Category Archives: Conflict and Nonviolence

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

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 2)

Other parts of this series:

Part 1—Revelation in Context
Part 3—The Prostitute: Seduction and Luxury
Part 4—The Lamb: The Witness of the Cross

Part 2—The Beast: Might and Power

Revelation 13:1-10 (The Beast from the Sea)

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” 

And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear:

If anyone is to be taken captive,
to captivity he goes;
if anyone is to be slain with the sword,
with the sword must he be slain.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

Who/what is the Beast? Read the rest of this entry

art & the prophetic imagination

On Saturday night here in Sydney TEAR Australia hosted the first of its Art of Resistance events. We had a really fantastic set of works, both visual and performance-based, which provided a wonderful witness to the prophetic power of art. (You can download the catalogue of works here.)

Here is a very rough text version of the short reflection I gave during the night’s proceedings:

In talking about art I don’t want to take long, since too much talking can interfere with the power of art. It’s like the story of a dancer who, having completed a dance piece, was asked what it meant. She replied that if she could explain what it meant, she would not have had to dance!

Why are we doing this? Why would an organisation like TEAR, committed to fighting poverty, bother spending time on art?

Because art is important, because art is powerful.

I think Bono said it well: Read the rest of this entry

bread and circuses: musings on the hunger games

At the recommendation of a number of people I recently took up reading the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Not that it was hard to convince me, I found the Hollywood film version of the first instalment enthralling.

Now that I have finished the series I am suffering from some form of undiagnosed psychological trauma (those who have read the books will understand). Besides that, I greatly enjoyed them (though I must admit, somewhat blasphemously, that I basically never read fiction, so what would I know?).

Many opinions that I read about the books and the film criticised its depiction, and even glorification, of violence. Indeed, the books depict an annual event called the Hunger Games in which children are set against each other in a literal arena of death, forced to gorily fight for their lives until the survivors are crowned victors; terrifying mutant creatures sting and maul and torture and decapitate people; crowds of children and whole villages are firebombed by the Capitol, that is, the ruling regime and its metropolitan capital city.

But to claim that such things glorify violence is, in my view, to miss the point. Read the rest of this entry

anzac day: what does a myth do?

As ANZAC Day comes upon us again many Australians find themselves, for a variety of reasons, in an especially reflective mood.

Last year I reflected on the myth of violence inherent in ANZAC Day, and I don’t think it necessary to tread that ground again this year. What I am thinking about in 2012 is the function that the ANZAC myth plays in Australia (not by any means a unique thought).

There has been a reasonable amount of commentary floating around that suggests ANZAC Day was and is a reinforcement of common identity in Australia. In Eureka Street on Sunday, Benedict Coleridge wrote:

By paying tribute to the Anzacs, Australians reinforce their sense of common identity: in doing so the Australian nation is imagined as a sovereign and limited community defined by certain ideals.

Arguably this focus on ideals is what makes Anzac Day so popular. Day to day political affairs and cultural and social debate is often antagonistic — democracy as a process of public argument rather than public reasoning. And in the realm of morality, modern life is defined by a plurality of moral perspectives so that it is difficult to form a moral consensus on a wide variety of issues. Anzac Day, by contrast, is an occasion for public concord and consensus — it is marked by displays of solidarity.

I can’t agree more. My recent post on political disillusionment in Australia made similar points – nihilism has so pervaded our collective life that there is no foundation on which to build a common future.

In comes ANZAC Day, a commemoration that has the potential to bind us together under a common history of struggle and sacrifice for freedom. The only problem is that this is a historically problematic conclusion. Read the rest of this entry

jason russell & #kony2012: playing the issue, not the person

Whether you are for, against or undecided on #Kony2012, no one would have expected to wake up to the news that one of the co-founders of the campaign, filmmaker Jason Russell, had been admitted to hospital for medical evaluation under odd circumstances.

The gleeful rants did not take long to fill the internet. Personal attacks against Russell in the aftermath of his breakdown are not hard to find as the wheels of social media turn, crushing anyone who falls in its midst.

