What makes free speech free?


Some conservative politicians, news outlets and think tanks have, for some time, been pushing for the reform or repeal of Section 18C of the Discrimination Act. The Institute of Public Affairs, for example, haspreviously claimed that “freedom of speech in Australia is under attack” because 18C makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity.
There are a multitude of elements to this debate, well covered in various public outlets. But for me the question that takes centre stage is, “What, exactly, entails free speech?” Proponents of the repeal of 18C base their understanding of free speech entirely on negative freedom — “Nobody ought to prohibit me from saying what I wish to say.” There is, indeed, truth to this understanding of freedom. But, like most societal values, negative freedom is not a lonely island, existing as it does in relationship and tension with other values.

More importantly, we must ask ourselves what freedom actually is. Is it merely negative freedom, that is, freedom from interference or restraint? Or is freedom more than this? After all, we are not free to murder or rape. Why is that? Because deep down we understand that freedom has a positive element, namely that we are free for something. We may not agree on what precisely is the ends for which we are free, but we mostly agree that we are free for beneficial relationships with those around us, hence why the removal of the negative freedom to murder or rape is universally acknowledged in most places.

What, then, is free speech? My belief is that the understanding of free speech held by antagonists of 18C is partial at best. What is our speech free to do? What does free speech work towards? “Free speech” that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates is not free at all because its result is incongruent with any reasonable account of positive freedom in society, the freedom for social well being.

Even in a purely economic sense, anything that is “free” ought to be without cost. But “free speech” that offends, insults etc. incurs a cost to society in the form of the emotional, relational and/or other damage caused, thus revealing such speech is not “free” at all.

None of this says anything about the lawfulness or otherwise of offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating speech on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity — what I have said is purely moral and philosophical. But ought law reflect morality?

Perhaps the most distressing thing for me is the volume of politicians processing Christian faith who are also proponents of 18C’s repeal. Jesus, after all, had much to say about careless and venomous words. Not that this is a reason to make such words unlawful, since the undertones of Christendom would be dissonant. But there are no signs that such a concern forms part of the motives of those Christian brothers and sisters who seek 18C’s end.

Paul’s words to the Galatians are perhaps most appropriate here, even despite the liberty I may be taking with their context:

“For freedom Christ has set us free…” (Gal‬ ‭5:1‬a)

May we indeed live as if we have been set free for freedom, whether in our speech or whatever else.

MCA

a speech on asylum seekers and #lovemakesaway

The following is a short speech I was invited to give at a rally for asylum seekers on June 21, 2014. I was asked to represent #LoveMakesAWay, whose recent acts of civil disobedience have received national attention in Australia.

The audience was made up of people from all different backgrounds—socialists and seniors, Christians and cops, mums and militants. The rally was held in Cronulla outside the office of Scott Morrison, the Federal Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

I begin today by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Dharawal people. I pay my respects to their elders past and present. Almost all of us here today are strangers on this land—foreigners, migrants—and we must never forget this as we seek to respond to the issue of asylum seekers.

Three months ago today, eight friends and I entered the office of Scott Morrison to stage a sit-in prayer vigil. It was an act of civil disobedience, and five were arrested for trespassing. This action would unwittingly lead to the movement called Love Makes A Way. Since that first action here in Cronulla we have staged three additional sit-ins in the offices of Julie Bishop, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten, plus some additional public actions. These actions have included the arrests of high-ranking church leaders from a range of denominations.

Why would Christians, including church leaders, risk arrest? Read the rest of this entry

a prayer for those within empire

Last weekend I ran an event for TEAR Australia called “Come Out, My People!”: Learning to Journey Out of Empire. It featured, among others, my friends Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson speaking about the reality of empire in the Bible and in the world. They spoke about the need to discern God’s call to come out of empire and embody an alternative way of life.

This is a prayer I composed for the evening. It is a prayer for those of us living in the midst of empire who are trying to follow God’s call out of it. All present prayed it together, and I thought it may help others who are trying to live in God’s shalom amid the brutality of empire.

