Killer planes and Christians


One cheer for the Americans. It is reported that a drone aeroplane killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, Al-Qaeda’s number two. Oh, and by the way, probably six other militants were killed in the same strike.

The world is probably better off without al-Libi and his like. They plot terrorist acts against Westerners, and I have no cheers for terrorists.

But our Christian moral tradition calls this extra-judicial taking of life by its proper name. It is murder. It is a violation of the sixth commandment: “You shall not kill.” It happens that my personal Christian commitment is to non-violence, and I am against all killing including killing in war and killing by the death penalty.

But I respect those who fought in wars. I think of my grandfather and the difficulty he had in re-connecting with his children after nearly three years away on the Western front. I think of my uncle Sim, his body racked with the shakes of Parkinson’s and a fragile mind, pushed to its limits by the memory of an engagement on ‘No-Man’s Land’ between trenches.

As soldiers, they were involved in killing. But they were fighting to keep our kind of society: they wanted a free society; a society where there is due process; a society where the actions of criminals are tried before punishment is pronounced.

Killing bin Laden and killing al-Libi without a trial makes a travesty of our democratic way of life. It is the behaviour not of a true democracy, but the actions of a vigilante group.  We Christians may not agree on the specifics of these targeted strikes against individuals, but we should agree on the desire for justice and the care necessary for every human being if true justice, the justice envisaged by the prophet Isaiah is to be the real experience of our society.

Do you think it was right to kill this man? And what would you say about this to President Obama if you met him … or if you decide to write to him. (Go online to http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact, or address the envelope to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500, USA, and (from Australia) put a $2.35 stamp on it).

First posted at Dunsborough Anglican Church

No deal on debts


The most ferocious parable Jesus told was one about two debtors. The lord calls in the first of the debtors, who owed a colossal sum, and demands he pay up. He threatens to thrown the slave in prison and enslave his family. The slave begs for mercy, for time to pay. The lord has compassion on him, and gives him more than time to pay: he forgives the debt and released him.

This forgiven slave then leaves the lord’s presence and meets a fellow-slave who owes him a much smaller debt. He throttles him and demands immediate payment. The fellow-slave falls to his knees and begs for mercy. The first slave refuses to respond. When the lord finds out how the forgiven slave has behaved, he reverses his generosity and has him tortured until he repays everything he owed.

‘And so,’ concludes Jesus, ‘will my heavenly Father do to you if each of you does not forgive brother or sister from the heart.’ (Matthew 18:35)

Kenneth Bailey describes the economic back story. In each village in the Middle East a principal landowner controlled all the cropping and grazing in the village. This abu or sheikh was like a feudal lord. Every aspect of economic life in the village derived from the sheikh.

Jesus makes first a comparison between this village economy and the economy of God. The lord in the story demonstrates a generosity that goes far beyond justice when he ignores the request for time to pay, and instead releases his servant and forgives the debt. This lord is not behaving as a prudent sheikh would behave. A prudent sheikh would be generous by making a deal. This lord reveals instead the divine generosity, which gives total freedom to those who seek it.

The expectation is that those who are graced with freedom should reveal the same generosity in dealing with others. The forgiven slave in the parable acts in the opposite manner than the lord expects and so receives the worst punishment the lord can inflict on him.

But as in the challenging parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus foregrounds the absolute generosity of the lord, the sheikh of the village and not so much the behaviour of the servants. Can you imagine the sheikh of your village forgiving the debt absolutely? If so, can you imagine a little of the extraordinary generosity of the divine economy? Once you start to get this picture of God you can begin to participate in the generous economy.

Imagine if we treated our sister or brother not simply with justice, but by releasing everyone from all the claims we might make on them. Our village, our community, would be marked by a wonderful freedom and genuine intimacy one with another.

At its best, we can glimpse this divine economy at work in our church and even in other communities.

But this parable holds up a mirror to the messy world of commerce as well as God’s economy.

Jesus’ attention is caught by the differential between the first and second slaves. The first slave owed his lord ten thousand talents. My Bible notes that a talent was equal to 6,000 denarii. One talent is what a labourer could earn in 6,000 days. The debt, 10,000 times 6,000 denarii, is in the order of eight billion dollars in contemporary money. Let’s not forget that this is a parable, and there is an element of exaggeration, but even so, the money owed by this slave is tying up at least the economic operation of this village, or more. The Gross National Income of our neighbour East Timor is only 2½ billion dollars.

