The Safety of Religion

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I have come to the conclusion that religion is all about safety.

I read a link, posted on my FB timeline, written by a church pastor, who claimed that some contemporary types of worship were more like pagan worship than Christian.

Even before I read the post, I was questioning just what ‘Christian worship’ was. The writer of the post went on to outline four detrimental consequences from expecting to connect with God through music.

For the record, I think you can connect with God in lots of ways – music, reading the Bible, talking to people, being outside, watching a sunset or a baby or animals, or through art or poetry, or through meditation.

What this writer was attempting to do was to assert that his way of looking at religious life was the right way, and ultimately the safe way, the way to stay on ‘the straight and narrow.’

And that’s what we like as human beings. We like to have boundaries, we like to know where we’re going, we like to know that others think the same as we do. And we like to tell others that they’re wrong and we’re right.

Now…I’m just not convinced that this is what Jesus offered when he called those first fishermen to follow him. He just said ‘follow me.’ He didn’t say, ‘follow this teaching’. He didn’t say, ‘come and I’ll give you a life that is secure and safe.’

He called those men to just follow him. And where he went was not safe, nor easy, nor secure.

He was a wandering rabbi, supported by friends and some wealthy women. He challenged the religious norms of his day, and made enemies of people who wanted the status quo maintained, because they had a vested interest in it. His challenge of what was ‘doctrinally right’ ended in his death.

So, when a pastor, no matter what ‘brand’, is critical of another ‘brand’ of Christianity, I have to question what it is that this person has to lose by acknowledging that there may be different ways of looking at faith, and what they have to gain by asserting that their way is ‘right.’

Religion is about staying safe – having the ‘right’ doctrine, saying the ‘right’ words, living the ‘right’ life.

The only problem is that Jesus did not have the ‘right’ doctrine by his contemporaries’ standards – in fact he challenged it every chance he got. Jesus didn’t say the ‘right’ words – much of what he spoke to the religious elite angered them. Jesus didn’t even live the ‘right’ life – he hung around with the socially outcast and didn’t follow all the religious cleanliness guidelines.

So I’m putting out there – I will not live a ‘right’ life, or have the ‘right’ doctrines, or say the ‘right’ words.

But I will follow Jesus to the best of my ability. I will be as true as I can to the person God has made me to be.

And I will live my life outside the safety of religion.

Because religion doesn’t really offer me anything of value.

But Jesus sure does!

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In the baby lies the man

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In the baby lies the man, in the child my God has come
The one who made the heavens, the one who’s called ‘I Am’
Lies not in great estate, just a babe upon the hay
The angels sang his story, the shepherds came to stay
The God of angel armies, the king of heavens high
The one who made and called me, now in a manger lies

I don’t understand this greatness, cannot fathom this vast love
I cannot see how God could come and be like one of us
But this is what he chose to do, this was his only plan
To give himself completely, as a human fragile man
The God who made all things, all things would now bestow
As he lay in helpless babyhood in a manger far below

I do not get his reasoning or comprehend his plans
Or why he’d make his home with woman and with man
The God who loves, whose bigness, fills everything that lives
The God who’s joined me to his life, who loves and who forgives
This is the God who came that night, this is the God who lay
A helpless crying baby, in a manger full of hay

The one whom I have come to know, the God who’s not contained
The God beyond my reasoning, who my life maintains
To say I’m thankful for this gift are words too few, too small
But words, my life, are what I have, so to him I give it all
God, I love you with my heart, I love you with my mind
I love you with my body’s strength, my all in you I find

The Lucky Country

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You know the saying, “What goes around, comes around”?

Wiktionary defines this as “A person’s actions, whether good or bad, will often have consequences for that person.”

Let me apply this notion to a commonly expressed sentiment concerning migrants to Australia.

There is much presented, especially in social media, that runs along these lines: “If you want to live in our country then speak our language and follow our customs.” John Howard, among others, is purported to have expressed such thoughts in the quite recent past, and many agree with him.

However, to gain a bit of perspective, let’s take a trip back two hundred years to when white Anglo-Saxons arrived in Australia. Did these new arrivals to Terra Australis show any appreciation or concern for those who already lived in the land? Was there a concerted attempt to learn indigenous customs or language, or adapt to their prevailing way of life?

Short answer? None.

