Tuesday, May 30, 2006

cindy sheehan and the moral left

Last Thursday I went to an anti-war rally at RMIT. Cindy Sheehan was amongst the speakers for it, and since peace is what I'm trying to pursue, it seemed like a good thing to experience.

First Jim Dolce played some songs: one about Coretta Scott King (wife of Martin Luther King Jr.), and he finished with John Lennon's Imagine. He asked people to join in, and if you ever had any doubt that Australians don't do well with public group singing, this was it. His version was moving (on the ukelele), but that was offset by the uncomfortable uncertainty of the crowd's involvement.

Kerry Nettle, the Greens senator, spoke first. The Greens, I think, play an important prophetic role in government; they'll never have a majority, but they can speak what the majority in the house are too afraid to admit. And she's young: 32 I think, which helps.

Then Dr Salaam Ismael spoke. Interesting, since his name literally means 'peace' in Arabic. Anyway, he's an Iraqi doctor who started the "Doctors for Iraq" organisation. It's basically a collection of Iraqi doctors who are trying to undo the damage the war has done. Courageous work, and they're really up against it. His stories and pictures were harrowing, and gave you a good idea of how bad it is there. And it's bad. He was refreshingly not anti-American, although he was certainly scathing of what they've done there. Basically he was saying that the war was supposed to make things better, yet they've been made much worse. The destruction and loss of innocent civilian life and livelihood is absolutely inexcusable.

Finally, Cindy Sheehan spoke for a while. If you've never heard of Cindy Sheehan, she's the woman who has been giving George Bush a hard time in America over the Iraq war, as her son was killed in combat over there. In fact, she's pretty much the face of the anti-war movement in the US. It's weird, because when she got up and started to speak you realised that this was not a woman who was born to lead an anti-war movement; this is a woman who was born to be a mother. Not in the symbolic, "mother of a movement" sense, just an ordinary mother. I mean that with the utmost respect for motherhood as the highest vocation on earth. But the overwhelming sense was that this woman is just like any other. No special gift for public speaking, no charisma, no stage presence. Seriously, she could seemingly not be more innocuous. The only difference between her and anyone else is that she did something about what she believed.

And it fascinated me, this idea that she was just an ordinary mother, because we think that we somehow need to have special talents, or special connections, or whatever else, to change the world, or make a difference. She has changed it because she's been prepared to go above and beyond what most people would. Let's face it, there are probably almost two and a half thousand American mothers who have a reason for the Iraq war never to have happened; but she's the one who camped on Bush's doorstep for 5 weeks. She's the one who has gone to jail four times for political dissent (no other reason than that). She's the one who has travelled around the world petitioning world leaders to stop this war. All because she was prepared to do what it takes.

Someone once said the difference between the way the world is and the way it can be is the difference between what we do and what we can do. That is, if only we all did whatever it took, in the way she has done, there would be no hunger, no oppression. We're capable, just not willing.

The other thing that struck me (and strikes me at all of these kind of clearly-leftist meetings) is the blatant hypocrisy of the angry rhetoric. It was toned down slightly because this was organised by a coalition of almost 80 peace, justice and other groups, rather than the one or two (usually socialist) organisations that usually do these things, but it was still pretty obviously one-sided. It just makes me feel less sympathetic, and alienates a lot of people, when the talk is as extremist as it usually is. And the hypocrisy frustrates me - all this talk of tolerance and love and peace and the dignity of all human life punctuated by hateful descriptions of John Howard or George Bush as evil, bloodsucking tyrants. What the...?

I find it frustrating because I want to work with them, even where our opinions differ, but the extremism alienates me. These people talk of the nonviolence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, yet fail to notice (or just outright reject) the "love your enemies" message that was central to those activists' lives. The reason I still go to these kinds of things is because I think it's important that we align ourselves with people who share our convictions about the world, even when we differ greatly with those people in some respects. Ched Myers talks about this in Who Will Roll Away the Stone. In his chapter entitled "Why do you disciples not live according to the tradition?" he challenges our desire to work only with those who agree entirely with us, in favour of a more diverse, collaborative approach.

This, amongst other reasons, is why nonviolence is the only way to peace. Nonviolence, far from being simply the absence of violence, is the active embracing of all people. Warmongers, enemies, murderers - everyone is capable of being won over by the protection and affirmation of their essential humanity. And even if they're not, you have acted with integrity and consistency.

So I'll keep going to these kinds of things, and maybe even get more involved. And I'll keep speaking the message of peace through nonviolence.

culture jam

hilarious. Nonviolent direct action at its most amusing.

And then this one from Michael Leunig amid talk of Howard stepping down, featured on the same Mediawatch episode. The Sydney Morning Herald refused to run it, in contrast to the Melbourne Age. The editor's reasoning? It's in bad taste.

Leunig's response was to quote a former Age editor: "A cartoon in good taste is a contradiction in terms." And then he penned this cartoon.

Monday, May 29, 2006

the blog backlash

I've noticed recently a lot of conversations bagging blogging. Admittedly there's a lot of it going on, and not all of it is good or positive or even intelligible.

Most criticism is a kind of intellectual snobbery, where if it's not Shakespeare that's being created, then it's of no value. But occasionally people whose opinion I respect say it's all rubbish. But there's something inside me that says it's not. What is it?

I always said that I like blogging for myself, as a kind of journalling activity, and not so that others would read it, and I still think that's true. I often get a shock when people say "Oh, I read that thing about (insert topic here)" because I keep forgetting that others can, let alone do, read it. But I've been wondering what it is that attracts me to blogging rather than traditional (pen and paper in the bedside table) journalling, and in doing so, maybe pinpoint a bit of why other people are taking it up like it's going out of style.

And so I realised this: it's a deeply creative act. It's visually creative, because you can make it look interesting, using pictures or designs or whatever. It's literarily (is that a word?) creative because you are putting together words that have probably never been put together in that order or sequence before, in a way that has new meaning. And it's intellectually creative, because it's about working through and expressing your ideas or bouncing off others.

The fact that they are creative is important for me, because the God I believe in is a creative God. Creativity (not just in the sense of novelty or newness, but creation itself) is an integral part of the expression of God. In creating, I believe we participate in the life of God.