Personally I find this both interesting and unfortunate. When #Kony2012 dropped I expressed my concerns about and overall disapproval of the campaign in a blog post which I eventually removed. One of the reasons for this removal was the personal attacks that I attracted, both from those I know and those I do not, for offering some considered cautions. I never made a personal attack against anybody involved with Invisible Children, and sought to stick to the actual issues involved. Unfortunately the same courtesy was not extended to me by some readers.

Of course I was by no means the only one offering critiques of #Kony2012. I was, however, disappointed by those whose critiques consisted solely of cruel personal jeers. Such critiques are not in any way relevant to the issues of #Kony2012 and reveal more about the authors than the targets. Read the rest of this entry

“what would you do if someone broke into your home…?”: responding to a common objection to nonviolence

On life.remixed I’ve often addressed questions and concerns about peace and violence. Recently I interviewed a friend and anti-war activist, Simon Moyle, and there was much in the way of fruitful (and passionate) discussion in the aftermath.

One of the most common objections to nonviolence is a question which normally goes something like, “What would you do if, say, someone broke into your home with a gun to kill your wife/partner/child?”

The challenger often uses this question as a way of demonstrating that the pacifist’s conviction about violence is inconsistent, and that the existence of violence is necessary. It is often posed in such a way that if the pacifist cannot give a satisfactory answer then violence is apparently vindicated, even in terms of warfare, despite the fact that the analogy between personal and collective violence is flawed.

Theologian John Howard Yoder suggests that the question suffers from a number of debilitating assumptions that are almost always unconscious to the challenger. Yoder posits that since there is no such thing as a self-interpreting situation we must understand the questioner’s assumptions before we can even try to answer the question. Read the rest of this entry

reflections on kony 2012

UPDATE: I have decided to put this post up again since a number of people have asked for it. I have retained my last update, found at the bottom, where I explained my reasons for removing the initial post. A fair amount of time has now passed since #Kony2012 and I would probably nuance a few of the views expressed here. Nonetheless I will refrain from changing the original post.

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any group or organisation, including my employers, unless otherwise stated.

In the past 24 hours thousands of Australians, particularly young Australians, have shown their support for Invisible Children’s newest campaign, Kony 2012.

I write this post with great trepidation for at least two reasons:

  1. Literally hundreds of people I know have shared videos on Facebook about Kony and have expressed a keen desire to support Invisible Children in this project.
  2. I work for another NGO, and any criticism I make could be seen as bitter in that light; I hope that people see this is not the case

When Invisible Children initially made its way to Australia I supported the organisation. At points I have even used The Rescue (film) in Scripture classes as a thinking point for justice issues. A number of years on, however, and I’ve learned a lot about about development and international issues. At this point I cannot support Invisible Children and Kony 2012.

I do not in any way intend this post to take away from young people speaking up for the oppressed. I hope and pray that this becomes more widespread. I know that everyone who has supported the Kony 2012 film has nothing but good intentions. But good intentions are not enough – we must also be educated on what it is that we are supporting.

Before any criticism, I would highlight some positives about IC. They have obviously used film and social media in a highly successful way, and this is admirable. Their ability to shoot high quality films and distribute them far and wide, getting their message out to the public, is amazing. Their success at highlighting issues in Uganda is worthy of praise.

Concerns

Yet I have a number of serious concerns about IC.

These are complex, and writing them all down in detail would take a long time. Fortunately others have written on this topic and I will frequently link to them rather than explain every detail.

The organisation is far from accountable and transparent. The mission to “stop Kony” is not given much in the way of explanation. Moreover there are serious questions around IC’s financials. One writer has claimed:

Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal for an issue which arguably needs action and aid, not awareness, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they lack an external audit committee.

(This quote does not mention that the IC score at Charity Navigator overall is 4 stars, which is great. Still the accountability question is significant.)

