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ANZAC Day

This is from my weekly church newsletter, sent yesterday…
Tomorrow is ANZAC day, and we remember those who have served our nation in the armed services. Regardless of what we think about war and peace, and whether it is ever ok for Christians to take up arms, I believe it is right to respect those who, in good conscience, put their lives on the line for the sake of their nation. Having said that, I also know that most young people who enter the armed services have far less altruistic motives in doing so, and the reality of life in the services is usually a long way from saintly. So let’s remember that there have been occasions in which our nations young people have found themselves called upon to make supreme sacrifices – and many of them have responded with what can only be described as heroism. And let’s also reflect upon what we actually mean by heroism…

I wrote here about how our normal human fascination with power for its own sake leads us to cast our heroes in the shape of Superman, who, for all his moral qualities, is ultimately described as ‘super’ simply because of his physical power. In other words, because he’s the biggest boy in the playground. If there is no God, or if the gods are those of the pagans, then that is not only normal, but right. Nietzsche’s logic on this point is fairly compelling – though it drove him to despair. BUT believing in the God of the scriptures is to encounter a God who moderated the law of the jungle – from “If you injure me, I will kill you!” (Lamech – Genesis 4:24) to “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth – and no more than that!” (Exodus 21:24) and then the radical teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-40, directly contradicting this older law with his command to “turn the other cheek.” And then there was Jesus’ own demonstration of this different way of living; living without retaliation. Though, as he said, he could have called down “twelve legions of angels” in his defence, he was more concerned that his followers should do no violence, telling Peter to “put up your sword – those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52-53) Jesus submitted to extraordinary indignities for the sake of God’s mission – our salvation. And his life was consistent with his own teaching; he breathed forgiveness for his enemies in his dying moments.

This is not the heroic superman of our culture. He does not overcome violence with more violence, but with self-sacrifice. He trusts God to hold him, even in death, and to bring goodness out of the cruelty and senselessness of the cross. How often are we willing to trust God for justice? How often are we prepared for him to offer mercy to those who harm us – or even to offer that mercy ourselves, in his name? How often are we willing to let go of revenge – even just the satisfaction of being proved right. Paul teaches us that “we proclaim Christ – and him crucified; a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23). So it is today, too. Jesus, and his apparent ‘failure’ as messiah doesn’t look attractive to a world that worships technology and wealth and health and power. But those who enjoy these things know also that none of these things satisfies. Many are actually willing, in their quiet moments, to consider the claims of the crucified to offer a better way. We can make him available to them, not by trying to be as powerful, and wealthy, and slick as the world around us, but by living fully in the Spirit of the Jesus we follow. We can make Jesus known to our friends and neighbours by following him more nearly, loving him more dearly, and seeing him more clearly, day by day. We can make Jesus known by knowing him better ourselves. That won’t happen if we attach ourselves to the blinding, soul-sapping idols of the world.

Tomorrow we remember those who have fallen for our sake. Many of them would say to us that the hero they most tried to be like was the one who laid down his life for his friends. Not necessarily the fastest marksman or the hardest fighter. Let us remember them with honour, and let us remember – and love – our Risen Lord with great glory.

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The Human Cost of Consumerism

This video impacted on me – like a rotten egg on my Sunday morning face. I’ve lived in these cities, and met and enjoyed time with people like those featured here. I’ve seen the industrial waste dumped into the local farmer’s fish-ponds, and I’ve seen farmers turned off the land their families have been working for generations to make way for giant industrial complexes; leaving them with no option but to take new jobs for abominable wages in dangerous conditions. And, yes, I have a cell phone in my pocket.
What’s the answer? Well what about we start asking questions of the current round of ‘free’ trade talks. Because it seems to me that the ‘free’ market means the freedom of richer people to become even wealthier at the expense of poorer people.
How about we start insisting on fair trade, instead? How about we begin the long journey of changing our trade agreements, one commercial sector at a time, so that we only trade with those who offer their employees the same protections we insist upon for our own workforce?
How about we re-establish industries in NZ that have been outsourced (at great cost) to ‘cheaper’ (read ‘more easily exploited’) labour forces, and work to supply our own needs for things like electronics, and shoes, and fruit? What would it be like, if we all went back to eating food seasonally, instead of expecting to have everything available, all the time?
How about we offer favourable tariffs to enterprises that provide worker protections and benefits over and above the minimum standards (often non-existent) of their own legal setting?
Pipe dreams? Perhaps, but what are the alternatives? More of the same? More industrial deaths? More exploitation? Unceasing market ‘growth’ requiring increasing consumption of diminishing resources? More, More MORE?!
Perhaps we need to make a start on a new path. The one we’re on leads inevitably to a terrible cliff, and too many are falling by the wayside as we rush head-long to that drop. Perhaps we need to forget the ‘free’ market. We might end up with fewer consumer choices – but more real freedom. Until all are free, none are.