I came to this realisation because the most fun part of blogging for me is clicking that button that says "view blog in new window", where I actually get to see the finished product and go "wow, cool" (or occasionally "uh oh, better edit it"). There's something complete and finished about a blog post, a sense of satisfaction at the creation of a something that did not exist before and would never have if I hadn't made it happen. It's a completed project. It doesn't have to be an earth-shattering project, just one that means something to me. That's enough.

If blogs are all about obtaining information for you, then I get why you don't like them, or think they seem self-absorbed. But they do have value, independant of that, because people's self expression has value. So I have no hesitation in defending the blog to all of you wannabe highbrow culture critics. Take your superior air elsewhere. :D

phonetographs pt. 2

Whitley from the number 19.

Friday, May 26, 2006

back to back to my musical roots

No that's not a stutter, it's a reprise of a post from October last year.

You may recall (or you may not) that at that time I went to see a performance by Franciscus Henri, who had formed most of my childhood musical influence. This particular performance wasn't specifically children's music, although I wouldn't have minded if it was. I posted after it about my thoughts on musical influence, and some of the ideas presented by the person he was doing a tribute show to, Sydney Carter, and you can find that post here.

Anyway, today he (somehow) found that post and made the following comment (hope he doesn't mind me reprising it in a post):
I have in the last days been directed to your blog and thank you for your comments on both my music in the past as well as my recent prformance. The gap between my children's music and that of Carter is narrower than might be imagined. the word "celebration" comes to mind.
I want to respond to some of the thoughts you have expressed in response to Carters work.
You write "It is perhaps the easiest thing in the world to claim there is no answer"
I think you are doing Carter and perhaps yourself a great disservice
To " to ask that question " and to be full of "curiosity" is hardly approching laziness.
In another poem Carter speaks of doubt "which flowered like faith turned inside out..dancing and lyrical" (My dancing doubt)
It is perhaps easier to hold onto what he calls "Holy hearsay" (most find it in a book)without questioning, or to believe what some claim comes from the heart or spirit or divine inspiration.
This kind of certainty is comfortable, it is also the fount of most of the sordid behaviour that comes from relgious conviction.
To "walk on the water" and "doubt"
is hard work.

You have transcribed the poem in full.
In the song "Every star shall sing a carol" Carter puts forward the notion that Christ having personified God as man, this personification have have taken on other life forms throughout the vast universe.
As for on earth?
"By Christ or any other name the shape of truth could be the same" (The Holy Box)

"Travel on, travel on....."
Boy the internet can come back to bite you, can't it? I mean, you put it out there in cyberspace and think that no-one you know will ever read it, let alone those you don't, and then whammo! (yes, that's the technical term), the person you're talking about turns up on your blog. That's a warning for all you people bagging Britney or Paris: you never know when they'll turn up.

But I'm genuinely glad to be challenged on this (and anything, frankly), because it's a point that is worth pondering. Interestingly, anyone who knows me would be amused to find that someone had taken me as any kind of supporter of fundamentalism; and if anyone I know is a doubter and a questioner, it's me. So it's strange to end up on this end of an argument, but there it is.

As Franciscus rightly pointed out, Carter is not advocating a wishy-washy, extreme postmodernist view, let alone the "comfortable-with-uncertainty" view that I attributed to him. The lines "I ask that question" and "I am full of curiosity" should have tipped me off to that much (or at the very least, my reading of it should have been more generous). Having said that, there is no shortage of that view in society; I have personally seen it in places as varied as Christian churches, the New Age movement, and university philosophy classrooms (though perhaps they're not as varied as I first thought). And it is a dangerous version of the apathy that pervades society; as dangerous, in my view, as holding those opinions too strongly (cf. fundamentalism).

Besides, I don't think it's holding to truth that dangerous, it's the truth you hold to that is key. If that truth is that we ought to love all things, for example, there can be no danger in holding to it absolutely or even rigidly. Therefore the "fount of most of the sordid behaviour that comes from religious conviction" (as Franciscus put it) isn't certainty itself, but rather the content of that certainty (eg. that if you don't believe the truth as I perceive it, I'll punch you). In the same way as I didn't intend to imply that doubt is to be equated with laziness (though they sometimes accompany each other), neither do I believe that doubt and certainty our only two options in terms of belief.

I guess what I'm advocating is some kind of balance between the two. Doubtainty, perhaps? As Yann Martel says in Life of Pi, "It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."

I'm not sure it's that dire, but the point is a good one. Doubt is useful to break down our misconceptions, and realign them more to reality (in its myriad forms) but we can only go forward with some (at least tentative) understanding of the world. Not that that understanding must necessarily be foisted upon others, nor should it be held so tightly that it is not open to review; but to be so skeptical as to doubt everything is to be paralyzed, and that's not helpful either.

Incidentally it might be worth noting that the point in my original post about knowing more what Carter doubted than what he stood for is largely a reflection (or a projection?) of the Baptist tradition I've inherited. It is exactly that tendency that characterises Baptist history: we know much more clearly what we stand against than what we stand for. It actually takes courage to nail your colours to the mast; not because you're certain, indeed much more courage is required where there isn't certainty involved, just a conviction or a tentative idea. But it does mean that you risk being wrong; whereas the constant state of doubt or 'suspension of judgement as my philosophy background puts it, means you risk nothing. And in this case, I think the adage 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained' is an apt one.

So I think there's something to be said for not doubting. Again, don't misunderstand me as arguing for certainty, still less being intolerant certainty, but belief or faith require some kind of commitment to an idea.

If I get time, I might think/write about that last idea too, that of something of the truth that we know in Christ can or has been seen/made known in other forms. In the meantime: thanks for your words Franciscus, and if you feel I misrepresented Carter, I apologise.

phonetographs part 1

Tram ride by night.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

ohhhh yeeeeeaaaahhhh!!!

What a game.

16-17 at full time after a 79 minute field goal. Does it get any sweeter?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

last word on A.R.