Admittedly some settlers attempted to learn some of the many languages and tried to appreciate the indigenous way of life, but this was extremely rare. Generally, with colonizing arrogance, white settlers killed indigenous people, separated them from their families and land, and expected them to assimilate to white ways of doing life.

Two centuries later, descendants of those first white settlers are appalled that migrants bring their faith, language and culture to Australia and refuse to give it up.

Hmmm, sounds familiar!

White Aussies—myself included—can be thankful that we’re not herded into settlements or separated from all we hold dear, as indigenous Australians were in the early days of white settlement.

It’s time that white Australians took a long hard look at our past behaviour and attitudes, and realise that what is happening with migration to Australia in the 21st century is minor by comparison to the atrocities our forebears committed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

There will be some who’ll call me ‘unAustralian’. Well, to my way of thinking, speaking English or scattering “fair dinkum” or “g’day mate” throughout your speech doesn’t make you an Aussie, any more than wearing an Akubra or draping yourself in an Aussie flag does.

I reckon an Aussie is someone who is true to their mates, loves fair play, sticks up for the underdog, and values freedom and egalitarianism. These are Aussie characteristic that anyone can embrace regardless of cultural heritage, religion or language.

Before white Australians complain too much about the influx of ‘foreigners’ into ‘our’ land, we need to look again at our past with less arrogance, and humbly accept that we are experiencing what indigenous Australians have lived with for over two hundred years.

Perhaps then we can all get on with making “The Lucky Country” lucky for all who call it home.

National Identity

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The ship’s hold was dark, its smells vile. They had been there for months; so many had died.
Convicts in shackles—men, women and children—stumble up the ladder and into small wooden boats.
The convict settlement of Terra Australis begins.

Flat-bottomed boats struck sand. The men, in khaki and brown, splash their way ashore, dodging bullets and mortar fire.
Many fall before even reaching solid ground. Tumble and fall in the surf.
Australia comes of age on the shores of Gallipoli.

Dark-skinned men, women and children sway in the overladen boat.
The Australian Navy force them aboard orange life-rafts, turn them back to the open seas.
Australia’s borders are protected.

What is it about white Australia’s convict beginnings that we find so fascinating? Why the pride in having convict heritage?
What is it about a war that Australia only entered out of loyalty and affinity to Great Britain, that we deem to be when Australia, as a nation, was forged?

White Australia began as the off-casts and outcasts of British society.
White Australian identity was forged as we bore the brunt of the ineptitude of British commanders.
In some strange way, White Australian identity was forged and reinforced in arenas of victimhood, in situations in which we lacked control, in which we bore the consequences of the choices and decisions of others.

When white Australians look at the faces of those dark-skinned boat-people do we see ourselves? Is it their vulnerability that strikes an unconscious chord in our hearts and challenges the very identity we hold dear?
In these vulnerable people, is the fragility of our identity so challenged that we must turn them away lest we be forced to look at ourselves, lest we be forced to question the validity of our identity? Do we, in some strange way, see our own fragile beginnings, and we are confronted by it—we do not like to see ourselves this way.

I believe also that our white Australian identity is challenged by those whose own identity is strong.
Despite our best efforts, white Australia has never been able to destroy indigenous identity. Even when indigenous skin colour is almost white, indigenous identity runs deep and has never been destroyed.
The dark-skinned peoples who seek asylum in our country also have strong cultural and societal identities—and I believe white Australians are afraid of this.

We are afraid because our own identity is tenuous and fragile, forged in vulnerability and shame. I believe we are threatened and challenged by people who know who they are, whose identity is strong.

But I also believe that Australia as a nation has the opportunity to forge an identity built on the multiplicity of cultures and races that now call Australia home. It is about valuing everything and everyone who has come to this wide, brown land—by boat or plane or birth—who holds to the Australian distinctives of a fair go, egalitarianism, and looking out for your mates.

Come on Aussie—come on!

Mary meets Mohammed

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I sat through the screening of this documentary with my stomach in knots and a heavy weight on my chest. I asked myself, ‘Why did I come?’

Vicarious trauma—‘a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. Its hallmark is disrupted spirituality, or a disruption in the trauma workers’ perceived meaning and hope.’ (Wikipedia)

I sat in the darkened church hall feeling heavier and heavier.

My vicarious trauma was not connected with the actual stories of persecution that I’d heard from asylum seekers, or that I was seeing on the screen.