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Man of Steel, or Man of Flesh?

Ok, so last night I watched this year’s Superman movie by Zack Snyder.  I recognised the high-contrast desaturated look of the movie from 300, and it was mostly a big techno-romp, with a little bit of classy acting. Henry Cavill did ok in a title role that required some angst as well as a lot of heavy hitting.  I liked him better when he was wearing the beard.  Russell Crowe was pretty impassive as superman’s father, Jor-el; I felt he could have been played by a computer simulacrum – which is what he was supposed to be playing a lot of the time, so was that good acting or not? Michael Shannon as the supervillain was sufficiently nasty, while actually managing to look like a man with integrity according to his own lights.  It was great to see Laurence Fishburn doing a sterling job – even in such a cramped role.  Amy Adams as Lois Lane was competent in a forgettable role.  For my money the big awards should go to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Superman’s adoptive parents.  Decent script-writing and understated acting made for some touching scenes as they worked out their relationships with a distressed child.  And it was those relationships that gave the action movie a beating heart.

*Spoiler Alert* Don’t read the following if you don’t want to find out what happens in the movie:

Driving the big fisti-cuff/ let’s knock each other through buildings/ throw bombs at one another/ rip planets apart conflict is the decision facing superman as he has to choose between two futures; that offered by his fellow Kryptonians (the exiled leaders of a failed military coup on their now-destroyed home planet) to use the earth (and Superman’s own genetic material) as the foundation for renewing the Kryptonian race – at the expense of our entire planetary ecology.  Or to fight against his own kind in defence of the technologically and physically overmatched humans.  The flash-backs through his childhood and emergence into adulthood through his adoptive father’s death provide a coherent and believable set of motivations for Superman to reject the cruelty of the Kryptonians in favour of those who have given him shelter, understanding, wisdom, and love.  Cool.  There is very little drama in this decision-making.  We know from the outset that he’s on our side; that one of his major motivations is to protect others.  That character development almost manages to make up for the absurdities of superman’s powers (it looks like they tried to give his flying some basis in physics – but utterly failed, sorry) and the continued referencing of 9/11, a bit of LotR (Gandalf leaping from Saruman’s tower onto an eagle), a MASSIVE borrowing from the matrix as machines pluck pods of babies grown in an artificial environment, and even some Harry Potter (a blogger as the combination of Rita Skeeter and the Quibbler).  As my eldest son said, “Don’t pick at it, it makes it worse!”  Let it pass – those are minor issues.

The big issue for me is the central conflict for Superman; which isn’t actually a choice between Kryptonian planetary destruction over defending the helpless little humans, but rather the question does he positively accept his super-powers and use them to make a difference, or does he stay in hiding and lay low, so that humans won’t reject him out of fear of his differences?  Essentially, it’s the reluctant messiah complex.  And it’s framed as such.  In the early moments of the movie, Jor-el predicts that humans would see his infant son ‘as a god’.  At the turning point of the movie, immediately before he offers himself to the invaders as a ransom for the people of earth, Clark Kent seeks counsel from a young priest in a church.  As they talk, you can see over his shoulder a stained glass image of Christ kneeling in the garden of Gethsemane, praying “If it is possible let this cup pass me by – but not my will, yours be done.”  The obvious happens; Clark Kent puts on the cape, becomes Superman, and gives himself up to the evil General Zod.  He even submits to a sort of death; losing his superpowers on their spacecraft, and then hallucinating sinking into a landscape of skulls.  But he inevitably recovers, and (with some help from his ghostly Father) knocks the baddies out of existence (eventually).

