is part of the promise that we all keep as Australians is that we make a contribution and don’t seek to take one.”

“When all Australians do that, that’s when we get the fair go mentality and culture that has made our country strong today. So under our policies, if you’re having a go you’ll get a go. And that involves an obligation on all of us to be able to bring what we have to the table.

“It doesn’t matter what level of ability you have, what your means are, where you live in this country. It matters that we all bring our best. Under my government, under our government, under a Liberal Nationals government, we will always be backing in those Australians who are looking to make a contribution not take one and, together, that’s how we make our country stronger.”

PM Press Conference

Kathryn Murphy decoded this in an astute piece in the Guardian.

This idea that some categories of people are inherently more deserving than others; that finding yourself on the bottom rung of the ladder is attributable not to a set of circumstances that governments might look at correcting for the good of society as a whole, but because of a failure of individual imagination and work ethic

Kathryn Murphy, “The meaning of Morrison’s mantra about getting a fair go is clear. It’s conditional“, Guardina Online

Morrison’s logic is the conventional wisdom of Proverbs untempered by the caution of Job and Ecclesiastes. It explains life in terms of individual failure and is blind to systemic societal failures. It explains why the Prime Minister can resist calls to raise the Newstart allowance coming from groups as disparate as the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Council of Social Services. It appears the PM really does believe the unemployed are the undeserving, that anyone who wants a job can have one, and that to raise the allowance to a level that didn’t leave people mired in poverty would reward laziness.

This logic was right there in Scott Morrison’s maiden speech.

From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way, including diminishing their personal responsibility for their own wellbeing; and to do what is right, to respect the rule of law, the sanctity of human life and the moral integrity of marriage and the family.

Scott Morrison, Maiden Speech, Feb 14, 2008

In the well-ordered act-consequence world of conventional wisdom, justice doesn’t look to correct systemic injustices, but ensures that individuals receive their due. Those who do the right thing are rewarded, those who do the right thing but have a temporary setback are assisted, and those who do the wrong thing are punished. Thus fighting for a “fair go for all” includes confronting people with “their personal responsibility for their own wellbeing”.

This might be sufficient for two blokes sharing a beer in a suburban backyard as they diagnose what’s gone wrong in the world and how to set it right. It’s not sufficient in a Prime Minister. I hope I am wrong, but I fear Scott Morisson may well be the daggy suburban family man he portrays himself to be.

Scomo, Politicians & Prophets

Scomo, Politicians & Prophets

There has been a lot of commentary over the past 2 weeks on the faith of our new PM, Scott Morrison. Here is my two bobs worth:

Politicians and prophets have very different callings. Prophets, or in their secular version, social activists, point us to what we can and should be. They are not satisfied with simple improvements in the human condition, but long for a world in which every person finds justice and is treated with dignity. 

We need prophets. They force us to recognise the vulnerable; they dispel the myths that the powerful create to justify the neglect of those with little power; and they call us dream of equity, love, grace and justice in our societies. 

Politicians are not prophets. When forming policy and passing legislation politicians are constrained by the demands of their colleagues, their party policy platforms, what they can get through the Parliament, their budgets and the demands of the electorate.  This means that government policies nearly always include compromise and concession. They will rarely be the best policy imaginable but rather will be the best policy a government deems achievable in the given political context.

When it comes to prosecuting policy in the public domain, Ministers of the government are not free to speak their own opinions but speak as representatives of the Government. They are responsible to publicly makes the case for the policy of the government even when they have deep reservations about it.

This means we cannot read the personal convictions of Ministers (or their opposition counterparts) off the policies they present. This is particularly the case with areas such as refugee policy, where there are no ideal outcomes. I have not spoken with the Prime Minister on this issue, but I have spoken with a number of politicians from both the Coalition and the ALP, including Ministers and Shadow Ministers and I have not met one who is not troubled by our policies towards asylum seekers arriving without visa authorisation. Yet they are also convinced that the current policy regime (or  the one their party proposes to introduce) is the most preferable of what are only suboptimal possibilities.

I don’t think they have lifted their sights high enough. Our options are not limited to an awful choice between deaths at sea or locking up the innocent. I stand with the Prophets calling for political leaders willing to draw our nation down the path of moral greatness that will involve the acceptance of much larger numbers of refugees. Politically difficult but not politically impossible.

We should read the character and the personal values of Prophets off the policy positions they put forward. We should condemn the policy prescriptions of the Government when they all short of our longings for a better future. But I think we err when we try to read the character and integrity of politicians, particularly those in Ministries, off the policies of the Governments they serve.

Which brings me to Scomo, faith and politics. In his maiden speech Scott Morisson identified his faith as foundational to the values he brings into the parliament.

So what values do I derive from my faith? My answer comes from Jeremiah, chapter 9:24:

… I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.

From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way, including diminishing their personal responsibility for their own wellbeing; and to do what is right, to respect the rule of law, the sanctity of human life and the moral integrity of marriage and the family. 