My vicarious trauma was associated with the way in which the Australian government was dealing with asylum seekers, with the intentional and prolonged abuse that occurs when people’s hope is taken away—i.e. because you came by boat you are:
• Illegal
• you’ll never be resettled in Australia
• even if you came to Australia before the change in policy you’ll never be able to bring your families
• we just want you to go home regardless of the danger.

How was I experiencing vicarious trauma?

I lived for years in a relationship in which passive aggressive behavior was a dominant reality. I call it ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ Nothing big or huge in any event, mostly small things, little words, neglect, withdrawal, turning away, lack of engagement.

A form of abuse.

For me, the actions of my government in dealing with asylum seekers are an underhanded intentional abuse of vulnerable people. It is persecution by policy. We are not physically beating asylum seekers detained in our on– and off–shore detention centres, nor are we subjecting them to persecution as it is commonly perceived and identified.

But the government’s continual tightening of the immigration policies, its determination to punish anyone who had the temerity to seek asylum by boat, its deterrence methods of detaining people in Nauru and Manus, are all forms of persecution of vulnerable and innocent people.

We are persecuting them by our policies.

Underhanded; sly; sleight-of-hand; passive-aggressive.

The trauma of not knowing when it will end, the trauma of not being able to fight or flee persecution because it’s not physical, the trauma of feeling a victim with no control, the sense of really being in the hands of others; this I identify with.

This is my vicarious trauma.

What do I do about this?

For myself the best I can do is recognize it, accept it and live with it.

For others, I can use my experiences, both from my marriage and from my work in off–shore detention, to raise awareness of trauma and abuse, both personal and political, to speak out and say this is what it is.

Our government cannot hide behind its ‘mandate’ for much longer. It may have had a mandate to ‘stop the boats’ but it cannot use that as an excuse for political persecution, for persecution by policy.

Abuse is abuse. Hidden or overt. Personal or political. It’s still abuse.

And it is wrong.

Dream Houses

Over the years I have repeatedly dreamt of three houses.

As a child I dreamt of an old mansion, which I would explore with an unidentified friend. We would find secret passageways and stairs that led up and down at the back of the house, which other people never found.

One of these sets of stairs brought me out onto a stage area, where I could watch what was happening on the stage from the curtain wings. But one of the most amazing features of this mansion and its secrets were the banisters on the stairs that we could slide down and appear from nowhere to the surprise of many others.

As I grew older, the same house now has a secret and beautiful suite of rooms—bedroom, dressing room, bathroom—that spread across the full width of the house on the upper floor. This area was richly appointed, with gold fittings and a sumptuous bed. It was a place of retreat for me; I could be hidden from my family. Funnily enough, I don’t recall this being a space to share with anyone else, not even my husband!

The second house, one I have dreamed of repeatedly and which is so real to me, although I realise that I have never seen it in real life, is a house in a semi-rural setting.

It is a rambling home for me and my family of boys. There were rooms that my husband and I renovated, and others that remained in their original state. Some rooms were small, and others huge.

The important rooms were the ones that took up the length of one side of the house. These rooms were long, and in different dreams were set out in dormitory style or as our main bedroom. But in all the variations of this dream house, these rooms were secret—not easily found—as they could only be discovered by going down a hall, away from the main part of the house. Again the main bedroom was a private retreat space, often with a chair, a fireplace, or billowing curtains.

The third house is in the suburbs I grew up in. The kitchen is in the centre of the house and lit by a window or skylight in the roof. The dining room is also sunlit, and on the same level as the kitchen. Off to the left of these two rooms is the sunken lounge. There are a set of stairs that run down to the lower floor, between the dining room and the lounge. The hiddenness here is in plain sight—the light streaming through the unseen skylight.

I have lived in many houses in my life and in the last three years have moved five times. Having a home of my own has always been important to me, and being able to establish a place as my home-in the environment of furnished accommodation with The Salvation Army-has been a challenge that comes more easily now.

When I was married, there were a number of years toward the end where home was not a safe place for me; it was a place of strife, the worse for being hidden strife. It was in this place that I discovered that my safe place is in God.

I know my life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3: 3) and that I’m able to dwell in the shelter of the Most High, and rest in the shadow of the Almighty (Psalm 91: 1).

Wherever I go, God is my home.

Ned Flanders: A fisher of men?