I realised that about a year ago when I started blogging at inspiralblog, I did a post on Arundhati Roy and her impact on me then, but it was swallowed up in the great November blog disaster (thanks a lot, iPowerweb). So here's it is again: one of my favourite quotes of hers:
Where there is fear, there'll always be hope. Where there is oppression, it will always be challenged by those of us who will challenge it with greater intensity, you know? So that's why I don't believe that there can ever be peace without justice, you know? The two go together. And there cannot be peace in the world with full-spectrum dominance or, you know, nuclear warfare or any of those things. They won't help, because always there will be people who demand dignity, who demand justice, who demand their rights.

And, you know, that is as much physics as the physics of people who want power and who try to usurp it - it is the physics of those of us who will challenge it, and we'll always be around.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

the court jester

I was just reminded of this film...Danny Kaye is brilliant in it. It's well worth posting a few quotes...

: I've got it! I've got it! The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true! Right?
Griselda: Right. But there's been a change: they broke the chalice from the palace!
Hawkins: They *broke* the chalice from the palace?
Griselda: And replaced it with a flagon.
Hawkins: A flagon...?
Griselda: With the figure of a dragon.
Hawkins: Flagon with a dragon.
Griselda: Right.
Hawkins: But did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
Griselda: No! The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true!
Hawkins: The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.
Griselda: Just remember that.

King Roderick
: The Duke. What did the Duke do?
Hubert Hawkins: Eh... the Duke do?
King Roderick: Yes. And what about the Doge?
Hubert Hawkins: Oh, the Doge!
King Roderick: Eh. Well what did the Doge do?
Hubert Hawkins: The Doge do?
King Roderick: Yes, the Doge do.
Hubert Hawkins: Well, uh, the Doge did what the Doge does. Eh, uh, when the Doge does his duty to the Duke, that is.
King Roderick: What? What's that?
Hubert Hawkins: Oh, it's very simple, sire. When the Doge did his duty and the Duke didn't, that's when the Duchess did the dirt to the Duke with the Doge.
King Roderick: Who did what to what?
Hubert Hawkins: Oh, they all did, sire. There they were in the dark; the Duke with his dagger, the Doge with his dart, Duchess with her dirk.
King Roderick: Duchess with her dirk?
Hubert Hawkins: Yes! The Duchess dove at the Duke just when the Duke dove at the Douge. Now the Duke ducked, the Doge dodged, and the Duchess didn't. So the Duke got the Duchess, the Duchess got the Doge, and the Doge got the Duke!
King Roderick: Curious. I... I... hm? What? What's that? All I heard was that the Duchess had a siege of rheumatism. She's 83, you know.

Hubert Hawkins: I'd like to get in, get on with it, get it over with, and get out. Get it?
Ravenhurst: Got it.
Hubert Hawkins: Good.

Friday, May 19, 2006

the jules/smoyle meetup

Ok, I'm just going to acknowledge at the outset that to most people I know, this will not make any sense. I'm well aware of your incredulous looks of disbelief, the rolled eyes, the "what-on-earth-was-he-thinking" face.

Alicia is one of a group of friends I made nearly three years ago now on the Counting Crows fanclub message board. How can you make friends with someone over the internet? Actually, it's surprisingly easy. You soon get an idea of who you have stuff in common with, who you like, and who you find difficult. Then you tend to talk more to those people, on chat and email and the like. Pretty soon you have friends as real as any others.

I'm well aware of the skepticism that says that the person on the other end may well be of the opposite gender to that which they claim, or misrepresent themselves in other ways. My experience has not borne that out. Still, that cynicism is reflected in our group's joking reference to each other as "fake internet friends".

May I just say by way of a disclaimer here that it may well be that the internet will revolutionize social contact for introverts especially. It's all very well for you extraverts to sneer with disdain at friendships begun via this medium, but it suits me down to the ground. In actual fact I think it's a wonderful expression of the potential unity of the world that I can make friendships with people of different place and culture.

Anyway, I'm done with disclaimers now. It was admittedly a little strange having someone you've never met with face-to-face before jump in your car and start chatting away. But the weird thing wasn't that so much as the feeling that it was totally normal. I mean, I knew this person as well as most other people I have in my life, we share a group of friends and .

Alicia and Doug (her boyfriend) were here on holiday, and had done the driving trip from Cairns right down to Melbourne. So we were responsible for showing them the sights of our fair city. We started with St Kilda Esplanade and beach, seeing as it's kind of the live music destination and Paul Kelly's favourite spot ("I'd give you all of Sydney Harbour/All that land and all that water/for that one sweet promenade"). Then we went back into the city and checked out the Crown complex, and then did the Melbourne Observation Deck. Then Julie and Chelsea went home and left us to wander along Southbank, get some lunch and go to the MCG for the Demons/Dockers game.

We talked Counting Crows, we talked fanclub stuff (Alicia runs the fanclub) but mostly we talked about the differences between America and Australia that had emerged during their trip. Apparently there are no roundabouts in America. Go figure. And they're fascinated by the morbidity of the signage here (courtesy of the TAC) - do this, you'll be killed. Do that, you'll die a horrible, painful death. Do the other thing, you'll kill someone else. They'd also managed to find Australia's most bizarre food. Thinking they'd finally discovered a menu with some normal things on it, they sat down in a Melbourne restaurant confident that they couldn't go wrong with spaghetti bolognese. Turns out it was made of rabbit meat.

Some funny moments: on the way back from the footy, as you walk over the bridge at Birrarung Marr towards the city, they have speakers on the bridge playing aboriginal wails and moans and songs and chatter. It's quite eerie at the best of times, but out of nowhere it's just plain weird. Anyway, we were on our way back over it for the second time when Doug suddenly stopped us in our tracks, eyes like saucers, clearly amazed and disturbed by something. Suddenly he exclaimed, "Listen! The aboriginals know Mr. Jones!" (a Counting Crows song). It was at that point I realised that my phone was ringing (the ringtone on my new phone is an mp3 of Mr Jones).

Later we got on the tram to come back to our place for dinner and struck up a conversation with a girl who happened to sit with us on a rather full tram. In our conversation we mentioned Counting Crows and she said she'd heard them playing on a bad US drama show recently. We were most impressed that not only had she heard of them (which is rare) but she was able to pull out a reasonably obscure reference to them (we worked out it was a Boston Public episode). We then talked to her the entire way home. While the whole conversation was utterly hysterical, I'll just mention the highlights.