I have been disappointed by the rush of many of my fellow Christians to condemn Scomo as having betrayed his faith. It’s a tough call being committed to justice, mercy & faithfulness while operating inside a political process that demands compromise and concessions to the politically possible. The system will almost always turn out something that falls short of what we prophets call for. 

I am not a fan of the Coalition. It’s inability to resolve the tensions between its Conservative and moderate elements has given us a raft of policies that fall far short of what justice, mercy and kindness demand. I will continue to critique the policies of the Government. But I will not join the rush to condemn Scomo. I cannot read his character off the policies of his government. I hope and pray that his passion for lovingkindness, justice and righteousness, compassion kindness, remain as strong today as they were the day he was elected parliament. I will pray for him, and for all members of our parliament, that in the midst of a political system that works precisely because it requires compromise and concession, they might find ways to bring us just a little closer to justice and mercy.

Men & Domestic Violence. We’ve a long way to go.

Men & Domestic Violence. We’ve a long way to go.

Family and domestic violence is  a horrific reality, frequently hidden behind the four walls of our homes.  The Australian Institute for Health & Welfare, recently released the latest data on family & domestic violence (FDV). Three things stood out to me.

1. FDV  is stubbornly resistant to change

The public education campaigns that have run over the last few years have successfully highlighted the issue and seen an upswing in people seeking assistance to leave a violent relationship. Yet the incidence of domestic violence is not diminishing. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey was released in 2006, 2011, and 2016. During that time the proportion of women who had experienced violence in their homes during the 12 months prior to the survey grew from 1.5% to 1.7%. For men the rise was from 0.4% to 0.8%.

2. Men aged 20-40 account for 3/5 of all FDV proceedings

The report notes that violence permissive attitudes are higher among 16-24 year old males than any other group. Half this cohort thought it was acceptable to track a partner by electronic means without her consent; 2/5 of the cohort did not see attempts to control a partner by denying her money, nor continual criticism of a partner with the goal of making her feel bad and worthless, as abuse; and 1/4 did notes attempts to control a partner’s social life as abuse.

I suspect this requires men, myself included, to cultivate a respectful, gentle masculinity, to teach and model it in our homes, churches and community groups, and to take a stand when we see people attempting to control others.

3. Most women who are abused will turn to a friend for help.

Close to 70% of women who experience abuse and seek support will seek it from a  friend or family member. This makes it vital that we know what to do and say.

Here’s my quick guide, based on material I’ve read and discussion I’ve had:

  1. Listen…listen…listen
  2. Communicate that you believe what you’re being told.
  3. Ask them if they feel safe going home, and if they do not then work with them to find safe place to stay.
  4. Volunteer to go with them to seek assistance from people with the professional skills to help (eg a local domestic violence service centre, or a cal to a family and domestic violence hotline).
  5. Maintain confidence 

I don’t want to be a “real man”.

I don’t want to be a “real man”.

There was a great article about Tim Winton in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine recently.  Winton was just 5 years old when his  father was badly injured in a motor vehicle accident. After he came home from hospital Winton’s father required many weeks of intensive assistance  and emotional support. Tim’s mother, who suddenly became the family breadwinner, as well as trying to look after four children under the age of five and care for her husband, was struggling to cope.   One day a stranger showed up at the door and announced that he was there to help.  For the next few weeks Len Thomas spent time almost every day  at the Winton home caring for Tim’s father.  He was from a local church and had heard that the family was struggling to manage, and was  in Winton’s own words “an act of grace” to the family.

Len Thomas had a huge impact on Tim Winton

 Len showed me that there is another way of being a man, that you didn’t have to get a double century at the MCG or mow down a machine-gun post and get a Victoria Cross. You could be just decent and gentle and kind. For me, that was incredibly revelatory.

I too have been fortunate to have  had men,  not least my father, who have shown  me that “a real man”  can be strong without being aggressive,  gentle rather than violent, and love his family, his friends and his world.

It took me some time to learn that a man could also be vulnerable  and express tender emotion.    I tended to live in my head, and many years back a friend, who lived very much in his emotions, gave me a copy of Manhood by Steve Biddulph. I thought it was a stupid gift, but my friend was the wiser of us.  As I read through the book  much of what Steve Biddulph had to say resonated deeply with me.   I’m not quite sure how it all worked but inbetween contemplating Steve Biddulph’s work and having children I’ve  become something of a weeping willow.

Yet as I think about masculinity I’m reluctant to define it.  My sense of self was formed in between the generations that  understood masculinity and femininity to be the product of our sexual biology,  and therefore fixed, and the current generation who understand masculinity and femininity as entirely socialised and therefore a matter of choice.  I suspect that there are both socialised and biological influences on many of our behaviours, but that where biology is important the variation is not strongly aligned to sexual biology.  Indeed, I struggle to think of one character trait typically identified as “masculine” or “feminine” that is not found in individuals of all sexes.