Ever wondered why the media in its many forms has what Christians may consider a caricatured version of our faith and its practices? You know, the stiff-necked religiophile who frowns at anyone having fun; or the Bible-thumping preacher who promises heaven for those who send in dollars; or the ‘do-gooder’ who expects that their voice on any ethical or moral changes is the right one. And then there’s Ned Flanders, possibly the only Christian many, many people could name (a character on The Simpsons for those who weren’t sure).

Does it make you cringe? Do you wonder why ‘they’ see ‘us’ that way? Do you find yourself saying, ‘But we’re really not like that!’

Really??

Familiar with the phrase, ‘perception is reality’? It applies in this case.
If people outside the church perceive Christians to be a certain way, then that for them is the way things really are; it is reality for them.

The question is then—what part has the church in general, and individual Christians in particular, played in the development of these perceptions?
• Prominent TV evangelists have embezzled their ministry’s funds for their own benefit.
• Church leaders have been unfaithful to their partners.
• Men in all church denominations have used their trusted positions to lead a paedophilic lifestyle that has been covered up by the church hierarchy, or have sated their sexual appetites at the expense of naïve and trusting women in their churches.

And it’s not just church leaders who have been at fault.

It may well come back to the church’s recent history, at least in the last 40-50 years, of the church not really engaging with the culture in which we live. We have, in general, been happy to live within our Christian sub-culture, with its books and music and movies, and to never venture forth in an intentional way to genuinely engage with those who don’t share our faith. And when things have got rough, and our culture has slipped from bad to worse, we’ve been happy to sit within our Christian fortresses and lob ‘faith-grenades’ at the ‘pagans’ out there. And we expect ‘them’ to listen to ‘us’ when ‘we’ do not listen to ‘them’.

The church has been its own worst enemy. And this is a not a situation in which all publicity, even the negative stuff, is good publicity. It’s no wonder that the media finds it easier to caricature the church than actually engage with it.

I really am fairly certain that this is not what Jesus called us to when he said, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’.

Islamaphobia: are we repeating our history?

A week or so ago I attended an anti-Islamophobia meeting at the Multicultural Hub in Elizabeth St Melbourne. There was a panel of 3 speakers, two from the Islamic community and the third a Greens senator. I just went to observe, to see what this particular group was doing, and because I am in favour of anything that brings people together rather than separates them.

My observations:
• Muslims are more afraid now in Australian society of backlash from other Australians than they were after 9/11.
• Muslims, especially women, are the targets of abuse based solely on their distinctly Islamic dress, be that the hijab, nijab or burqa.
• The media reports that white Australians in uniform, e.g. ADF cadets, ADF personnel, police, could be targets of attacks, and advise them not to wear their uniforms when off-duty or not at ADF school/training functions. Muslims, especially women, have no such option as their recognisable dress is what they wear all the time.
• Abuse ranges from being spat at, verbal abuse, being hemmed into a lane by another car before being abused, and physical attacks.
• Australians are under threat from other Australians. The 2 Muslim leaders who spoke were born and raised in Australia.
• There is a need for both political and practical response to Islamophobia, and the needs of refugees.
• The fears of white Australians are being privileged in both the media and politics over the fears of Muslim Australians.

It was so interesting to hear the perspectives of people who belonged to a faith group other than my own. The whole issue of the Islamicisation of western societies is one fraught with fear and division. I understand fear of terrorist organisations such as ISIL/ISIS; they are terrifying in their extremist views and behaviours. And it is appalling that young Australian-born Muslims are being brainwashed and manipulated into leaving Australia, and taking up the ISIL cause.

During WWII Australia locked up people of Japanese heritage just because of that heritage, regardless of whether they’d lived in Australia for years and years and actually posed no threat to Australia’s security. What I’m concerned about is that the genuine fear that ISIL generates in Australians is being expressed in unjust ways towards other Australians purely because of their heritage; this time their faith heritage. Just as those locked up at Cowra did not really pose a threat to Australia or its way of life, I believe that the vast majority of Muslims do not pose an actual threat to Australia’s way of life either.

This is an interesting (you have to love that word—it covers so much!) time in Australia’s history. I would hate for Australia to repeat our recent history by scapegoating a particular group because of our fears.

We do have an opportunity to do it better. I wonder if we will?

The Chronicling of Nauru: Challenges and Lessons

As I reflect on the months I spent working in detention on Nauru a number of things have crystallised.

First, the challenges.

There was a disconnect for me between the harshness of the Processing Centres and the beauty of the island. Nauru is your typical tropical island: warm clear seas, relaxed lifestyle, palm trees and friendly people. The detention centres were harsh hot environments in which people lived together very closely and in which uncertainty was the key theme.