Doug: Why are you texting on two phones at once?
Girl: This is really embarrassing. I was the last person to get a mobile and here I am texting on two at once.
Me: Are you racing them? Are you doing the same message to the same phone on two mobiles and seeing which message arrives first? That should be an Olympic sport. Or at the very least, a Commonwealth Games sport. They let everything else in.

Then we discussed the injustice that led to Alicia and Doug being in the country for only 10 days, yet not only meeting, but hanging out with You Am I (who they had never heard of), while I lived in Australia for my whole life and never met them. This still seems patently unjust to me.

This led onto other brushes with fame stories, where the girl talked about her recent meeting with Pink, who had picked her drunk friend up off the floor.

At one point, Doug and Alicia were babbling away about something American and laughing hysterically, in what was, let's face it, a fairly peculiar conversation.
Girl (tongue in cheek): Do you know these people?
Me: I met them on the internet. (which would have been funny if it was a joke, but being true made it absolutely hysterical.)

Ok, so maybe you had to be there. Nonetheless, we had an enormous amount of fun. The random girl even got off at the same stop; in fact, I think she thought we were stalking her such was the coincidence. After dinner at our place we went out to a bar near their hotel and just chatted till it was time for bed. Conversation included how Australia has cornered the marsupial market. You want marsupials, you come to us. I'm really not sure how that happened. Did Australia sit down one day and say, "You know, I think the potentially lucrative marsupial market is underrepresented. If we can capitalize on the whole warm-blooded mammal with a pouch market now, we'll be set for tourism for life."

And that was the jules/smoyle meetup.

(incidentally, jules is Alicia's username, or more accurately, itsmejules. mine is smoyle. combination of the first letter of my first name and my last name, all one word. clever, no?)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

open space technology

I'm told describing Open Space Technology is like describing what guava tastes like. You'll get a vague idea, but you'll never actually know what it's like until you try it. I've spent the last two and a half days at an Open Space facilitation course. So let me try to describe the taste of guava...I mean, OST, for you.

Where to begin? In 1983, a guy by the name of Harrison Owen was facilitating an international conference for more than 250 people. It took him about a year to organise it. For some reason (which he doesn't remember himself) he ended up leaving an hour for the coffee breaks. The conference ran its course, and seemed successful, but what everyone raved about was the coffee breaks. People had been more productive and successful and energised in the coffee breaks than in any of the sessions. So he began to ask himself: what if you could run an entire conference using the energy and excitement of a good coffee break?

What has emerged is Open Space Technology - a technique for meeting using the principles of self-organising systems. I came to it through nonviolence training, as it is a notoriously successful meeting method used by peace groups all over the world. It's based in the idea that it is not out of causality that the best, most genuine things happen, but out of chaos. Quantum physics has long recognised that fact, but OS places it in the realm of human organisation, to some quite staggering effects. The result is that, essentially, you can organise large groups around quite complex issues in the space of only one or two days.

It's an incredibly simple, yet amazingly effective idea. Almost stupidly simple. People are asked essentially to only act in those areas and at those times where you feel some passion, and are willing to take some responsibility. It is these twin poles of passion and responsibility that form the basis for good work - passion because people want to act, and responsibility because otherwise nothing would get done.

These are bounded by the four principles of Open Space:

1. Whoever comes are the right people: Basically this makes the process self-selecting in terms of who is there. People are invited to the event if they feel they have something to contribute, or they have some passion for the topic. Things only get done when the people who want to be there are present.
2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: This is the only time that these people will be in the same place at the same time in this way. There is no room for what could or should happen. Accept what does happen as the only thing that could have happened.
3. Whenever it starts is the right time: Clocks create too much tension and the wrong expectation. Creativity and inspiration usually don't show up on time. While there is a broad structure to Open Space, the idea is that it is literally that - Open Space - and that includes time.
4. When it's over, it's over (and the converse: when it's not over, it's not over): Again, creativity and inspiration don't follow the clock, so if you're engaged in a conversation that has clearly run its course, don't hang around just because the session has 25 minutes still to run. And if you're in the midst of a productive discussion, don't stop just because the session has supposedly ended.

Added to these is the one law of Open Space: the Law of Two Feet (or the Law of Personal Mobility). Put simply, it means that if at any time you feel you are not contributing anything or not gaining anything from what is happening, you and you alone have the responsibility to use your two feet to move elsewhere. Go for a walk, try another group, get a drink, but don't be somewhere that is not useful.

I was doing the training basically as another strings to my bow in terms of facilitation. Mostly I'm intending to focus on nonviolence training, but this strikes me as having a great deal of synergy with those ideas. I also think it's the perfect forum for churches and the BUV to deal with complex and potentially divisive issues. For churches who want to decide their vision, or to make other complex decisions in a short space of time, there is no better process. Or if groups want to make a response to various social issues, or whatever, this is the perfect means. Plus it expresses in very real terms the very Baptist concept of the priesthood of all believers. The medium is the message.

In fact, it strikes me that these are wonderful principles not just for meetings, but for life itself. In one of the early conversations I had with the course participants, it was mentioned that probably what drew us to Open Space is that, to some degree, we all already operate in similar ways, or at least have some affinity with them. It struck me that that is probably correct - that in fact I had lived most of my life by the Law of Two Feet, and probably by some of the principles too. Julie and I have always moved from one job to another, usually as a natural flow on from the previous job. There is a kind of natural rhythm to the way we've gone about it. The only time it's become difficult or distressing for us is when we've let go of these principles: Whenever it starts is the right time, in particular.

And even recently, with inspiral, these principles would have reduced some anxiety considerably. Try thinking that whoever comes are the right people or whatever happens is the only thing that could have and suddenly you realise you'd been worrying about a lot of trivial things that really don't matter.

