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.

Hands Down The Best Investment We Can Ever Make

One of the most thrilling moments I have ever witnessed occurred during the Live8 concert in 2005. A giant screen displayed footage from the 1980s famine in Ethiopia. It was distressing. Mothers with eyes evacuated of hope cradling emaciated babies; children too weak to play sitting quietly on the dusty ground surrounded by death. The camera zoomed in on one baby girl, gaunt, listless and just minutes from death. It was humanity at its most wretched and vulnerable. Sir Bob Geldoff stood on stage, pointed to the image of the little girl moments from death, and announced that the famine relief funds raised by the Live Aid concert meant that little girl had received life-saving interventions, had gone on to study agriculture, had just graduated and was at the concert. With that she walked out on stage, a vibrant, life-filled 20 year old woman, an emblem of hope and possibility. It made my spirit soar and my eyes fill with tears of joy.

The experience of that young woman has been repeated all over the developing world in the last few decades. From the wide open plains of Africa to the deltas of Bangladesh poverty is being wound back at an extraordinary pace. The number of people living on less than $1.90/day has fallen from four in every ten people on the planet in 1984 to just one in every ten in 2015. The number of children dying before their fifth birthday has plummeted from close to 19% of all live births in 1960 to less than 5% today. These are extraordinary outcomes that have come about due to the development and spread of technologies and knowledge; opportunities created for poor communities as they integrated into the global economy; and grass roots development initiatives.

Why then are we not dismayed at the state of the federal aid budget? In the space of just a few years it has been slashed. A few years back both major parties were committed to raising foreign aid to 0.5% of national income and we were on track to achieve this. Today the commitment to this target has lapsed and the aid budget has been raided in the name of budget savings. Yet there are few public investments that have better returns in terms of lives improved. Aid allows poorer countries to fast track access to education, medicine, and a range of resources they would not otherwise be able to afford. Australian aid sees children surviving and thriving, schools built and teachers trained, businesses developed, and communities strengthened. Yet our aid budget has fallen to its lowest level ever as a percentage of national income and we are lagging way below the average effort of other industrialised nations. In the chart below the red line represents Australia’s aid budget as a proportion of national income. The green line is the UK which has been increasing its aid at the same time we are decreasing.



People justify the cuts to aid on the basis that “we can’t afford it.” Really? The Credit Suisse annual Wealth report ranks Australia as the second wealthiest nation on earth in per capita terms. Yet at the same time we squeal that we cannot maintain our aid program, other nations such as the United Kingdom have increased theirs. Given our economy generates somewhere in the vicinity of $1.5 trillion a year, sparing less than 1% of that for the world’s poorest is certainly affordable. What we are really saying is, “We think other things are more important.” For example, Australians around $20 billion a year on recreation, which is five times more than we spend on foreign aid. Our government spends eight times as much on defence as it does on foreign aid.

The size of our foreign aid budget is not a question of affordability but of choices and priorities. And from a global perspective we’re looking pretty selfish. The former Prime Minister of Denmark called Australia on this when she appeared on the Q & A program last Monday. We are members of a global community, but right now, we are proving ourselves to be the spoiled brats of the global family.

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