Jesus contrasts this figure with the debt of the other slave: 100 denarii. This is about $14,000. It is not a trifle for someone who might earn only 300 denarii a year, but it’s a possible debt. The sort of debt I know people have on the credit card or in car finance. If I owed $14,000 and was asked for immediate payment, I could make it, but with difficulty.

Note the contrast in the debt: billions to hundreds. The economy of a nation contrasted with the economy of a small household. The first slave owed six hundred thousand times what the second slave owed.

This differential rings bells: the Institute for Policy Studies says that CEO’s are paid 340 times the average worker in 2011, compared to 42-1 in 1980. (The Institute calls itself a ‘progressive think-tank’, which probably means that is to the left politically, but its figures are compelling.)

Jesus understands the economic system where the sheikh holds the life of every villager in his hands. Everything is the ultimately the sheikh’s gift, and villagers can suffer enormously under greedy or incompetent village management. But surprisingly, Jesus does not criticise the system. His fierce words are for those whose greed exploits the system whatever it is, for those who feel entitled to hundreds of thousands times more resources than his fellow-citizens.

The system, Jesus seems to say, may evolve and repair itself slowly. But whatever the system the urgent wrong to right is the exploitation by the rich of the poor.

The system itself will reward greed: what is asked of us is to express our moral outrage that people feel so entitled.

In the end, Jesus does suggest a subversion of the system: rather than make generous deals with debtors, debts should be forgiven so that no member of the community is beholden to another. The existence of power of one brother or sister over another especially through indebtedness threatens the free functioning of a just and loving community.

We are challenged to make sure that we do not have claims over other people’s lives. Are there debts we can forgive? If there are we should forgive them now. Do we hold a sense of entitlement to things that should belong to all? What does it mean that I can live modestly on $30,000 a year and over a billion of my brothers and sisters are struggling to live on less than $2 a day? How can I let go of that claim?

When the parable is held up as a mirror to the messy world of commerce, these are some of the questions that are revealed. The big question is: How do we parallel the generosity of God?

Jesus tells the parable of the two debtors

Christian power: an oxymoron?


Yesterday the residents’ association of our village held elections. There was quite a tussle over the position of Chairman of the Social Committee, with arguments about the Constitution and fights about procedure. The sub-text was reasonably easy to discern: two strong people clashing and both leading with their shadows!

This made me reflect on the nature of power in Christian communities. You can’t avoid the reality of power and it usually plays out in the dance between leader and community.

When St Benedict wrote his Rule – or re-wrote that of the Master – he envisaged the Abbot as God for the monks. They owed him total obedience and he was elected for life. His absolute power was balanced by the requirement that he act to further the needs of the community.

The Rule of St Benedict

Benedictine communities could become dysfunctional. When they did, some believed it was because of the lifelong dictatorship of the Abbot. When St Francis of Assisi in the 12th Century, some four hundred years later, came to set out his ideal community, he made sure that its leaders had limited terms. When they had finished as leader, they went back to being a little brother again. Franciscan leaders are called Ministers, and their focus is to serve their brothers and sisters. Power, for St Francis, was exercised always by giving it away.

The downside of Franciscan leadership is that it can be chaotic, and when Franciscan communities are dysfunctional, it often manifests in fights that no-one has the authority to resolve.

Roger Shutz arrived in France from Switzerland during World War 2 looking for a site near Lyon to establish a community of reconciliation. By 1945, the community at Taizé was working, with Brother Roger as its founding Prior. Leadership, for him, was that of Prior, first among equals. He was evidently aware of the shortcomings of both Benedictine and mendicant leadership, and his Rule shows a new emphasis. Not only should the Prior consult with the majority of the community, but should also pay special attention to those in the community without power: the young, the voiceless, the marginalised, and allow those voices to be celebrated and followed.

Brother Roger’s style of leadership resonates well with our era. Its downside is that it requires a great gift of discernment to hear the voice of Christ when it is not the voice of mainstream members of the Christian community.

I beleive that the heritage of Christian leadership has much to teach us. We are, we claim, the Body of Christ, and the way in which we exercise power should reflect Christ’s way of power.

Brother Roger

Firstly, Benedict teaches us power is for the community more than the individual. Francis teaches us that power becomes oppression when it is held for oneself. Roger of Taizé reminds us of the ways the Bible holds up the little one.