Anyway, that's my last few days at a glace. If you're interested in looking more at this idea of Open Space Technology go here. Or if you want to hire me as your facilitator, for your church or business, give me a call (I have very reasonable rates). :)

Monday, May 15, 2006

a thousand envelopes for a thousand dollars

I was looking up business registration stuff on the Consumer Affairs Victoria website and was temporarily distracted by their list of scams. One such scam is called the Envelope Stuffing Scam.

It is usually one of those advertisements you see on lightpoles or receive in the mail, offering the chance to work from home and "stuff 1000 envelopes for $1000 dollars". All you need to do is send your registration fee of $35-45 (plus postage and handling) and they will send you the information.

What you get is a letter with the necessary photocopies for you to repeat the scam on a bunch of other unsuspecting dupes. So while they deliver on what they promise, you find yourself stuffing a thousand envelopes for a thousand dollars...

Now that's what I call chain mail.

again with the compilation contenders

Counting Crows - Sister Golden Hair: I don't think I've ever actually heard the original America version of this song, but darn it if this isn't an awesome song. This is a live version from a show they did at the Shim Sham Club in New Orleans in 2003, the last Shim Sham Show they ever did.

The Wiggles - Captain Feathersword Fell Asleep On His Pirate Ship: Well, if I'm going to include a Hi-5 in contention, it's only fair that the Wiggles get a shot too.

Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues: Seriously, who else could get away with "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die"? Somehow Johnny Cash made it acceptable for country music to be played in HMV, and that's an achievement in itself.

Paul Kelly - From St Kilda to Kings Cross: "I want to see the sun go down from St Kilda Esplanade/Where the beach needs reconstruction, where the palm trees have it hard/I'd give you all of Sydney Harbour (all that land, all that water)/For that one sweet promenade." Parochial? You bet.

Travis - Driftwood: I remember my brother had the Why Does it Always Rain on Me single (a song I hated with a passion) when it first came out, and this was a standout live version of the track on the B-side. Never really made it on our charts, but it's an awesome pop tune. Anyway, I picked it up at Dixon's this year.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

against substitutional atonement

For many years, probably as long as I can remember, I've been skeptical of the traditional "gospel" message of substitutional atonement. I've always had this uneasiness about it, that for many years I couldn't put my finger on. Roughly speaking, substitutional atonement is the idea that Jesus died as a substitutional sacrifice for our sins. It's a little more specific than that, actually. It's actually based on the medieval feudal system, where when Lords (yes, the reason we still call God "Lord" is a hangover from these days) were offended by an underling, they would require some kind of equal and opposite reaction to effectively make up for, or cover over, their offended honour. This was extrapolated onto God (God requires death as a substitute for his offended honour), the Bible was read through this system, no-one was game to update it, and voila! you have yourself some authentic 21st century theology.

Vaguely, I wondered why God couldn't just forgive without requiring death. Plus what kind of God is prepared to kill his own son before other people, let alone at all? It just sounds monstrous. It's a bloodthirsty God, not the loving God I was taught about.

I can remember the first time I was interviewed for candidature for ordination with the Baptist Union, and going through the third degree in the theology interview. It was around this time that I had decided that it was no use my pretending anymore that I did agree with substitutional atonement (fairly brave timing, if I do say so myself, particularly with no viable alternative), and so the conversation went roughly like this (names withheld to protect the innocent, although I remember it clear as day):

Interviewer: So why did Jesus have to die for our sins?
Simon: I don't know.
Interviewer: You don't know? Do you have any idea?
Simon: Not really...no.

Later, I realised that I did have more of an idea but the problem was that I didn't like where it was heading, and so I wanted to articulate that. I was given an opportunity to do so in the larger, group interview situation. I explained that as a philosopher, I usually thought two assumptions ahead, and that I had done so on this occasion.

Me: I know that Jesus had to die to pay for our sins. He had to do that because sin requires death, and God being a just God had to mete out the just punishment for sin. What I don't know is why God requires death for sin. So, when I said I didn't know why Jesus had to die, what I meant was that I don't know why God requires death.
High ranking BUV person: Me neither, Simon. Me neither.

Maybe it's an exaggeration, but I reckon his admission probably saved my faith. You could say my faith was reasonably strong at that stage (given where I was when this took place) and could have withstood the crack that had appeared in its foundation, but I was done with pretending. The crack was widening by the day, and would have proved fatal, and his admission gave me a reason to start building a new foundation instead of patching the old. It was probably the first inkling I had that heads wiser than mine were as skeptical as I was, and that I had good reason for my skepticism.

There was a conversation on the VBMN (Victorian Baptist Ministers' Network) a while back about this very issue, and one of the respondents raised the issue that substitutional atonement means that God asks more of us than of Godself. That is, God asks us to forgive without condition, yet God is clearly unwilling to do the same, instead making forgiveness conditional upon some propitiation and sacrifice. Certainly it could be said that God is 'entitled' to do so, but it seems to not only imply a double standard in God, but go against the very concept of grace that Jesus demonstrates.

Last night I was reading an article in From Violence to Wholeness that fairly well articulated my intuitive abhorrence of substitutional atonement. It's a passage about Jesus and nonviolence (obviously):
The third foundation of Jesus' nonviolence is located in his understanding of God and in his approach to worship. The kind of radical love Jesus knows in God creates an awareness that human life is not about appeasing a vengeful God, but about responding in love. This is a spirituality purified of violence at its very roots. God, for Jesus and for those who follow the Christian way, is assertively and polemically against death in all its forms and is for life in all its fullness. The enemies of Jesus, such as the Herodians and Pharisees, may have had room in their theology for a God who would require someone to suffer and die - but this is not the God of Jesus. (From The Faithful Nonviolence of Jesus, by Nancy Schreck, words in bold are my emphasis)
So, she is saying that it would be against God's nature, the very core of who God is, to require someone to die (which is the thesis of substitutional atonement). She goes on to talk about an alternative reason for Jesus' death, one that flies in the face of talk of Jesus "coming to Earth for the purpose of dying for our sins", indeed, one that leaves room for God to oppose it utterly:
Jesus' life journey would end in Jerusalem, and the question arises: If Jesus knew of the escalation of violence against him, why did he go there? It was not to fulfill some mandate of death, but to be faithful to the divine mandate he struggled to fulfill all his life, that of overcoming those who promoted death, who cultivated its structures, whose allegiance to it is seen in their willingness to kill when it is to their advantage to do so.
The point here is that Jesus consistently and repeatedly shunned death, by refusing any act which reduced or demeaned or violated another human being, and more than that, chose to act in life-giving ways toward everyone he encountered, making him the embodiment of pure love. He did so even in the face of those who violated him, demeaned and reduced him, acts that we commit every day against other people, who Jesus aligns with himself, calling them "the least of these".