MCA

———-

Brueghel Tower of BabelCreator and Sustainer God,
we cry out to you from Babylon,
from empire built upon the land of people both like us and different to us,
from empire made possible by the murders and injustices of past and present.

We recognize that you have called us out of empire.
Out of a spirituality of domination and oppression.
Out of a story of exclusion and competition that leads to violence.
Out of the worship of false gods that demand our praise and obedience.

You have called us to be part of a radical alternative to empire.
Called to a spirituality of shalom and justice.
Called to the biblical story of embrace and welcome that leads to peace.
Called to the worship of the God that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

And you have sent us into empire, in the world.
To witness to another way of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
To transform the slave economy that violates the bodies of both rich and poor and the earth itself.
To take the time necessary in a speed-addicted world to be friends, lovers, parents, carers, gardeners, advocates and peacemakers.

Creator God, our refuge and strength,
we confess we are complicit in the evils of our age.
Breathe on us as we commit ourselves to the way of Christ individually and as a community
to live in your story for the world;
to take up the heavy cross that we cannot bear alone;
to struggle for peace and justice;
to seek fullness of life for all creation;
to pray for your kingdom come.

Amen.

Matt Anslow, July 2013

the church as alternative politic and way of life

The following is a sermon I preached in my community on Sunday 28 July, 2013. I have been asked by quite a few people to post it, so here it is.

The first two paragraphs of this written version of the sermon have replaced a much longer section in which I told my story of being hurt by the Church in greater detail. I shared this story with my community, and I feel that it should remain there. I hope the remainder of the sermon makes sense, even without this background story, and that it is helpful and challenging for people.

MCA


In some ways it is a strange thing for me to speak about the Church, particularly for those who know my story well. In recent years I have experienced a fair amount of pain at the hands of churches, not least because of my theology, but also due to personal relationships.

I do not say this to evoke sympathy. I do not want it. My story is merely a description of a part of my life, the seemingly inevitable experience of the ugly side of the Church. Indeed, my story is by no means the worst experience of the Church and many others, including some in my own community, have lived through far more terrible injustices. Such people have too often been left hurt, with deep scars and a lingering distrust of “the Church”.

So why would I want to talk about the Church? Read the rest of this entry

budgetary nihilism: a response to the deferral of foreign aid

Courtesy of the ABC: http://www.abc.net.au/reslib/201305/r1115368_13599551.jpg

Yesterday I was privileged enough to have an article of mine appear on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.

The article is entitled Budgetary nihilism: Deferring foreign aid signals a distorted moral vision. It discusses the recent budgetary decision to defer Australia’s foreign aid commitments under the Millennium Development Goals to 2017–18.

[In this decision to defer our foreign aid commitments] there is, it seems to me, no clearer indication of the nihilism that now permeates politics, for what other than political nihilism could account for the moral obstinacy of diverting foreign aid to help cover a perceived budgetary shortfall? The obscenity of this decision is only compounded when one realises that this shortfall is itself a product of the irrational rhetoric and shameless opportunism of political parties scrambling to annihilate one another and appease a shrill and self-interested minority.

On top of all this, there is the inescapable irony that Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently assumed the role of co-chair of the UN Millennium Development Goal Advocacy Group, charged with “building political will, rallying additional support, and spurring collective action to achieve the [Millenium Development Goals] by 2015.” It is unclear how a leader of our country can do this with any integrity or credibility, given the immorality of one of the world’s most prosperous countries diverting promised money away from programs for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The piece goes on to discuss an approach to the underlying ethics of foreign aid, particularly from a Christian perspective.

The article was also discussed on ABC’s Radio National Drive program (in which I am referred to as a “fiery … obscure PhD student”, which made me laugh).

The article on ABC R&E is largely an updated version of my essay from this time last year (also in response to aid deferrals in the budget) entitled Foreign aid and moral vision.

Enjoy!