It is tempting to replace the biological essentialism of the past with a theological essentialism. This is particularly strong in Reformed Evangelical circles,  where pastor-theologians  such as John Piper insist that the Bible teaches men are to be initiators  and leaders and women are to be supporters and followers.  On their reckoning the key to being a man or woman of God is not simply to be Christlike but to manifest Christlikeness in gender-particular ways.  I have blogged extensively about the interpretation and application of the Biblical texts over the last couple of years. Needless to say, I don’t accept their arguments.

My starting point for who and how I am in the world is not my sex or gender  but my humanity.  In the biblical account of creation men and women alike were created  in the image of God,  and together commissioned to multiply and fill the earth and rule and subdue it  (Genesis 1:26-28). It is our shared humanity that defines who we are and how we are in the world, not our sexual differentiation.

Jesus appeared on earth as one who was the complete and perfect image of God. He did not present himself as a model  of masculinity, nor do any of the biblical writers.  Rather he’s the model of perfect humanity: compassionate, kind, generous, good, just. He is gentle with the vulnerable, lashes the oppressive elites, and is patient with his disciples.  These are neither masculine nor feminine traits. They are simply human.

I am not interested in avoiding traits that are considered “feminine” or cultivating those that are considered “masculine”. Masculinity and femininity are important to me only as constructs for understanding ways my culture has socialised me to be. My goal is not to be the best man I can be but the best human I can be.


Sometimes I feel like the luckiest man in the world

Sometimes I feel like the luckiest man in the world

We are sitting side by side on a flight to Brisbane. Ours was the first flight out this morning, which meant we were up at 4am. Sandy dozes beside me and I once more find myself incredibly thankful that this woman has shared her life with me.

We’ve been married for 30+ years and yes, we each have annoying little quirks. When Sandy pulls out one of her many lists that demand certain chores be completed and completed now, I long ago learned the virtue of surrender. When I get started with some new idea that has excited me or have launched into one of my political rants Sandy too knows that I have become like the Borg and that resistance is futile.

These little annoyances are the very small price paid for a love and friendship that runs deep. Life has taken us into dark valleys, onto breathtaking mountaintops and all the mundane moments inbetween. We have deliberately cultivated our communication patterns, our emotional intelligence, and ways to resolve conflict fairly.

I can’t help feeling that the thing that really binds us together is, from my side, the fact that every night as I lay beside her I am filled with wonder that this incredible human being has chosen to share her life with me. It seems that with each new challenge life brings our way Sandy not only shows up but shows up with courage, love, tenderness and hope. Yes, some of these challenges have exacted a heavy toll, but a load we somehow manage to bear together.

There is no special occasion that has prompted this piece, just a need to put into words the admiration and gratitude I feel in my heart.

Farewell Vienna

Farewell Vienna

One of the things I’d been looking forward to this year was  taking up invitations to speak at conferences in Vienna and Jakarta.  A couple of weeks back I wrote to the organisers of those conferences to notify them I would need to withdraw,  for over the last couple of months I have experienced a substantial deterioration  in physical health that makes international travel very difficult. My meds give me peak periods during the day when my body movement is very good, but during the troughs it is difficult to move around. Moreover some days the peaks are long but other days it is the troughs that linger. Managing the this across time zones, jetlag and long flights is not really feasible.

My physical deterioration means I have also made the decision to sell my boat. My life since childhood has involved boats. The splash of salt spray across the face while motoring across the bay, the gentle rocking of the boat under a sunlit sky while moored fishing, and the all-nighter in which I get to witness the sunrise from the vantage point of my boat have been delightful experiences. I am a classic Myers Briggs extrovert – I get energised being around people – but the one place I could spend hours on end on my own was out on the water. Saying goodbye to my Haines Hunter will be more difficult than saying goodbye to Vienna.  I will miss the opportunity to visit Vienna, but I will grieve the loss of my autonomy on the water.

It seems to me that from the day we are born life is a continual process of  saying goodbye and welcoming the new.  We say goodbye to the womb but enter an amazing new world; we go to school, make friends, find a sense of place,  then say goodbye to the school years as we enter the adult world of work; when I married I said goodbye to the single life and began life as one part of a couple; when we had children we said goodbye to life in which the household was just us to begin life as parents; we finish our years of working and say goodbye to something that gave us great meaning and enter retirement; as we grow older we say goodbye to people we love as they pass away and welcome newborns into our world.  With each goodbye comes the pain of loss, wistful memories, and things for which to be grateful. Yet each goodbye also brings a hello filled with possibility, new discoveries and fresh horizons.  For me the key to navigating these changes is to accept that one era has passed, to look back with gratitude for  what I was able to enjoy during that phase,  to allow myself to wistfully remember the good of those times, yet to look forward to the new things to embrace, new experiences to be had, new dimensions of the journey to be found.

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