Puncturing Trump’s Power


If the idea of the weakness of God in the world of Trump offends you, please read on. The President of the United States has vowed to ‘make America great again’, and logically America’s greatness must be at the expense of the rest of the world. He wants to use his power to decrease the life-chances of Mexicans, Syrian refugees and the environment.

It seems that this is a man using excessive power to accumulate more power. He can bully everyone from a Prime Minister to a girl in the backrooms of the White House. Be sure, the psychologists tell us, that a man like that who can use his power over others will display that power.

The response to Mr Trump portrayed in both traditional media and social media is often hysterical. ‘When will someone exterminate that man?’, one exasperated Facebook post asked. ‘This Crazy Man,’ writes another, ‘will provoke Iran into war.’ Or another typical reaction, ‘I’m terrified for the world.’

For those of us, white Western males in particular, who think we have power in this world, Mr Trump is a challenge. We want to use our power to change Mr Trump’s thoughts and actions., just as we use our power more locally. We are accustomed to our politicians responding to our emails, to bending the way of the people, and to honouring the democratic will every three or four years.

We tell ourselves that we can change things. We fantasise that we are staffers in the TV series The West Wing. We ‘speak truth to power’, and power listens.

But Mr Trump reminds us that we delude ourselves. I think we should take some care how we respond to him for fear of setting off damaging reactions. To bring power against Mr Trump, however great that power, will result in a reaction of more power. We threaten Mr Trump and the violence ratchets up. His Acting Attorney-General defied him on his Executive Order regarding immigration. He sacked her. His Generals advised him of the power of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Mr Trump used a drone to kill 30 human beings.

It seems to me that we Franciscans have a contribution to make here. Particularly when a power-oriented President is breathing out fire.

We believe that the Divine way is the way of littleness, the path of humility.

Mr Trump, were he to encounter the concept of littleness, would not understand it. For him, being little is the worst kind of weakness.

The path of littleness eschews using all power over others. The path of littleness sees ourselves as fallible pilgrims seeking a way forward that will nurture those around us. The path of humility sees the other as the focus of my concern and not myself. If I have wealth it is at the disposal of others, not myself. If I have earthly power, it is to promote the needs and wants of the least in this world. (And as Australians, as whites, and as males, whatever we say we do have wealth and power).

This way of littleness was incarnated by Jesus. He ‘took the form of a servant and emptied himself’ (Phil. 2:7). He made no claims to overthrow the Roman yoke, or even to get stuck into reforming the Sadducean hierarchy. For us as for Jesus, the way of littleness leads to the greatest of power; but this kind of power is the power of love, not the power of violence.

My resolution – for myself – is to hold back from trying to use my little bit of power to change Mr Trump through outraged blog posts and emails to the White House and to pressing “LIKE” to affirm the violent language of my friends.

I see only two responses I can make: one is satire (but I have no doubt that satire is a form of power), and the other is modelling the humility that seeks to put others first. I think of certain pupils at Christ Church Grammar School, I think of Jews in Auschwitz modestly trying to create a mini-world of care and kindness in the harshness of their surrounds. That’s what will change the world.

 

Taxing the church


I grow tired of the Atheist Foundation and others whingeing that the churches don’t pay tax. Their claim is false.For me it’s personal.

I received a salary from the church for 30 years. This salary was the major portion of parishioners’ donations to the church. I was very happy to pay tax out of this salary. At a quick calculation, I contributed between $150,000 and $200,000 to the nation’s tax revenue over those 30 years. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (God bless them) put the number of ministers of religion in Australia in 2001 as just over 12,000. If we count these as 6,000 full-time equivalent employees, then their contribution to Australia’s tax revenue over 30 years is between 9 and 12 billion dollars.

The churches do pay tax.

The Anglican Church, as a responsible employer, put aside part of my salary into superannuation. Our super fund started before the Super Guarantee, and enabled me later in my career to put additional savings into the fund. This means now in retirement I live partly off my super. Without super, I would be receiving a bigger pension. My super fund makes a contribution by saving the expenditure of tax.

The parishes where I worked have parish centres with rooms that community groups use, either for free or at much less than the commercial rate. While it is true that the parishes were partially exempt from rates, they made a contribution to the community through the sharing of their facilities – again saving the expenditure of rates and taxes. Many self-help groups, political clubs and community organisations could not meet if it were not for the churches.

The churches do save tax.

It’s true that the tax situation of the churches is complex; there may be some unfair exemptions for the churches; there are churches that rort the system. If our community were designing this from scratch they would almost certainly do it differently. But we can only live with our history.

From 1788 Australia has had a ‘love-hate’ relationship with religion. Many convicts and early settlers had good reason to dislike the church. On the other hand, most Australians in the 19th and 20th Century considered themselves believers. Australian Governments look to the churches to provide services that the churches can offer more cheaply and hopefully with more compassion than Government bureaucracy.

Section 116 in our Constitution does not declare Australia to be a secular nation. Rather it acknowledges the existence of both church and state and proclaims that they are to be kept distinct, but not necessarily for the church to be kept out of public life. The church’s contribution to our public life is different from the state’s.

