Oh, the farmer and the greenie….

The Farmer and the Greenie Should Be Friends …. But

I am sitting in my brother’s farm ute. My brother is driving. His best dog keeps his distance from the slow-moving mob of pregnant ewes. We are taking them to a paddock where they’ll have more room for lambing. It’s a slow progress across the paddocks. It’s important not to stress these sheep: by the time their lambs are born they will need to be in top condition with the best pastures easily accessible to them.

This care for animals is not only prudent business: my brother treats the animals on his farm well for their own sakes. I know many farmers like him. Farmers in general are unlikely to be cruel to animals, or allow others to be cruel to their stock coming from their property.

Like many others over the last few years, I have become concerned about the way some animals are treated. I was too distressed to watch to the end the Four Corners program on the slaughtering of cattle in Indonesia. I worry that cattle and chickens are force-fed in smaller and smaller pens. I wish we could always buy free-range animals and eggs.

But one thing I am sure of is that farmers are not enemies to animals. Most do what they can to look after sheep, cattle, dogs, pigs and hens. I am angry at activists who call for radical changes to farming practices without investigating how the majority of farmers do things. Often activists ask people to rally around causes that are based on old or incomplete information.

Take the story on mulesing sheep. Mulesing is a drastic operation where skin is cut away from around the sheep’s backside. Before farmers mulesed, there was a high incidence of fly-strike. When flies lay maggots in sheep, the maggots eat away the flesh of the sheep while the sheep is still alive. Mulesing – with much milder consequences for the animal – reduced the rates of fly-strike considerably.

PETA and other activists groups called for the abolition of mulesing. They showed graphic pictures of a sheep’s rump after the skin had been cut. Rarely did they mention the maggots threatening the lives of sheep, and they certainly showed no gruesome pictures of half-eaten still-living sheep. The farmers could well have countered the arguments of PETA by demonstrating the benefits of mulesing. Instead, the farmers went a step further and agreed to a total ban on mulesing. An enormous research effort produced chemical mulesing.

Animals Australia tells this story with reasonable accuracy, but its concluding call to action does not follow logically from the story and is any case out-dated.

I don’t believe that a perfect solution has been worked out, but I do believe the farmers wanted the same end result as the activists.  And with their first-hand knowledge, they could be honest about the situation.

Animals Australia condemns all live sheep export and describes their investigations showing cruelty against animals in transit and in market countries. It counters industry claims to improvement; but not with detailed evidence, rather with graphic photos.

Their ethical arguments begin with the assertion that raising animals to eat is wrong in itself, and therefore any instances of cruelty, however isolated, prove the point. The reality, however, is that our society accepts the use of animals for eating. Finding enough protein for a healthy and balanced diet without meat is currently an expensive challenge.

Farmers who grow animals for meat are not acting illegally, nor are they anti-social, and to claim that all their activity is unethical is at the very least controversial, and is usually insulting. Environmental concerns may well price meat out of existence over time and we will simply be forced to find replacement protein. But we are not at that place yet. Discouraging cruelty to animals makes more common sense in the short to medium term than calling for a total ban on meat.

Animal activists come over as either unrealistic idealists or deliberately undermining the livelihood of the very farmers on whom we depend for our food.

The greenies and the farmers should be friends. Both groups are genuinely working towards a world in which there is less cruelty to animals. But polarising the debate by calling for a complete ban on meat and demonising all involved in its production and transport is unwise and unproductive. It is no wonder farmers defending live sheep exports organise their gatherings off-line away from the glare of volatile social media. Their cause is so easily hi-jacked by easy and sentimental appeal of the animal activists.

Free-Will Machines

Smart phone talking to other smart things!

Our daughter is a city girl who enjoys her gadgets – especially her smart phone. Recently she was driving towards Dunsborough getting hungry at around 11.30. She tapped the word ‘Restaurants’ into her phone, and immediately a list of Dunsborough’s best wineries and eateries appeared on the screen. One looked enticing. She tapped again, and its menu scrolled down the screen.

To those of us brought up before televisions became common place, this “connectedness” almost seems magic. There’s no denying the convenience of having so much information at your fingertips, but ethical issues raised by information technology are only just beginning to be explored.

Internet users are all becoming familiar with technologies of persuasion: when I visit Amazon to look at books, a list of books that “I might like” greets me. On Facebook, ads target me and my interests, convincing me that everyone out there shares my interests in politics and Biblical languages. Because it knows my age and sex it tries to scare me with ads about prostate cancer or entice me to meet friendly women in the area.  Because web-sites record choices and information we share about ourselves online the internet “knows” our likes and dislikes. Clever mathematical formulae called algorithms match my interests with those of corporations wanting me to buy from them.