This seems not only plausible to me in an intellectual sense, but has the ring of truth about it in a soul sense. It sits well. It is more consistent with the God I am coming to know than the explanation I had previously been given. So reading it was yet another 'aha' moment for me on the journey away from substitutional atonement to a more authentic, genuine form of 'gospel', or good news.

This is a journey that goes on for me. I have a much better idea now than I did of where it's going, but it's a switch that has been nothing but affirming and lifegiving, and that, really, is the proof of the pudding.

Monday, May 08, 2006

being punched is good for you

Went to watch boxing yesterday. What was a devotee of nonviolence doing at a boxing tournament? Supporting a friend, actually. One of the guys from the ASWC was meant to be competing, but apparently his opponent didn't turn up. Unfortunately I only discovered this after I paid the $20 entry fee.

But I stayed and watched for a while anyway. I found it was easy to quickly lose yourself in the tactics, and let it become a kind of faceless violence, a purely strategic endeavour. It does strike me as a strange sport though - two men, who have never met before, get in the ring to beat each other up. Jerry Seinfeld does a good bit on this exact point.
To me, the problem with boxing is you have two guys having a fight that have no prior argument. Why don't they have the boxers come into the ring in little cars, drive around a bit, have an accident? They'd get out, "Didn't you see my signal?" "Look at that fender!" Then you'd see a real fight.
It was rather funny entering the Reggio Calabria Club to look for where the boxing was being held, and finding a rather elaborate and formal wedding in the main room. Upstairs people are celebrating the declaration of eternal love and fidelity, and downstairs people are punching each other up. Sensational.

But the beautifully ironic part was noticing a large, wall-size poster promoting VicHealth, which read: "Health through sport." Health through punching each others' faces in. Nice.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

leunig on television

"Television may give illusions of being personable and intelligent but it is not really; it's crude and domineering, and that's part of its popularity. For those who it processes, television is a machine like a meat grinder of souls; and what it destroys, it replaces with crude, synthetic substitutes for life and personal truth. We learn in time to applaud these imitations and shun the real thing. When you have undertaken your final surrender to the complex beauty, mystery and sadness of life, then facing a television camera, no matter how intelligent or empathetic the interviewer may be, or how well-intentioned the producer, is still a bit like facing a tank in Tiananmen Square. You may survive and walk away but the sense of brutal imbalance is what survives most."

thanks tracee

Good to see I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Friday, May 05, 2006

double standards

Like many people, I thought Kim Beasley trying to score political points off the backs of the trapped miners in Beaconsfield was a cheap shot. And the media had a field day with it; what nerve Beasley had, they moralized, how dare he?

But it occurred to me just a day or two later, as I watched Kochie and Mel hosting the Today show on location at the mine entrance, that there's a fairly large double-standard going on here. The media are capitalizing on this much, much more than Beasley did. Undoubtedly there's a market for information about the miners, but the jockeying for position and the masses of media that have descended upon tiny Beaconsfield has been nothing short of obscene. In fact, the media in Beaconsfield have become a story of their own; the scene the other day of one woman praying outside the mine entrance pleading with a scrum of at least 20 cameramen and photographers to join her praying - "they don't need our pictures, they need our prayers!" she sobbed - was stark in its utter ridiculousness.

I mean really - what necessity was there for channel 7 to send these two hosts to Beaconsfield? Isn't it just about ratings, and ratings about advertising dollars? Then how are they not capitalizing on this in a more obscene way than Beasley?

Maybe the only saving grace of them taking so long to free the miners is thatit's meant that the media have had to back off a bit, for fear of the public getting bored of the whole story.

fanny lou hamer and dying for life

I'd never heard of this woman until today, but what a remarkable story. That last quote in particular is a dead-set corker. From a Baptist Alliance site:
On March 20, 1977, inspired by members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who had come to Ruleville, Mississippi, Fanny Lou Hamer volunteered to register to vote. She was turned down, of course, because she could not explain “de facto” laws. When the owner of the plantation where she and her family lived as share croppers and where she had worked for 18 years learned what she had done, he fired her and evicted from the plantation. Undaunted and with the pluckiness that characterized her throughout her life, she said to him, “I wasn’t trying to register for you. I was trying to register for me.” She knew her life was in danger, but she was determined, she said, to become a “first-class citizen,” and she spent the rest of her life convincing “everyone she knew to do likewise.”

Her life was a saga of courage, audacity, and determination. But it was also a tragic drama of harassment, suffering, and a too-early death. Her phone was tapped. Her house was bombed. She was jailed and beaten mercilessly. When told that her friend and colleague, Medgar Evers, had been murdered, she responded, “Killing or no killing, I’m sticking with civil rights.”

She was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. She defied President Lyndon Johnson to come to Mississippi to see things for himself, “because if this is a Great Society, I’d hate to see a bad one,” she said. Fanny Lou Hamer spent her life mobilizing people at the grass-roots, all over the South, to assume responsibility for their own liberation. Her list of activities and achievement is daunting.

She helped start the national Women’s Political Caucus. She initiated Head Start programs. She founded farm co-ops. She pushed for integration in higher education. She filed successful voting rights cases. She fought for prisoners’ rights saying: “We’ve been waiting all our lives and we’re still getting killed, still getting hung, still getting beat to death. Now we’re tired of waiting.”

When warned that she was likely to be killed, Fanny Lou Hamer replied, “If I fall, I’ll fall five feet, four inches forward in the fight for freedom.”
I read an essay recently on Sojourners about Jesus' image of a grain of wheat: "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (Jn 12:24) Death can actually have a profoundly regenerative effect. How else do you explain the explosion of Christians - literally "little Christs" - after Jesus' death? While I wouldn't argue that is the only sense in which Jesus was resurrected and lives on, it's certainly one of the most powerful and inspirational senses for me. By dying, in a sense, the leader frees the followers to become leaders themselves, perpetuating the cycle.