So what we have here is a clearly contrived Superman-as-Jesus parallel.  I guess it helped the movie to sell well in an America where Jesus is supposed to be something of a military crusader  and his anti-violence message is derided and underplayed.  This is the key discontinuity at the heart of this movie – and perhaps at the heart of modern culture.  We want a messiah; someone to protect us from the evils that we have brought upon ourselves (no matter how much we protest that they are ‘aliens’ from ‘out there’ – we created our own enemies!)  But we want that messiah to be just like us.  Mark Driscoll, in the article linked above, has a point; the Bible is not a comfortable document for modern peace-makers.  But nor is it a comfortable document for modern war-mongers.  And at the heart of the Christian scriptures is a Jesus who most emphatically did not use violence or force against his enemies; instead he prayed for their forgiveness.  He sought their reconciliation.  He gave himself up to death (real death, not just some hallucination of it) on their behalf.  Driscoll reads the pages of Revelation as if he were one of the oppressed minority churches of Asia to whom that book was written, and who were being assured – through powerful visual metaphors – that they are on the winning side, that they will overcome evil “by the word of their testimony and by the blood of the lamb“!!!  Not by boxing their enemies through buildings and then breaking their necks.  For someone living comfortably within the most militaristic society in history, that’s just got to be a bad idea.  Driscoll is acting as an apologist for the modern incarnation of Revelation’s Beast.

Superman is the messiah as we want him; a messiah who conforms to our violence-fetish culture.  He overcomes evil through bravery, yes.  But mostly, just because he’s stronger and smarter than the other guy.  And actually, that’s just a little bit unbelievable.  What Christmas was all about was God becoming flesh, not steel.  God joining us in our suffering, so that we can join him in his perfection.  If I had to choose between messiahs, I know I’d be tempted to pick superman, oh yes!  But I hope I would choose Jesus, instead.  Because beating ourselves up all the time doesn’t actually work.  We need grace and forgiveness, not pyrotechnics.  Jesus Christ, not Clark Kent.

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Homosexuality post 2: What is Homosexuality?

What is Homosexuality?

 Simply put, homosexuals are those who primarily desire and/or form sexual relationships with people who are of the same sex as themselves. But homosexuality is not a simple concept.  Are we talking about conscious desire? Are we talking about an inborn and perhaps unconscious orientation?  Are we talking about a lifestyle?  Are we talking about a specific set of sexual behaviours?  Are we talking about a particular self-concept or identity?  Are we talking about a life-long phenomenon or do we include brief episodes in our definitions?  How do we talk about ‘homosexuality’ with any clarity?

What is the difference between attraction, action, and identity?

‘Attraction’ refers to sexual desire.  It is a psycho-biological fact, related to the functioning of our brain and the rest of our body.

‘Activity’ refers to the behaviours that we do.  As many of us know, it is possible to behave sexually without feeling much attraction, for a variety of reasons, and it is possible to feel attraction, but not act upon it, so it is important to distinguish these.

‘Identity’ refers to the sort of label we adopt; it is our self-concept and shapes how we see ourselves as individuals and in relationships with others.  This is a socio-cultural fact with important psychological results.

Throughout this paper I use the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ to denote those who consciously identify themselves as such, but usually I will talk far more cautiously about ‘homosexual attraction’, ‘activity’, and ‘Identity[1]’, without committing myself to specific concepts of homosexual ‘orientation’.  Besides the fact that the concept of homosexual orientation is neither clear-cut nor universally accepted, this is a simple recognition of the fact that people with homosexual attractions /identity /activity are very diverse, and having one of these doesn’t necessarily imply having the others.  It is quite possible to experience homosexual desires, but not participate in homosexual activity, or identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’.  Conversely, it is quite possible to identify as ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ and not feel sexual desires of any sort, or engage in any specific sexual behaviours.  Questions about how many people have same-sex erotic relationships get different answers to questions about how many people identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’[2].  Finally, we should always be careful about labelling ourselves or each other.  To describe a person with a mental illness as a ‘schizophrenic’ is to hide the human being behind an illness.  To describe a person as a ‘black’ or a ‘white’ is taking something literally skin-deep and making it definitive for our understanding that person.  Behind every prejudice[3] is a label.  Without labels, prejudice can’t exist.  As cardinal Ratzinger said, “The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.[4]

 


[1] I don’t discuss homosexual ‘lifestyle’ for two reason; one is that there is substantial overlap between those who adopt a gay identity and a gay lifestyle –both are deeply communal concepts – but also because there are different gay ‘lifestyles’ and it is beyond our scope to explore those differences here.  See (Lee, No, I’m Not in the Gay Lifestyle and Neither is Anyone Else 2012) for a useful reflection.