The truth is Amazon doesn’t really care what books I like. To a large warehouse like Amazon, books are valuable only for the dollars they fetch. Contrast this with St John’s Books in Fremantle, where Shirley the manager knows me as a person, and is not only interested in what books I like. She shares a genuine interest in books. Shirley occasionally shows me a book that is quite outside my normal interests. An algorithm would never do that.

Alongside the technologies of persuasion is “the internet of things”. You may have noticed how increasingly computers are interacting directly with other computers.

The restaurant “app” my daughter uses interacts with the computers in the restaurants.  Or in large warehouses, robots scan bar-codes and move goods around based on information they have gathered about how many units have sold or shipped. The ”internet of things” changes the ways human beings make decisions: instead of a rough guess as to whether this pallet of goods should be moved, the human operator now consults the machine. Instead of asking friends or reading reviews, my daughter bases her choice of restaurant on the machine’s information.

Smart phone users are downloading dieting programs which calculate the calories they have burned in exercise, those in the cake they have just eaten, and the benefits of the salad they had for lunch. Instead of internal, instinctive decisions about what they eat or where they walk, people defer to the computer.

In the warehouse, or on the way to the restaurant, or in choosing a diet, responsibility for important decisions increasingly shifts outside human minds and hearts.

Thinkers are concerned that machines are eroding our free will by taking over aspects of our decision making.  One recent article asks, “Are we still autonomous?” Stanford University in the US advertises machines designed to change humans.

We don’t need to fear these machines. Humanity has been through the same with other powerful technologies. Imagine the changes brought about by the invention of writing 5,000 years ago – or by the printing press 500 years ago. Both changed the way humans remembered, calculated, argued and decided.  We will live through the changes that the internet of things will bring.

But I do believe we should be aware of the ways information technologies are being used to influence and persuade us, and, by being aware of their power, we can decide the extent to which our machines can tell us what to do.

First posted on Dunsborough Anglican Church web-site.

Beholding the depths

Once a week in Morning Prayer I recite the Song attributed to the three young men Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as they walked unharmed in the fiery furnace. They sing, ‘Blessed are you who behold the depths’. I’d never thought about that phrase before last Saturday. I hunted out the Greek, which is as close as we can get to the original. (The Aramaic has been lost). A literal version of the Greek is: ‘Blessed are you who look compassionately on the unfathomable.’

Behind ‘Blessed are you’ is the Aramaic and Hebrew, ‘Berakah ata’. This common opening to prayer is praise for the blessings God brings. Every time the refrain of ‘berakah ata’ rings out, it is a celebration of life, because life is the first blessing God pours out on the universe. Every time we say ‘berakah ata’, we celebrate love, God’s driving force which makes of our universe not a meaningless hell but a place of wonder and joy.

The Three then sing that God is ‘looking with favour’ (epiblepon). God holds steady God’s gaze on all God has made, and surveys it with favour. ‘It is good. It is very good,’ Genesis reminds us. God holds in high regard that which God looks upon.

And in this verse, the Three celebrate God’s compassionate regard for the ‘abyssos’, the unfathomable. Thrown into the flames of the fiery furnace Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, must have believed that they had arrived in the abyss.  The abyss was not only the place of the dead, but paradoxically it was also the bottomless container for the waters under the earth: a place of annihilation. God looks with favour even on the abyss.

God looks with favour, we would say, on black holes. God’s hands, so to speak, hold these most dangerous of phenomena, and God enjoys their power, their blackness and their oddity. God delights in the mathematical underpinnings of the black hole, and in the petite particles, quirky quarks and microscopic molecules which flit in and out of existence in the complex flux of the singularity.

From the macrocosm of dying stars to the abyssos of the inner lives of human beings: God looked with favour on (epiblepon) his handmaid, Mary.  She too knew the encouraging gaze of God on her. God looks compassionately on the depths of our selves. God embraces us – at our heart – with joy. Like the black hole, our lives are a complex of forces, many destructive and many creative, braiding together to create unique individuals. I too am a singularity, as you are. And the good news discovered by the Three in the fiery furnace is this: God is on our side, God looks on us with favour, blessed be God.

When God looks with favour, light, as John points out in his Gospel, pours in and the blackness dissolves. There is blessing even in the darkest of pits, even in the tangles of the human soul, because God gazes with love.

Black hole

Six Complaints about “Boat-People”

Asylum seekers arrive at Christmas Island

I’ve heard many complaints about boat-people in the past few weeks, no doubt fuelled by the inflammatory statements of some politicians. Here are six of those complaints with my response to them. For each of the complaints there is,  I think, an underlying and unnecessary fear. I have listed these as well because I believe that our community will not begin to resolve these issues unless we listen intently to these fears and reassure people of our safety.

