Category Archives: Politics

jesus’ wilderness testing as a paradigm for christian vocation

Is it problematic that it is so often impossible to distinguish the social visions of most Christians from their political party of choice?

Over the weekend I went on retreat to heaven (i.e. Cudgee) with friends from Melbourne. One of the things that we discussed at a number of points was the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation in Matthew 4.

In this story we see Jesus, the one who was sent to change everything, being offered the apparent means to enact such change and solve many of the world’s problems – material possessions, religious power and political power. Rather than accepting such earthly power, Jesus rejects it – it is simply not the way of the kingdom of God.

Jesus instead chose a different way, a way in which people were invited into the life of God in the world, not coerced by power. This Way was not grasped by those in power, and this incomprehension continues today.

Christians are called to continue this mission, one of embodying rather than enforcing, of inviting rather than inciting, of compassion rather than control. It is the way of love.

What does this Way embodied by Christ mean for Christian engagement with modern politics, with the centre of power? Read the rest of this entry

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cover the night: #kony2012 and the challenge of activism

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.

As with my original post about #Kony2012, I write this post with a fair amount of trepidation since I learned from that episode just how emotional this topic can be. My aim here is merely to reflect on what we can learn from the ‘Cover the Night‘ event, not to criticise it, and I will attempt to be as sensitive as I can. For this reason I will not be commenting on the content of the Kony campaign; in any case I have done that previously.

The first thing to note is that the Cover the Night event was highly successful, at least in relation to Invisible Children’s initial expectations prior to the release of Kony 2012.

These expectations included that half a million people would watch Kony 2012. However given that the video became the most successful social media campaign to date, with over 100 million views, the results embodied in Cover the Night were quite disappointing. In my hometown of Sydney 19,000 people clicked on ‘attending’ for the Cover the Night Facebook event, though one report claims only 25 or so people were present at Martin Place, the event’s main centre.

That is not to say it’s all over. The campaign has not ended just because IC’s main event has passed by; there is still the opportunity for further advocacy. However judging by the take-up rate of Cover the Night this seems unlikely.

This is not a reflection of Invisible Children so much as the current state of popular activism; Invisible Children is merely the most publicised instance of the difficulty in translating social media popularity to on-the-ground work. Indeed, many I know who shared the Kony video and criticised those offering a critique stayed home on Saturday night… This is not a problem with IC, but the state of young generations (of which I am part).

So what have we learned from this episode?

Read the rest of this entry

could donating your stuff to the poor do more harm than good?

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 last few days my Facebook Wall has been filled with links to a certain organisation which promises to match every pair of shoes bought with a pair delivered to a poor child overseas.

No doubt those beautiful people who post these links have the best of intentions, and really want to do what they can to help out those who are less fortunate.

Nonetheless we need to think clearly and critically about what kind of initiatives we support, lest we do more harm than good.

The organisation described above by no means marks a new phenomenon – lots of organisations and campaigns provide ways for people to donate goods, both new and used, to less fortunate people in situations of poverty. No doubt a child with shoes is better off than a child without them. Same goes for a shirt or school supplies. It can’t be denied that enterprises which facilitate these donations do good things.

But is the good outweighed by harmful side effects?

Sticking with the example of shoes, there are numerous issues. Perhaps the most crucial is Read the rest of this entry

show me the tribute money: a perspective on “render unto caesar”

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they senttheir disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Recently I posted about the above passage, asking people to contribute their thoughts. From that attempt I gather that people are more comfortable responding to a positive contribution than to an open-ended invitation; in this post I will attempt to oblige this preference.

As I said in my original post, the way we interpret the above passage and its parallels says a lot about our methods of reading the Bible and our understanding of the connection between the Church and civil powers, or alternatively between discipleship and citizenship.

The standard way Evangelicals read this passage, at least in my experience, is that Jesus is teaching people to pay taxes to Caesar, and thus to submit to authorities, but give themselves to God. Implicit in this reading is an assumption about the distinction between civil life and religion. This reading, very often taken for granted with no further exploration, is often backed up with a reference to Romans 13.

I have written on Romans 13 previously, and I don’t intend to explore it here. I do however intend to go beyond mere assumption in our reading of Matthew 22:15-22 (and parallels) and explore what the text might actually be saying, rather than what our ideological commitments might require. Read the rest of this entry

politics and nihilism: reflections on australia’s political disillusionment

Following the decimation of the Labor Party in the weekend’s Queensland state election there are a number of seemingly insurmountable issues to be reckoned with.

Not least is the reality that in contemporary Australia we have a problem in national politics – the population is fed up with it!

The blame is often pointed at leadership and there is no doubt that this plays a part in the problem. The latest leadership challenge between Gillard and Rudd was not fought on policy but on personality. The other side of the political spectrum is equally reproachable, mindlessly opposing almost everything that proceeds from the government and failing to provide a policy position on basically anything.