IC reports 80.5% of their funding going to programming. However, as this writer correctly argues, according to the IC 2011 financials this includes filmmaking, and other NGOs do not consider this as counting to their programming expenses, but to their fundraising expenses. Ultimately the filmmakers are passionate young people who experienced the problems first hand, but do not have the expertise in aid, development or international affairs to judge the best way to solve the problems or spend the millions of dollars they are earning.

There are also concerns about the accuracy of IC films’ portrayal of the situation in Central Africa. Militias have attempted to stop Kony many times before, but have not been successful. In the end, however, he is not the only or even main problem in Central Africa. Disease, malaria, poverty, education – these are all bigger problems. In fact it is doubtful Kony would even be a problem is there was not such widespread poverty in the regions in which he operates.

But the solution of IC is not to deal with any of these complex factors. Rather, IC sets out a very simplistic solution to Uganda’s problems – Stop Kony!

The founders of IC and filmmakers of Kony 2012. (Photo: Glenna Gordon / Scarlett Lion)

This is a noble idea, and Kony is certainly an evil person who needs to be stopped. But how will this come about? The solution seems to be both to bolster the Ugandan military and encourage more American military intervention.

It should be said that the Ugandan military is in many ways as bad as Kony. One writer says:

Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them, arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.

American military intervention is not much more desirable. Any attempt to kill Kony will result in the deaths of child soldiers who guard him. Moreover injecting more violence into the region will only perpetuate it in the long term. There is a logic that says some American-led violence now will stop Kony, put an end to the LRA and bring lasting peace. But this is far too simplistic – the problems are structural, though IC talks about them like they are superficial. Poverty is, as always, a huge factor. Killing Kony will not end the war; in fact it may cause more violence.

Despite the failure of other American military interventions this method is still trumpeted as the solution. This of course plays right into a narrative of White superiority – the Ugandans (and other Central Africans) cannot solve this problem themselves so we must intervene. The idea that the children are invisible is flawed – every Central African knows who Joseph Kony is. Indeed, he is an international war criminal. The truth is that most of us Westerners don’t know who he is. The narrative goes that if we get educated and make Kony famous then this will lead to a solution. But most of us know/knew other dictators or violent leaders; it has not necessarily led to a solution to the problems associated with them.

Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, has written:

There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.

In truth there is already peace coming to the region in question. Sure, it’s a slow process, and it will take time. But it is African-led, and this is far more likely to be long-lasting. You cannot impose peace, nor can you bring it about with more violence. One writer says:

Incredibly, there is no mention in the film or the campaign that northern Ugandans are currently enjoying the longest period of peace since the conflict began in 1986. Virtually every single northern Ugandan I spoke to during my own field research believes that there is peace in the region. While sporadic violence continues, particularly as a result of bitter land disputes, there have been no LRA attacks in years.

And:

‘Kony 2012′, quite dubiously, avoids stepping into the ‘peace-justice’ question in northern Uganda precisely because it is a world of contesting and plural views, eloquently expressed by the northern Ugandans themselves. Some reports suggest that the majority of Acholi people continue to support the amnesty process whereby LRA combatants – including senior officials – return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of ‘traditional justice’. Many continue to support the Ugandan Amnesty law because of the reality that it is their own children who constitute the LRA.

The point here is that people here in Australia (and in other Western countries) need to know what they are supporting before they sign off. If you are willing to support dubious American military intervention, and other issues I and others have raised, then all power to you.

I suspect that most people who get involved, however, have not engaged with the cause beyond a desire to see Kony stopped. This is admirable, but ultimately insufficient. In Australia we need to do more than click our computer mouse – we need to really understand what is going on in our world and act on the basis of sound judgement. Good intentions are not enough.

I hope you read this understanding that I am by no means criticising the efforts of young people to advocate for the oppressed – I myself spend my life doing this! I simply want to see us think clearly about the issues and act in a way that will actually bring an end to these very, very complex problems. If you want to stop Kony, great, but what’s the plan? Do you even know?

In the end I support stopping Kony (and any other oppressive dictator or regime), but I cannot support Kony 2012. Something is not always better than nothing.