MCA

Feature image: http://www.abc.net.au/news/linkableblob/4689470/data/swan-gears-up-for-budget-data.jpg
Small image: http://www.abc.net.au/reslib/201305/r1115368_13599551.jpg

a (recovering) racist’s reading of matthew 15:21–28

It’s been a while since I last blogged, I’ve been having a bit of an indefinite break. I plan to blog soon about some of the reasons for this, which is ironic I suppose.

Enjoying a moment with Rabbi Zalman Kastel.Photo by Doug Sewell

Enjoying a moment with Rabbi Zalman Kastel.
Photo by Doug Sewell

In the meantime I thought I would post an address I gave at the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand’s (AAANZ) national conference back in January this year. The theme of the conference was From Pieces to Peace: More than Just Neighbours in a Multifaith World.

My talk is titled A (Recovering) Racist’s Reading of Matthew 15:21–28. In it I explore Matthew’s story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman through the lens of Miroslav Volf’s thought on exclusion and identity as well as recent episodes in Australia’s history such as the Cronulla riots.

You can listen to the podcast of my talk here, as well as one by my friend and colleague Dave Andrews. There are also responses to the talks; a response to Dave’s talk by Nora Amath from AMARAH (Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of All Humanity) and a response to my talk by Rabbi Zalman Kastel from Together For Humanity.

I’m sure some will find these talks questionable (for any number of reasons), but I found the talks and the whole conference to be a beautiful and energising experience. If you would like to leave a question or comment please feel free.

http://www.anabaptist.asn.au/index.php?type=page&ID=3786

MCA

the jungle booklet: reflections on a trip to india

Back in October I spent 16 days travelling around India with a couple of friends/co-workers visiting some of  TEAR Australia’s partner projects. While that trip occurred a couple of months ago, I’ve been meaning to write something about it since I got back—better late than never I suppose.

Arriving at Delhi Airport is, in most respects, much like arriving at any other major airport in the Asia-Pacific. It’s big, it’s busy and it’s boiling. But what was, until the 1980s, according to one local, “a few runways and some dirt” is now a facility rivalling its cousins in Singapore, Shanghai and Sydney. In a sense the airport is a microcosm of India’s massive growth over recent decades, growth that has benefitted some but also left many behind. With a population tipped to be the largest in the world in the next decade, India is complex: it is a fast growing economy (6.5% growth in 2011-12[1]; as of October 2012 India had 61 billionaires) but it is also home to around one-third of the world’s extreme poor (those living on less than US$1.25 a day).

India is also a place of great beauty. Deserts under the sun’s glow meet lush, green jungles; ancient culture meets modern technology; a multitude of languages meet as neighbours. Stunning ancient architecture and monuments are to be found all over. India is colour personified, both in its natural beauty and in its culture. This colour is particularly striking in the clothing of India’s women—the vibrancy of the sea of saris you experience everyday is hard to describe. And the food…

The first day of our trip was spent Read the rest of this entry

christ the slain king: faithfulness in a world of effectiveness

On Sunday night I delivered the following sermon at a wonderful Uniting Church here in Sydney. I was told to speak about something that was burning on my heart.

Since I didn’t have time to memorise much of my sermon beforehand, I wrote much of it down. This means you get to read it! (Huzzah!)

Though I haven’t been able to post much lately this sermon represents some of the things I have been thinking about. I hope it challenges and comforts.

We come to the end of the year, for many of us a time of exhaustion.

For those who have done their best to walk the path of discipleship such exhaustion is compounded by the weariness of the pilgrimage more generally.

Perhaps it is providence that we find ourselves entering into the Christmas season where we join with the Magi, also suffering exhaustion after their long journey, in asking “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2)

Stained glass window at the Melkite Catholic Annunciation Cathedral in Roslindale depicting Christ the King with the regalia of a Byzantine emperor. January 2009 photo by John Stephen Dwyer, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Melkite-Christ-the-King.jpg

In fitting with this the lectionary cycle this week reflects on the theme of ‘Christ the King’ as we again celebrate his coming. For those feeling the strain of walking the road of discipleship what hope and encouragement comes from reflection on this theme? As we will see, the encouragement offered to us by Christ as king is often not what we want, though it is what we need.