This is how Deanna Murshed of Sojourners put it in her essay:

"Jesus replied, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life'" (12:23-25).

The version of the Bible called The Message states the last verse this way: "In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal."

The part that really struck me recently (though I've surely heard it read a hundred times) is that the dying of the grain is not for the resurrection of the seed itself - you do not die simply to be resurrected into a better you. You don't give up that bad habit or attitude, greed or grudge, simply to come out on top. (Though I suppose that's not a bad place to begin). No, the grain dies so that it can produce and reproduce life. The passage says, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it is no more than a single grain.

The answer as to why the grain needs to die is for it not to remain alone. In other words, Christ died so that he could bear more Christs and grow his reign!

Though this way of living for others seems like such a radical (re)orientation, all of creation seems to be screaming this message. Every part of the wheat is living for the spread of life, wants there to be more wheat. The most basic cycle of nature reflects the divine order.

It is simply astounding, when I think about it, that the God of creation does not live for direct self-satisfaction! The God of creation who has all power and all might is in constant submission to another purpose. And God is inviting us to follow.

Something tells me Fanny Lou Hamer's death advanced the cause of freedom more than five feet, four inches.

you *can* fight city hall

A couple of weeks back, my sister-in-law received a final notice for a parking ticket in Stanley Street, outside our house. We've been borrowing that particular car, but had left it in their name, and it's been parked outside our place, so obviously we had incurred it. We never found a ticket on the windscreen, which is why it had come to the final notice (presumably the first notice is the parking ticket, and the second notice is the final one?); probably some passer-by pulled it off. The thing was, we've had a parking permit on it the whole time, which allows us to park it there at any time for as long as we like, so the ticket should never have been issued in the first place.

So I thought it would be a simple matter to get it revoked. I immediately rang the council and told them what had happened; obviously the inspector had missed the permit. I was told that it couldn't be dealt with over the phone, so I had to write a letter, including a photocopy of the permit. It was a bit of a hassle, and they made it as difficult as possible on the phone; presumably they hope that people will just pay it anyway, but I wrote the letter that day and sent it off.

Today I got a letter back, finally, saying that they would not revoke the fine. I was gobsmacked. It's an open and shut case; I have a permit. The letter said basically that with the permit I have, I couldn't park in that place for more time than the signs indicated. I couldn't believe it - what's the point of having a permit if it doesn't entitle you to park there?

So I rang the council and asked to speak to the guy that wrote the letter. I was told he was away from his desk, but the woman asked if she could help. She gave me the runaround, asking me to explain the story and then asking me to repeat various parts of it over and over. She finally announced that no, I'd have to pay the fine because I'd already had my plea rejected in writing. Finally I convinced her to put me through to the guy who wrote the letter.

I explained the story to him (he was infinitely more helpful) and we eventually sorted out the problem. My permit had the letters B (for Brunswick) STE on it. He said the STE meant it had been issued for Stewart Street, which is our address, not Stanley Street where the car was parked (we live on the corner of the two), and the permit had therefore not been relevant. I said there was no point in my getting a permit for Stewart Street, as there are no restrictions there. He agreed there was no point. We therefore established that it was the fault of the council worker who had mistakenly issued us with a parking permit for Stewart Street instead of the Stanley St one for which we had applied. He said he'd check into it, find our application and confirm where it referred to. If we had applied for one in Stanley Street, he assured me, the fine would be withdrawn. He rang back 10 minutes later to confirm that we had indeed applied for a Stanley Street permit, and would be forwarded the correct one in the next few days. WOO HOO!

It had never occurred to me when the permit arrived originally that the BSTE(+numbers) on the permit was anything but a random permit code. Still, I now have to write another letter detailing all of this to the council, so that they have a paper trail to follow to officially withdraw the fine on their books. Terrific.

So all of this angst and hassle and frustration has been caused by one council worker writing an E instead of an A on the permit. Seriously, one letter, one VOWEL has caused me to make numerous phone calls, write two letters, and use copious amount of adrenalin.

The great thing is that after 5 parking tickets (three of which I've contested), this is the first one I've actually won. Granted, it's not a fantastic record (Councils:4, Me:1) but I finally feel like I might be able to claw my way back to level pegging, and eventually maybe even eliminate parking fines altogether. Or I could just avoid getting them in the first place I suppose...

So you can fight city hall. But only if you're persistent.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

alternative economics

This is something that is just appearing on my field of vision, largely via Ched Myers and the Bartimaeus community of which he is a part. It's not just about economic justice, it's about a whole different economy entirely; an economy of grace. Ched Myers has written a booklet about it called A Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics.

Peg Rosenkrands of the Bartimaeus community has developed a program called 'Moving Money' that essentially helps people move towards a more graceful type of economy, based on ideas like jubilee and redistributive justice. It's quite revolutionary stuff. It's actually part of a wider movement, dubbed 'Sabbath economics', a network of activists, theologians and economists.

But is it just a hopeless pipe-dream? Maybe. But then, doesn't everything about the Christian story sound like a hopeless pipe-dream?

Plus this very kind of thing has already been lived out before, and here's an example. In Arundhati Roy's interview on Enough Rope in 1994, she talked about redistributive economics. I remember being seriously impressed by this response, as to me it demonstrated an integrity that is rarely seen. Particularly the part I've highlighted in bold.
ANDREW DENTON: One of the things about winning the Booker, of course is - and all those sales - is suddenly, to use your words, you have money spewing at you, and you decided to give a lot of that away. Now, that probably is a lot harder to do than it is to say. What are the mechanics of actually giving money away?

ARUNDHATI ROY: The fact is that it's a very delicate operation to give money away, 'cause you can also destroy initiative. It's like the World Bank can come in and throw money at some, you know, joint forest management program, not realising that it's just been siphoned off by the corrupt...you know, the big fish that come to feed at the source. So it's a very, very, very delicate operation, and one that you have to do politically and carefully.