Our national leadership is unimaginative and uninspiring, a sentiment constantly repeated throughout media outlets. There seems to be a shortage of principled thinkers willing to take risks on their convictions. As Malcolm Fraser noted on Monday, the Federal Parliament is “a place … littered with apparatchiks.”

With such uninspiring leadership the population, particularly the young, become disillusioned with the political process. This is perhaps best indicated by the sharp decline in political party membership.

But to argue that all political disillusionment proceeds from uninspiring leadership is shallow, a clawing at what are ultimately symptoms in order to find a cause.

What might then be the cause? There is of course no simple answer, though I have my suspicions. 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

“the sun is squashing us”: caley’s story from kenya

Below is a story from a friend named Caley. Caley is 17 and just finished school. She also just went on a trip to Western Kenya as part of one of TEAR Australia’s Development Educations Experience Programs (DEEPs). Caley writes:

We went to learn about what effective development looks like, and to meet people whose lives have been changed by the programs that TEAR supports. One of the things many Kenyans said to me while I was there, was to tell Australians about their story when I returned. I want to do that now!

Below she recounts a story that relates to climate change and its effects on the poor in Kenya. I hope you find this story as moving and challenging as I did. (Note: this story is unedited.)

Sitting under a tree, on the dusty earth, were four Kenyan men. On a small solar powered radio they were listening to a sermon. We were on a tour of the village and we stopped to talk to them. It was the words of one of these men that changed my perceptions about climate change, and deeply convicted me about the action I need to take against it.

I did not catch the name of the eldest man under the tree. I remember his words though: “The sun is squashing us” he said. “We pray for rain and it feels like the devil replies”. Read the rest of this entry

the best ways to fight poverty – really???: a response to mark galli

The following post is a response to an article in Christianity Today entitled “The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really” by Mark Galli (editor). It is worth reading Mark’s article before launching into mine.

The Better Ways to Fight Poverty – Really: A Response to Mark Galli

In Christianity Today’s February issue Cover Story, “The Best Ways to Fight Poverty—Really“, Mark Galli offers a thought-provoking sketch of the current state of global poverty and a generous critique of action on poverty within the Church.

Galli’s insights, however, are undermined by a number of critical flaws, notably his understanding of development, global poverty trends and the intersection of eschatology and Christian and ecclesial practice. Perhaps most concerning is Galli’s interpretation of poverty and Christian action within the biblical narrative.

There is no doubting Galli’s concern for Christians to engage with the poor. “It would be foolish to stop caring for the poor,” he says, “We are not called to obey Jesus only if our efforts are guaranteed to make a difference.” To that I say, Amen.

Galli, however, goes on to suggest that such Christian engagement with the poor is meant to be personal, in the sense that it should not attempt to go beyond the level of individual charity into the realm of “national and global initiatives”. In other words, Galli does not believe it is the task of the Church to attempt to end poverty, but merely to bind the wounds of those who must endure it. Read the rest of this entry

beyond survival day: reflections on australia day 2012

This post is of the kind I dread most; a subject about which I am deeply convicted, that I find hard to form into a coherent discourse, and that I know will win me few friends.

However in light of the current subject my discomfort is jovial at best, and I would do well to remember that.

January 26 is a day of celebration for most Australians, of our history, identity and future. However in remembering our history many Australians prefer to screen out those episodes that do not paint the colonisers in a venerable light.

Aboriginal Nations (Click to Enlarge)

Exactly one year ago I wrote a post entitled Happy Invasion Day, a reminder of the fact that this land was taken from its first peoples. Since then I have come to prefer the label “Survival Day”, a commemoration of the fact that despite the recent history of this land the Aboriginal people are still here. Whatever the label, I can no longer celebrate Australia Day in the same way I have in years past; I cannot celebrate only the positive aspects our history knowing the pain and suffering of innocents on which it is built. Both must be acknowledged.

I do not wish to speak on behalf of Aboriginal people, for I am aware I have no right to do so. But I am also aware that Read the rest of this entry

the art of resistance

This post is going to be short and sweet. Actually, what I’m really after is your response.

I’ve been thinking about the place of art in resistance movements and social change, everything from the American Civil Rights Movement to the Jewish apocalypticists.

(Currently that Dewey Cox movie is on in the background, and he’s taking off Bob Dylan. It’s kind of off-putting given the present subject.)

So here’s what I’d really love your reflections on:

  1. What place does art (any kind) have in social change?
  2. What effects does/can it have? (feel free to include stories)
  3. What are your favourite expressions of resistance art?

Feel free to answer any or all of those broad questions.

If you know people who might be interested in this subject, or who could contribute to it, I would love for you to point them here. I think this could be a really interesting and rewarding conversation.

MCA

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