MCA

If you are interested in reading more about this there are some fantastic blogs, some that I have already linked to:
http://visiblechildren.tumblr.com/post/18890947431/we-got-troublehttp://ericswanderings.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/invisible-children-and-joseph-kony/http://ilto.wordpress.com/2006/11/02/the-visible-problem-with-invisible-children/http://justiceinconflict.org/2012/03/07/taking-kony-2012-down-a-notch/http://securingrights.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/lets-talk-about-kony/
[UPDATE: Perhaps the best article of the lot – http://davidsangokoya.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/selling-old-newspapers-shouldnt-be-profitable-invisible-children-and-kony-2012/]
[UPDATE 2: Some more articles:
From foreignpolicy.com (http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/07/guest_post_joseph_kony_is_not_in_uganda_and_other_complicated_things):
“It would be great to get rid of Kony. He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years. But let’s get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.”
From the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/get-kony-goes-viral-questions-raised-about-charitys-social-media-blitz-20120308-1ulnk.html)
From the King’s College Blog (http://kingsofwar.org.uk/2012/03/joseph-kony-and-crowdsourced-intervention/):
“Joseph Kony deserves to be put in cuffs and dragged before the ICC. Raising the profile of the heinous nature of the guy’s crimes is awesome. The idea that popular opinion can be leveraged with viral marketing to induce foreign military intervention is really, really dangerous. It is immoral to try and sell a sanitised vision of foreign intervention that neglects the fact that people will die as a result. That goes for politicians as much as for Jason Russell.”]
[UPDATE 3: The Invisible Children team have responded to criticisms, and it is only right and fair to include that here – http://www.invisiblechildren.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/critiques.html. Good on them for wanting to do good in the world and for being so passionate. The responses do in fact answer in a small way some of the critiques that have been expressed around the web today, though some of the views I have expressed here have not yet been addressed. I’ll leave it to you to decide what you think.]

UPDATE: I have decided to remove this blog for the foreseeable future. I apologise for any inconvenience, and I wish to warmly thank those who respectfully engaged in discussion.

Up until two days ago this blog was read by people who, by my best estimate, were made up of 30-40% people I knew personally. Since posting my Kony reflections this dropped to about 3-4%.

I never really intended this blog to reach beyond people that I have met personally, and to be honest I am not particularly fond of the attention given to a blog post that does not really represent in any meaningful way what this blog is actually about. In fact I wish the things I normally write about were viewed with as much interest, because in reality they are far more dear to me.

Moreover the personal attacks I have received, along with the implicit emotional pressure, is sufficient for me to retire on this issue. I appreciate more than ever the pressure that comes on people much, much more well-known than myself. I wish that everyone would play the issue and not the person, and for most people this isn’t a problem; unfortunately for others it is not the case.

I recognise that Invisible Children has responded to a number of the critiques that have been put forth in recent days (and years). These responses are a step in the right direction, particularly in regards to questions around financial accountability – IC is not yet in an ideal position, but they are working to get there, and I welcome this effort.

My point was always to encourage people to think about what organisations/movements they support, and not to be uncritical in issues as complex and important as those related to social justice and international development. I never once set out to condemn any particular organisation, but to raise critical concerns around how we can achieve lasting justice. My concerns are ultimately around methods and outcomes. It seems that many people who have had no experience in international development assume to know what is best in regard to these complex issues – I urge people to consider listening to those who have a background in such areas.

Though I have expressed serious concerns about IC that have not yet been fully addressed, I nonetheless pray for good outcomes for their  organisation. I do ask, however, that IC supporters do not show others the same amount of condemnation that some have shown me when they decide to support one of the thousands of other organisations around the world. As a wise person said to me last night – we are all necessarily selective in who we support, why must a small but vocal minority of IC supporters condemn those who do not share their choice?

I will leave the comments section open, though I may reconsider this if things become unsavoury. Thank you to those who have supported me, and to those who have disagreed but done so in a respectful manner.

My greatest hope is that we can work together toward sustainable global justice, which is hard, long-term work. Nonetheless it is the most worthwhile cause I know of.

Peace,

MCA

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