The first thing is that I understand that for one person to be rewarded with money in the way that I am, for whatever it is that I've done, whether it's a book or whatever it is, it's somehow a manifestation of there being something very wrong with the world. You can't, you know...nobody deserves to have so much when so many have so little. So the first thing is to see it as a political thing. You know, not as your money, but as something that is there as a political thing, and then see how to use it, you know, carefully and slowly and quietly, without making a song and dance about it. And I have seen it damage, you know, movements and people and initiatives. So you've just got to be very careful about it. I think that's the fundamental thing. And also, always at the scale of operations in that place, you know? So if you go somewhere and you see that, OK, look, this is a great group of people doing wonderful work. It would be great for them to have a computer or it would be great if they could just pay their activists a little bit of money every month just to keep, you know, ends...to make ends meet, and things like that.

So, you know, A, you can't do it alone - you've got to do it with a group of people and you have to do it with people who have the same political commitment and understanding. And you have to also understand that to receive for people is as careful a thing as to give.
I really liked the acknowledgment there that being given so much money for writing a book (and we could all say our own occupations here, compared to someone in the world who has much less despite working their tails off) is actually a sign of something fundamentally wrong with the world. It goes back to the idea of entitlement that I've been wrestling with over at inspiralblog - that when we shed that sense of entitlement to all we have as First World people, we see how fundamentally unfair it is that we have so much when others have so little.

It's something I need to think more about and work out, because it seems to me that this is the most central form of justice in our society, a society that revolves around money and economics. And if there's a viable alternative, well, it just seems to me that we can't just ignore it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

values education in Australian schools

I've been researching education department curriculums and policies to see whether some nonviolence peace training could fit in with existing education outcomes, and came across this. It's from the Department of Education, Science and Training website, and it's the outline of the values taught in the values curriculum - essentially what the government thinks should be taught in terms of Australian values. Surprisingly, there's little overt mention of Simpson and his donkey...although that image does form the background of every page, so maybe it's intended to be subliminal. What seems ironic to me is that many of these stated values are precisely the values that this current government seems to be continually eroding.
Nine Values for Australian Schooling
1. Care and Compassion
Care for self and others [as long as it doesn't cost the economy]
2. Doing Your Best
Seek to accomplish something worthy and admirable, try hard, pursue excellence
3. Fair Go
Pursue and protect the common good where all people are treated fairly for a just society [all wealthy, white, middle-aged males, that is.]
4. Freedom
Enjoy all the rights and privileges of Australian citizenship free from unnecessary
interference or control, and stand up for the rights of others
[Ah, 'unnecessary' is such a slippery word, isn't it? No more free speech of course, but that interference is necessary to protect us from terrorists, or some such.]
5. Honesty and Trustworthiness
Be honest, sincere and seek the truth.
[Yes, be honest, so we don't need to outsource you to Saudi Arabia to be tortured. And just forget that last part about seeking the truth...it's not out there after all.]
6. Integrity
Act in accordance with principles of moral and ethical conduct, ensure consistency
between words and deeds
[This would be hilarious if it weren't so sad.]
7. Respect
Treat others with consideration and regard, respect another person’s point of view [unless they disagree with us, in which case, deport them.]
8. Responsibility
Be accountable for one’s own actions, resolve differences in constructive, non-violent and peaceful ways, contribute to society and to civic life, take care of the environment [This one I guess gives me some hope that there is a space in the stated government-sanctioned curriculum for nonviolence training, but somehow methinks that what they meant here is something like "don't rock the boat".]
9. Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion
Be aware of others and their cultures, accept diversity within a democratic society [especially when diversity means the entire Shakespeare canon...and except when it comes to the burqua, or other 'strange' customs], being included and including others.
Ok, so I admit I'm feeling unnecessarily cynical today. But still, surely there's a fair degree of
reason to be cynical about a government who advocates that such values be taught in schools while simultaneously trampling all over them in their actions.

The wonderful thing about the purported 'openness' and 'fairness' of this policy though, is that I potentially have all the more room to teach subversive ideas like self-giving love, empowered peace and principled nonviolence...

the god of small things

This is quite an extraordinary piece of literature. I say 'literature' because this is not just a novel or a book. Almost anyone can write a book; literature is much more elusive.

I came across Arundhati Roy in an interview with Andrew Denton in 2004. I was impressed with her activism, her integrity, her grace, and her way with words (not necessarily in that order), so I bought and read The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, a collection of anti-globalisation essays she had written.

The God of Small Things is her first and only novel, and it won her the Booker in 1997. It is partly autobiographical, with the character of Rahel apparently being based on her (though Roy is not a twin), and many of the scenes and places in the book reflecting those of her own childhood. Writing it took five years of her life, during which she barely spoke to anyone about it, emerging at the other end with no idea whether it was even intelligible to anyone but her.

It has an aesthetic unlike any other book I've read, and not only in terms of the words it uses, or even the way it uses them. It tells the story not in linear fashion, but unravelled gently like a frail old woman with a ball of wool. Or rather, ravelled. Constructed, carefully, but not primarily in a functional way; instead it grows and fills out in beautiful sections or layers, like a jigsaw puzzle made of words. To say she has a way with words would be an understatement. She uses them in such a way that you are left with the smell or taste or vision lingering on your senses, even though in a literal sense she has barely described the thing at all. Here's a sample (which contains a number of self-references, but gives an idea of the prose):
In her stiff lace dress and her fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo, Rahel looked like an Airport Fairy with appalling taste. She was hemmed in by humid hips (as she would be once again, at a funeral in a yellow church) and grim eagerness. She had her grandfather's moth on her heart. She turned away from the screaming steel bird in the skyblue sky that had her cousin in it, and what she saw was this: red-mouthed roos with ruby smiles moved cemently across the airport floor.

Heel and toe
Heel and toe

Long flatfeet. Airport garbage in their baby bins.
Hemmed in by humid hips. Moved cemently across the airport floor. Brilliant.

I'm only halfway through the book, so I have no idea how it turns out, but this is one example of how you can enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Seriously: run, don't walk, to read this book.