[2] For example, a report from the NZ Mental Health Survey by the University of Otago, interviewing 13 000 people, found that those identifying as homosexual were 0.8% of respondents.  A further 0.6 identified as bisexual, and 0.3 as ‘something else’.  However, 2% of people reported that they had been in a same-sex relationship, and a further 3% reported having experienced a same-sex encounter (Booker 2010).  These figures are similar to those of a Christchurch study (Fergusson, Horwood and Beautrais 1999) which found 2.8% of their sample (1007 people born in Christchurch) either self-identified as Gay, lesbian, or bisexual (2%), or identified as heterosexual, but had had a same-sex relationship in the past (0.8%).

[3] “Prejudice” is ‘pre’ ‘judice’ literally, ‘before law’ or ‘prior to judgement’.  In other words, it’s the judgement we make before we exercise our judgement.

[4] (Ratzinger 1994, 46)

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From Kaiapoi

I’m sitting in the office of Tracy, the community worker for Kaiapoi Baptist, and just trying to get my head around all I’ve seen and heard in the last hour or so.

Firstly, Tracy is a dynamo of passion and commitment to this community.  As we cruised around the streets of Kaiapoi and the nearby beach suburbs she poured forth an intimate insiders’ view of what has happened, what is happening, and why.  We talked about the fact that for many in Kaiapoi, the September earthquake was the major event, rather than the February one.  Much media attention is focused on February’s quake, which killed people – largely because it occurred during the day – but Tracy tells me that the nightmare really began in September.

“What was the impact of the February Quake, then?” I ask.

“Brokenness upon brokenness,” she replies.

In Kaiapoi, 20% of the homes are red-zoned.  One in every five!  We drove around through neighbourhoods that were utterly deserted.  Here and there a lone resident hanging on in a miraculously livable house – or just a stubborn person refusing to move.  For many such neighbourhoods, however, the council is having to cut off their services, and then all but the most obstinate will be forced to go, whether their home has been damaged or not.

Worse than the red-zoning of houses, however, are the land assessments; many areas have been assessed as TC3, meaning that rebuilding on that land will require stringent earthquake resistance measures.  Insurance usually only covers like for like, and so a great many can’t afford to rebuild on their own property. Again, they have to leave.  A large number of residents were retired or near retirement.  They’ve now had to use their retirement savings, or obtain new mortgages, in order to build in a new part of town.  Rents have skyrocketed, land prices in the new subdivisions have increased in value, and building materials are at a premium as demand drives prices higher and higher.  Additional price pressure comes from Christchurch residents, looking for somewhere new to live, and moving into this outlying community. With all these pressures, everybody can name friends, family and neighbours who have simply left the area, leaving social voids that echo the empty spaces along so many streets, where homes once stood and now weeds grow amongst graffiti-ed rubble.

We also drove around the new suburbs, sites of busyness as new homes pour like wet concrete over flat farmland.  Houses here have to be built to certain specifications – three-level rooflines and the like – and again the standard is often a higher one than that of the homes that the insurance companies are replacing.  So again, people are facing new mortgages at a time when they thought that they were freehold, or much larger mortgages than they thought they would ever have to endure.  People who had retired or stayed home to care for children are returning to the workforce.  People with one job are looking for a second – or third – job to make ends meet and make repayments.  Families are seeing less of each other as financial burdens increase.  Communities and neighbourhoods that were settled and pleasant places are disbanding and scattering and there is no choice in the matter.  This is a refugee situation in a first world nation.

These physical and financial impacts are merely the surface of the emotional and social impacts.  Domestic violence increased 30% following the September quake, so DV services from Rangiora relocated to Kaiapoi.  After the September quake, councils and insurance companies made plans and laid out a road-map for recovery, and things were under way when the February quake happened, and everything changed again.  People no longer feel that their life is under control, and men, especially, are reacting to this.  Nothing is stable, nothing is reliable.  Who can you trust?  How can you plan when the rules keep changing?  And post-trauma stress is real.  Tracy remembers the screams from the church child-care centre when the February quake hit children who were beginning to recover from the life-shattering event of the previous September, and the looks on the faces of parents who ran from everywhere to be with their children.  She talks about what it’s like to be a quake survivor feeling the thud and crash of demolitions going on nextIMG435 door, when every sudden noise brings back vertiginous memories of floors swaying and ground dropping and bucking and ceilings cracking, sagging, showering you with plaster, and the earth at your feet gaping open and gushing forth liquefaction like some primeval wound.  I stood amidst the mess of the aftermath, and the sheer brokenness of the homes around me was a tearing ache in my spirit.  Imagine what it must have been like in the terror of the moment.