What does it mean for our discipleship that Christ is king?

Colossians 1:15-20 [1]

He is the image
            of the invisible God
the firstborn of all creation
            for in him were created all things
            in heaven and earth
            things visible and invisible
            whether thrones or dominions
            whether rulers or powers
            all things have been created through him and for him

And he is before all things
            and in him all things hold together
And he is the head
            of the body, the church

He is the beginning
            the firstborn from the dead
            so that he might come to have first place in everything
                        for in him all the fullness
                        was pleased to dwell
                        and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself
                        all things
                        whether on earth or in heaven
                        by making peace through the blood of his cross

This powerful statement of the identity and meaning of Christ is well rehearsed amongst Christians, but often without much in the way of reflection on what it may have meant to Paul’s audience.

Place yourself in their world, a world colonised by images of Caesar: Read the rest of this entry

beauty and the beast: empire in the book of revelation (part 4)

Other parts of this series:

Part 1—Revelation in Context
Part 2—The Beast: Might and Power
Part 3—The Prostitute: Seduction and Luxury

Part 4—The Lamb: The Witness of the Cross

In the previous parts of this study I have discussed two of the malevolent characters in Revelation, namely the Beast and the Great Prostitute, representing on the one hand military might and violence and on the other luxury and economic exploitation respectively.

These are powerful critiques on the part of the author. But critique and challenge are not enough for faithful discipleship—we also need to embody an alternative. With this in mind, what positive model does John give us to follow? What hope do we have in the midst of a world of violence and greed?

OUT OF EMPIRE: THE LAMB AS A MODEL THEN AND NOW
We must remember that in Revelation Rome is simply the then-current manifestation of empire![1] Though John himself was not envisioning future empires, such as those in our time, the images can nonetheless be indirectly applied to them because the phenomenon of empire is, as John knew, an ongoing reality. The challenge for us is to identify empire and “come out” of it.

If we are called to come out of Empire, what does this mean exactly? What models does John give?

I want to suggest that John offers us very strong models, but unfortunately they are often unacknowledged or ignored. One of the most important images is that offered as an alternative to the powerful and monstrous Beast and the seductive and inebriating Prostitute: The Lamb in Revelation 5. Read the rest of this entry

beauty and the beast: empire in the book of revelation (part 3)

Other parts of this series:

Part 1—Revelation in Context
Part 2—The Beast: Might and Power
Part 4—The Lamb: The Witness of the Cross

Part 3—The Prostitute: Seduction and Luxury

Hans Burgkmair the Elder: ‘The Whore of Babylon’, 1523

In this, the third part of this study, I will discuss another of Revelation’s major characters, the Great Prostitute of chapter 17-18.

A PRIVILEGED MALE SPEAKING HARSHLY ABOUT A PROSTITUTE?
Now, before I begin, I must follow the wisdom of Howard-Brook and Gwyther[1] and comment on the fact that it is a privileged male from the First World who is about to talk about a prostitute.

Indeed, John’s negative use of the image of a prostitute has, in some circles, been very controversial for its patriarchal and sexist depiction. Feminist biblical scholar Tina Pippin claims the disembodiment of the Prostitute in Revelation 17:16 “points to the ultimate misogynist fantasy!”[2]
Pippin’s point is that these images can be quite dangerous, particularly in the hands of man who can exert power over the bodies of women. Howard-Brook and Gwyther point to the example of the church’s burning of women as “witches” as the consequence of taking these depictions as the “word of God”.[3]

It will not do for a male like myself to simply say that this language was a product of the time. This would be to pass over, and even excuse, the real pain, violence and degradation that many women across the world have felt because of the use and abuse of such passages. I must acknowledge this pain. My only response is to say that the images of women used by Revelation were not produced with the intent to legitimate violence against women. Faithfulness to the text requires that no reading ever contradict this intention.

Ultimately the image of the Prostitute in Revelation, though a product of a different time, is not about human women: as we shall see the image represents a city and an empire.

Revelation 17:1-14 (The Great Prostitute) Read the rest of this entry

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