And in the meantime, we can get our facts straight. The churches do pay tax, and they do save taxes.

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Buying into violence


Russia and France have intensified their bombing of Raqqa. ISIL are rejoicing. This is the war they want, the violence they have provoked, whether or not they are the masterminds behind the bombings over Sinai, in Beirut and most recently in Paris.

 

They want violence to bring in their caliphate. When the West obliges by responding with violence to its violence, the West is playing into its hands. Fighting fire with fire means that everyone gets burnt.

 

9781742376141I’ve been encouraged in the last few days reading A Good Place to Hide, where Peter Grose tells the story of ‘How one French community saved thousands of lives in World War II’. The village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and its neighbours in the surrounding mountainous area hid Jews and others on the run. A small regional railway was the main access to the village which boasted a number of modest boarding houses that had been built for ‘healthy Protestant family holidays’. The village was surrounded by remote farmhouses, many of whom were willing to secrete Jews in their attics or cellars or barns, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for the duration of the war.

 

Le Chambon is near the Swiss border, and the people of the village opened up a ‘pipeline’ smuggling Jews into neutral Switzerland. Teenagers became expert ‘passeurs’, people-smugglers, risking their lives for others.

 

This whole operation which saved probably 3,000 Jews, more than Schindler’s List, had its heart in the network of Protestant pastors in the Plateau area. The Huguenot people had a history of sheltering dissidents, whether they were Protestant, Catholics or Jews, and those displaced by World War II were equally welcomed and hid or smuggled out.

 

The pastor at Le Chambon, André Trocmé, made known his views on non-violence from the beginning of the war. Pastor Trocmé believed that even against the evils of the Nazi regime the only weapons allowed to Christians are the ‘weapons of the Spirit’. Even when the Resistance began to form around him, Trocmé continued to speak out for non-violent methods, including openly protecting foreign Jews and others wanted by the Gestapo. He agreed to go into hiding only when he was persuaded that staying would likely result in a violent Gestapo attack on his family.

 

The story of Trocmé, his colleagues and parishioners, is inspiring for our time.

 

We are daily being tempted to back the rush to more and more violence. Pastor Trocmé provides an example of someone who consistently refused to go along with violence as a solution to violent provocation.

 

We are daily being encouraged to pull the welcome mat away from vulnerable asylum seekers. ‘Maybe they are more a security risk than we first thought.’ The people of Le Chambon reminds us that there are only people – not Muslims or Jews or Christians – to be welcomed to our place.

 

When the Gestapo came to arrest Trocmé, he wasn’t home. His wife offered them a meal while they waited. They looked for opportunities to see the occupiers as human beings too, even when it made them unpopular with other French people. We cannot excuse or overlook the wanton violence of ISIL, but maybe we can see that those being radicalised are gawky young men looking for a place to belong – not monsters.

 

It suits the politicians to ramp up the fear following Beirut and Paris. But it suits ISIL more. We Christians need cool heads to not be caught up in the fear and so fuel the violence: remember André Trocmé and the villagers of Le Chambon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unmasking Humourless Powers


I salute my colleagues who were detained and strip-searched yesterday. I salute their courage, their grace and humour. Especially their humour. At the end of the day it is not they who stand naked and humiliated. It is the system that allows children to be indefinitely locked up in third world conditions.

I am outraged, but not surprised. Jarrad and Lorna, I know, have read Pace e Bene non-violence training; they have read Walter Wink; they have read Martin Luther King Jr. They know to expect the full response of the law if they go down the path of civil disobedience: fines, jail and all the police procedures that may go with them. They were prepared to pay the full price.

And they also know from their training that their opposition to the status quo will make it unstable, and their disobedience will provoke unexpected reactions. For their friends, it is distressing to see police attempt to humiliate them, but they are asking us to see beyond this.

Because what Lorna and Jarrad and their colleagues have achieved is to unmask the powers. For a moment we have glimpsed what Australia has become. We can thank the protestors for their courage in bringing to our attention not just the plight of asylum seekers and their children in detention, but the community attitudes that permit such cruelty.

The South African activist theologian Walter Wink points out that that the system cannot bear a sense of humour. Those who promote violence are enraged that they might be made fun of. A laugh is what makes us human. Those who stop us laughing must be stopped. #lovemakesaway

Love Makes A(nother) Way


Love Makes A(nother) Way

A New Strategy in Protesting the Treatment of Asylum Seekers

For those who come across the seas,
We’ve boundless plains to share.

So we sing in our National Anthem. But it’s not Government policy. Not at all for sharing our plains, are we at the moment. I disagree with much of what the Abbott Government, with the agreement of the Labor Opposition, is implementing in refugee policy.

I think:

  • Manus Island and Nauru detention centres should be closed.
  • Processing should be done on the mainland where possible.
  • Detention times should be reduced substantially.
  • Asylum seekers should be cared for in the community where possible.
  • Asylum seekers should be able to work and contribute to Australian society.

I don’t like the language the Government uses. Asylum seekers that arrive by boat are not “illegals”. Border protection is not the issue, rather humanitarian concerns should be the main consideration.