And then, she says, you finally have a nice new home, and life seems to be going back to normal, and yet you still feel completely abnormal; filled with grief and anger and pain and anxiety, and what do you do with these feelings now?  Now that the crisis is ‘over’?  People feel guilty, she said, for still feeling bad when their neighbours might still be wrestling with insurance company intransigence, or changing council requirements, or serious injury.  So feelings get stuffed, and emerge in other ways.

And yet there is also hope.  As I type, I have in front of me a black wooden block with a big red heart painted on it, and the single word, ‘hope’.  These were gifts from the ‘Ark’ childcare centre to their community.  Psalm 23.4 (look it up) is on the back.  Tracy is filled with passion and enthusiasm for her community, not just as the response of a warm and generous heart to the pain of her friends and neighbours, but also because she has seen so much of what God can and is doing for this place – especially through his people here.  Though the church, too, has suffered, it has become a centre of healing.  Unlike so many agencies that were established and funded to provide help in the days after the quake, and have since closed their doors, Kaiapoi Baptist isn’t going anywhere.  It belongs here and will continue to make a difference.  Its dinners, its film evenings for seniors (Kaiapoi has lost its movie theatre), its children’s groups and activities, its networking amongst the agencies and councils make it a strategic player for recovery.  The connections of the church to the community are personal, prophetic, and powerful.  They don’t just speak hope, they are that hope in the lives of so many.

How does that work?  That’s for the next post…

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Preaching Politics

Tucked into the monthly NZ Baptist newspaper there is often advertising material of some form.  This month, the insert was from the Family First organization, showing how individual MPs voted on a number of issues that Family First have identified as significant.  Normally I ignore the advertising – it’s just a way for our editors to pay for the paper.  This time we removed the inserts from each paper and they are now sitting in a pile with the other Christian promotional materials on the table by the door.  Why?  Because we hand out the NZ Baptist newspapers at the door, actively promoting them.  But I will not promote a particular political viewpoint as ‘The Baptist’ viewpoint in the church.  The information supplied is interesting and relevant – but it is only one point of view.  There are others.  I don’t mind making this point of view available, but it doesn’t get a privileged position. 

So does that mean that the church is ‘neutral’ in its politics?  Does that mean that we don’t have anything to say about specific policies and the parties that promote them?  No!  We are called to be salt and light.  We are meant to make a difference, and there is no part of human life that is off limits to the Kingdom of God.  Not family life, not business, not politics.  But nor are we allowed to identify ourselves too closely with any particular political party.  Individual Christians can, do, and should, become involved with political parties across the spectrum to work for the kingdom, but this church will not align itself to any particular party, nor will we pretend that any issue can be reduced to a simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ response.  We want to encourage everyone to consider the issues carefully, and then to act according to your conscience before God.  Let’s take our political responsibilities seriously, prayerfully, and respectfully.

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Anzac Day

Tomorrow, beginning with Dawn Parades, New Zealanders will demonstrate for half a day that we can, after all, tolerate religion in our lives.  We’ll stand in silence, we’ll mumble the words to old hymns, we’ll bow our heads respectfully while someone in a robe prays.  There will be speeches and some terrible poetry.  We’ll be moved by memory.  We’ll meet across the generations.  We’ll be glad we were there. 

Anzac day is a national day of remembering sacrifice.  It honours bravery and camaraderie and the belief that some things are, in fact, precious enough to die for.  It’s more popular now than ever.  I suspect that it’s popular because so many of the qualities it stands for are absent from our lives.  We admire them, but we do not possess them.  We long to know how we, too, can be brave, sacrificial, and united in comradeship in an earnest struggle for something a little more meaningful than a down-payment on an LCD TV.

For those who can openly acknowledge that desire, Christ offers fulfilment.  Not only does he set the pattern of self-sacrifice, he then comes to us and empowers us to join with him – in a camaraderie that can include anyone – in making that sacrifice effective in a world that desperately needs the light he holds out.

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