Click on the link below to open a PDF file:


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

A human trinity

It’s Trinity Sunday again. I regard this feast as a tipping point in the church’s year. It’s our last chance until Advent Sunday to celebrate the life of God, God’s coming in Jesus Christ, and God’s ongoing presence in Holy Spirit. From Trinity Sunday on, we turn green and turn our attention to growing in the grace of Holy Spirit.

Trinity Sunday then marks a turn from God to humanity. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate God as Three and God as One.  We know that though God’s Threeness and Oneness may be logically incompatible, they say something important about God.

Trinity Sunday sends us back to the beginning. And for us humans, the beginning is described in Genesis 1 and 2. We humans, we are told, are made in the image of God. If God is Three and God is One, then there is also an aspect of our lives that make us a Trinity too.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
The great African Saint Augustine of Hippo taught that human beings are three in one. We are made, Augustine said, of
will, and

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures who have a past to remember. Our memories are vital to us. We often hear people say that if their house were burning down, the first thing they would rescue would be their photo albums, because ‘they contain our memories’. Our memories, we say, make us who we are.

We are also the only creatures with a sense of the future, and the knowledge that, through our  wills, we can affect the future. Our will partly determines the experiences we will have from this point on. Our will and our desires are deep parts of ourselves.

But memories can be bitter. Good times of the past can be locked up by our sinful actions. To be truly human, we need more than memories: we need love. Love will lead us to be grateful for our memories. Love will empower us to forgive and be forgiven, so that our memories will shine with goodness.

The future can be uncertain. We can be horrified that our wilful actions can turn out to be destructive. At the same time, we know how little effect our wills have on the future. We can live in fear of what is going to happen. So our will needs to be coloured by love too. Love will give us the grace to will that which is good. Love will give us the confidence to go on in faith rather than in fear.

Love is what makes us truly human. It is the jigsaw piece that fits in between our memory and our will.

In the Creed each week we make the amazing affirmation that in Jesus, God became “truly human.”.Jesus carries in him the memory of all our pasts. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has opened up for us a future that is life and not death, glory and not shame. His love, memory and will, makes him truly human too, and makes us like God, “partakers in God’s nature”.

So let us celebrate the human trinity of memory, will and love. They are a way to God.

Ted Witham

First posted at Dunsborough Anglican Church (St George’s).

The dignity of the jabiru

I saw one of these at the beach this morning. I think this type of stork is called a “jabiru”. She was almost stationary with one spidery leg held in the air ready to be replaced on the ground. She stood among sparse beach shrubs about her height in such a way that you had to search to see her even though she was in plain view. Her right eye was fixed on us humans.

The jabiru’s dignity made her appear larger than her perhaps 50 cms in height. With her left leg poised, she had all the time in the world to be herself, the monarch of her world.

Earth Hour

Our Bible begins with an extraordinary poem of praise for the Universe which God creates for us. ‘In the beginning, God created…’ For the wonders of each day, Genesis claims, ‘And it was good.’ The lines of this poem sparkle with praise for light and dark, day and night, sun and moon and stars, earth and sea, plants and animals and for humanity.

The resources God provides are there for our use, but within God’s generosity there are limits: things should be used for the purposes God intends. There are some animals and plants which should not be used by human beings: the wild things are there to signal God’s life-giving fecundity. They, like everything else in creation, lead us to praise.

We notice Genesis 1 these days because we notice the world around us for the wrong reasons. Since the beginning of the industrial era, human beings have over-used the provisions God has made for us: water, oil, arable land, have all been gobbled up in a race driven by our greed. We now face a crisis as we number seven billion souls. Can we continue to feed ourselves? Will our industries collapse as the oil begins to run out? These are sobering questions.

On this Saturday night, March 31, we are invited to turn our lights and electrical appliances off for the hour 8:30 – 9:30 p.m. to mark Earth Hour. Cities, towns and households around the world have signed up for Earth Hour. It may be that the electricity we save by switching off is token; the purpose of Earth Hour is to invite us to reflect on our use of the world’s resources.

As Christians, we can turn off lights and television and go outside to revel in the wonder of the Universe in the night sky, to praise God for the generous provision God has made, and to confess our greed in using them.

Our confession will be a true confession as we then reflect on how we can amend our usage of power, oil, water and food and live with a smaller footprint on this wonderful planet.

More information about Earth Hour is at http://www.wwf.org.au/earthhour/

Reposted from Dunsborough Anglican Parish web-site http://www.dunsboroughchurch.com/)

Changing the World – Charles Dickens

Happy 200th Birthday, Mr Dickens.