As the months went on and government policies became more constrictive the difficulty of keeping a humanitarian outlook developed. The Salvation Army found it harder and harder to maintain its focus of compassionate care in the face of contractual obligations and government restrictions.

Being involved in a project that people disagreed with but which I felt called to was often difficult, especially when I returned home for the final time. Although the situations were qualitatively very different, I and others expressed the sense that we understood how Vietnam vets felt on returning from active duty. Even The Salvation Army seemed to just close the door as if that time and involvement had never existed.

Maintaining a balance between on-island work and home/family/friends was not easy. When I was on-island it was the centre of the universe. Returning home kept me grounded.

And finally, remembering that God has a good purpose in a very difficult situation. I have to remind myself of this now as I see our government taking harsher and more punitive measures against vulnerable people. God has a purpose and these people are not forgotten by me or by Him.

What did I learn?

First that I have an underlying racism from growing up in a largely white community. Racism is based on fear of the unfamiliar and I was confronted with my own latent racism on my very first day in Nauru. Racism exists in all human societies; we need to be aware of it, but not deny it or act on it.

Next, Australia’s isolation can breed arrogance and ignorance. So easily ‘white’ ways of doing things are seen as best. They work for us so why not for everyone else? Probably because not every culture is the same. Australians need a good dose of humility when it comes to interaction with the world. We may be the world’s largest island but we can no longer live as an island unto ourselves.

I learnt that people are people the world over. We all have the same hopes and dreams: love, friendship, fulfilling work, safety, family. Language, culture or faith does not change any of this.

Lastly I learnt that people of faith understand people of faith. It didn’t matter if I was working alongside Muslims or Hindus, that understanding of something bigger than ourselves was a common theme. In fact I had more opposition from atheist white people than I did from anyone from another faith!

My experience on Nauru was rich beyond measure. It was the most significant work I have ever done. It was confronting and challenging. It opened me up to more than I thought I was capable of doing and being.

Never regretted.

The Chronicling of Nauru: The End is Nigh!

All things eventually come to an end.

And so it was with the involvement of The Salvation Army at the Off-Shore Processing Centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

When I found out I was on respite enjoying the Christmas decorations in the city. I was having lunch at Circular Quay and nearly finished some lovely fish and chips when I flicked through Facebook and found an article stating that the Salvos contract wasn’t being renewed. I immediately rang my line manager who confirmed it, at which I promptly burst into tears! What was I going to do with my life now?? I had given my heart to this work and although I knew that I couldn’t do more than another 12 months without being burnt-out I was in no way prepared to think about any other form of work.

I returned to Nauru with a level of anxiousness as I knew there would be staff from other service providers who would gladly “rub our noses in it.” And I wasn’t disappointed, although I didn’t receive any negative comments myself; after all, I was the only “white-shirted Salvo” on the island and that carried a measure of respect. However other staff found the attitudes of some staff both confronting and down-right rude. That rotation was tricky.

Then came my final three weeks. There were changes in leadership and I experienced a certain level of deceit and what felt like betrayal when one of our island contract managers told both me and our leadership team that she wouldn’t be returning to work with any of the other service providers, and then promptly reappeared as the welfare manager for Transfield! That said, those who stepped into her shoes were capable and loyal and in the end we finished the contract with people of integrity at the helm.

I had a personal level of satisfaction in finishing. After the fire of July 2013 being able to provide a communal prayer space for the asylum seekers proved extremely difficult. Prior to the fire there had been two mosque tents, a chapel tent and provision for Hindus to have a shrine. I understood that physical space was at a premium, but as the months went on it appeared to me that DIBP was being deliberately obstructive in this regard. In the last 2 weeks some headway was finally made when the prayer spaces were approved and allocated. I felt that my concerns re obstruction were confirmed when the Transfield manager questioned the procedure for applying for these spaces and the DIBP representative said that it needed to go ahead because it was a contractual obligation for the Salvos; as such I shouldn’t have had to fight for so many months to get it approved!

However, God has his way and on my very last day the tent in the single men’s camp was operational and the tent in the families’ camp was handed over to the leaders of both the Christian and Muslim communities who both were so thankful that they could have a designated space and I left them discussing ways to make it work for both their groups.

My time was done, sooner than I wanted. My work was complete; I had done all that I could do.