These styles of exercising power can be seen in parishes and all Christian communities. There are some parishes where the priest is Father, and Father knows best what is in the interest of his parish. Father initiates people in Christian faith, particularly in the sacrament of baptism, and Father prevents the nasty nature of some people from dominating the parish agenda.

Other leaders are very conscious that their time in the parish is temporary. The minister is there to coach the ministries that were there before she came and will continue after she leaves. She is an enabler, and an encourager, and above all, she models the way in which Christ gave away his power to others.

In other parishes, the smallest member is heard. Children are on worship committees, clients of the soup kitchen design the ministry for the hungry, and the majority give way to the smallest voice with grace and gratitude that in them they have heard the voice of Christ.

Of course,no parish is purely one or the other of these leadership styles. But I hold them up like this partly as a warning that each can be dysfunctional. If we know that Abbots can become dictators, Ministers can be disengaged, and Priors can so honour the voice of the little one that they desert the way of common sense.

Power can spoil any community, and understanding how it works in the Body of Christ can lead to vibrant community living.

Special privileges for churches in Australia?


The Busselton-Dunsborough Times has published my letter in response to my neighbour John Moor’s letter last Friday (which I have attached below).

Here is my letter as published:

John Moor (Letters June 10) laments the fact that churches are exempt from some rates and taxes. These exemptions date from a time when the churches provided many services to the community that governments could not. The question to ask is whether the community is still getting good value from the churches.

In Busselton, as elsewhere, the churches use their buildings to give services unavailable elsewhere. Cliff’s Kitchen, for example, at St Mary’s Church feeds several dozen needy people each week and provides friendship and support for those doing it tough. Parenting and life-skill courses are offered at many churches. The churches make meeting rooms available to self-help groups, sometimes at no charge, sometimes for a small donation.

Read the “What’s On in the Community” column in this newspaper and ask who is paying for the services offered at our churches – it will almost always be that church.

Governments acknowledge that the churches provide many helping agencies at a cost well below that which they could manage, and actively look for more ways to out-source those services.

Many Christians would also argue that just by being there churches provide spiritual solace and challenge to the community widely beyond their memberships.

By all means, demand that your politicians withdraw the churches’ exemptions, and then be prepared for the rate rises and the tax hikes as shire and governments pick up the important services churches now offer the community.

(The Rev’d) Ted Witham

Losing Our Religion?


Losing My Religion

Tom Frame, Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009

337 pages, paperback.
RRP $34.95

Tom Frame is not afraid that Australia will “lose its religion”. Not really. But he is concerned that Australian Christians will pay a high price if they do not engage in a vital conversation about belief and unbelief.

Losing my Religion has won the 2010 Christian Book of the Year prize – and deservedly so. It is not only a heartfelt plea to Christians to put energy into thinking about faith and its place in a pluralist society, but it is also a comprehensive history of the interactions between religion and the Australian community.

Dr Frame is balanced in his description of the tensions surrounding religion in the convict days on the east coast and in the lead up to the framing of the Commonwealth constitution. But where the book shines, in my opinion, is when Tom Frame teases out the contemporary scene. He takes issue with anti-theists like Richard Dawkins for their lack of respect for their opponents, but he engages with the Australian unbelievers like Philip Adams. He demonstrates respect for their view but has no fear in putting forth his own.

Dr Frame is well qualified to explore belief and unbelief. As a former bishop to the Australian forces, he has ministered at an important interface between public life and the Church. Now Director of the St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, he writes lucidly on these complex issues. He draws on some of the same materials that he used in Evolution in the Antipodes (2009), but here with different intent.

Frame teases out the thread in atheism that claims it is not a belief and therefore a guarantor of reasoned tolerance. He shows this as specious reasoning both because atheism is a belief borne out of theism and also because atheism has no monopoly on reason. The presence of religious people in secular society is therefore more likely to bring tolerance and harmony than their absence, because they can take the beliefs of others into account.

Losing My Religion will make you agree and it will make you disagree. Frame knows that keeping your religion involves being confronted by a Christ who asserts his divinity; and for all of us, believers and non-believers, when we think seriously about it, that is controversial.

Flap over Prime Minister’s ‘atheism’


A local author protested in last week’s Busselton Dunsborough Times: an atheist Prime Minister in a Christian country, he complained. My letter was one of several published this week which disagreed with that sentiment.

The original letter follows:

This was my reply