I dream of large projects on which refugees can work, like the hydro-electric scheme in Tasmania and the Snowy River irrigation scheme in NSW after the war.

I dream that the Government could send cruise ships to Indonesia, Pakistan and the Myanmar-Thailand border where refugees gather, and bring 2,000 at a time safely to Australia, rather than have them risk their lives with people-smugglers.

My views are the views of many on the left; I hold them with passion because I am a Christian and relate them to my Christian faith.

I support the #lovemakesaway movement. Friends are being arrested. If it were physically possible, I would consider joining them. All power to their arm.

I have written to the Minister, to the Prime Minister, to my Federal Member, to the Leader of the Opposition, to the Opposition spokesman and to other politicians. Some, like Richard Marles, Nola Marino and Scott Ludlam, take the time to reply. Others have their staffers send form letters.

These are the tried and true strategies. We beg Minister Morrison to be more compassionate, to be more prepared to show that Australia wants to share its boundless plains. And the more we beg, the more punitive his policies become. The last round of legislation whipped through the Senate is stunning in the removal of human rights from asylum seekers.

 “…the more we beg, the more punitive his policies become.”

My concern is that Mr Morrison is actually responding to the Christian left. The more we beg him to be compassionate, the more he believes he has the balance right, and the more licence he has to take a  harder line. We have become a counter-weight. Our strategies may be making things worse for asylum seekers.

I wonder whether we need a new strategy to add to the sit-ins and pleas for compassion.

 

I plan to write to Minister Morrison again, and affirm him. The policy area of asylum seekers is complex across the region. He deserves credit for dealing with a toxic mix: the push factors in dangerous countries like Afghanistan; the transitions in countries like Indonesia; the people smugglers and the dangerous journeys they sponsor, and dealing with Governments in the region about all this. He does well to keep on top of all these volatile realities.

Managing thousands of vulnerable people in detention is sensitive and difficult. There are outbreaks of serious self-harm and violence, but on the whole, they run smoothly. Christmas, Manus and Nauru are remote islands with limited access to modern technology. His department keeps the detention centres under some control.

The inevitable paper-work to process thousands of asylum seekers under these conditions is handled competently. People-smugglers often force their clients to ditch their identity papers. Sourcing information about individuals in war-torn countries is a big ask, but the Department obviously succeeds regularly.

These, and other behind-the-scenes tasks, deserve credit. If we only beg for more compassion, we are heard as angry, ill-informed and obstinate.

Mr Morrison does many difficult things well. If we tell him so, he may continue the habit, and start doing other difficult things as well!

No wonder he chose the name ‘Francis’.


Speaking to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, a Vatican-sponsored group n October 28′, the pope said social justice also requires peace and environmental protection, both of which the global economic system inevitably threatens. “There are economic systems that must make war in order to survive,” he said. “An economic system centered on the god of money also needs to plunder nature, plunder nature, in order to maintain the frenetic pace of consumption inherent in it.”

– source Catholic News Service

Martyred Christians at Mosul


For the sake of our fellow-Christians in Mosul, we should keep our outrage burning brightly. The thugs of ISIS are murdering Christians by their tens, burning the churches. They mark their houses with “N” (for “Nazarene”) and occupy them for themselves. Some commentators claim this is the worst pogrom since the Nazis put yellow stars on Jews and rounded them up in Germany.

To bring Christianity in Mosul to an end is a tragedy of the worst kind: Christians have been there since just after the time of Christ. They still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. ISIS is destroying the community’s ancient irreplaceable texts.

The purpose of ISIS is clear: to wipe our Christianity in Iraq and all historical traces of it. It is shaping up to be a massacre of a people and the death of a culture. As a Christian, I burn with a sad anger to see brothers and sisters in the process of becoming martyrs.

As a teacher of World Religions, I am aware also that for most Muslims, the actions of ISIS is shameful. Their casual cruelty is foreign to Islam, which values human life and respects the People of the Book.

ISIS, like some extreme Christian groups, believes shrines and images lead people away from God. On July 24 this year, for example, the Islamic State levelled the tomb of Jonah in Mosul. This is as incomprehensible to most Muslims as Cromwell’s wanton destruction of English churches during the Revolution is to Christians.

The respected Washington Post, for example, wonders whether the destruction of shrines is to gain media attention. The answer is, I think, only as means to teach Muslims of the perceived dangers of these artefacts. These fundamentalists believe that they deceive people by promising to help them get closer to God, and they are prepared to destroy even the most valuable so that people can have simple direct access to God.

There seems so little that we can do from here in Australia. But I would suggest three actions.

  • Appreciate our freedom to worship. Thank God for it; and, if the occasion arises, express our appreciation to our civic leaders.
  • Stand in solidarity with our fellow-Christians in Mosul. Pray for them and with them. Get on board with the Act for Peace (Christmas Bowl) campaign.
  • Spread the word. Talk about the massacre that is occurring in Mosul with your friends. Re-post this blog, or other blogs about it, or link to it.

 

Ted Witham
26 July 2014