Dickens’s reach is amazing: there would be few people alive who have not read a Dickens novel or seen an adaptation for film or stage of one of his stories. The characters of Oliver Twist (‘Please, sir, I want some more’) and A Christmas Carol, Scrooge and Tiny Tim have become part of the language.

Charles Dickens was a social reformer. He believed that he could use his fiction to bring change. I was surprised when I re-read Oliver Twist recently by the anger Dickens expresses, not so much at the poverty that children (and others) experience, but by the two facts that some middle class people couldn’t care less about poverty and that others actively exploit the poor. Dickens describes the parish system with its beadles and work-houses in the most negative terms.

Dickens did not restrict his social reforming to fiction and journalism. As he became rich, he was generous to individuals, not only giving them money, but also providing ongoing personal support for them. With the fabulously wealthy Miss Coutts he founded a Home for Fallen Women to rehabilitate prostitutes and equip them for a good life in Canada or Australia.

I’m really enjoying Claire Tomalin’s new Charles Dickens: a life, which you can borrow through the public library system.

Dickens had a conventional belief in God. He probably attended church only for weddings and funerals. It would be wrong for us Christians to claim Dickens as some kind of saint: the 19th Century did produce saints who were inspired by their Christian faith to battle poverty and injustice. Charles Kingsley and Elizabeth Fry come to mind; as does Florence Nightingale, who though a highly unconventional Christian, was deeply inspired by John’s Gospel.

However, I believe as Christians we are called to work with not only other Christians in the fight against injustice, but also to work alongside others engaged in similar work. In this light, we can celebrate Charles Dickens, social reformer, as one who translated his outrage at the treatment of the vulnerable into real change. Dickens made the world a better place, and if we hear his anger now as we read his novels, his influence can continue.

The ghost of Melchizedek

At my ordination as a priest in 1975, one of my Anglo-Catholic friends gave me a card congratulating me that I was ‘a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek’. This is quite a common sentiment among the more catholic of my friends; and, as far as I can judge, for many of them, is no more than a sentimental statement that priesthood is for ever, or ‘indelible’ in the jargon of sacramental theology. And for Anglo-Catholics there is the additional frisson of belonging to an ‘order’.

I know enough Hebrew to know that the Psalmist (in 110:4) was not thinking of a religious order. ‘You are a priest forever according to the word of Melchizedek,’ is the literal translation, and in this case the Hebrew dibrati דִּ֝בְרָתִ֗י (from dabar) more likely means ‘in the manner of’, than any idea of a company or group.

But to be a priest ‘for ever’ binds one psychologically in a fascinating way. From the moment Archbishop Sambell laid his hands on my head, my identity changed. From then on, whatever else I might become, I would be always a priest. That sense of being called to communicate God to people has indeed remained with me for these 36 years.

And so has Melchizedek, that strange priest-king who appears to Abram to offer him bread and wine. (The account appears in Genesis 14:18-24). Melchizedek has been haunting my prayers, not least because I am reading through Hebrews at Morning Prayer and Melchizedek has quite a role there.

When I re-read Genesis, I am struck by how little can definitely be said about this king. His name, made up of two parts, means literally ‘my king-righteousness’. Some of the Rabbis take this to mean ‘Righteousness is my King’, and I would be proud as priest (for ever) and a human being (for ever) to take this a motto.

But other commentators differ: for them, ‘Melchi-‘ refers to the priest’s actual status as a King. He is named as King of Salem. No-one knows where this ‘Salem’ is. Is it Mount Gerizim (the sacred mountain of the Samaritans), or is it what Jerusalem, Jeru-Salem, was known as before David named it? In any case, the word ‘Salem’ is related to ‘shalom’, the peace and prosperity that we will know when God restores Israel.

So for me, a priest after the manner of Melchizedek, the second connection is with ‘peace’. I am to be one who is a catalyst for God’s peace. I am called to bring people together – with each other and with God, to be a channel of God’s peace, as that wonderful Franciscan prayer expresses it.

Righteousness, peace: these accompany the ‘ghost’ of Melchizedek, and I am glad of their company.

Melchizedek offers Abraham ‘bread and wine’. These are the common tools of my priesthood too. The Eucharistic bread and wine, and the hospitality that they symbolise, are the means by which I can live in righteousness and peace. My purpose in life is to invite people to feed on the rich generosity of God Most High.

In a striking image, the Rabbis also believed that Melchizedek brought to Abram the letter he (ה֥) which completed Abraham’s name. As a priest after the manner of this Melchizedek, I may also have the opportunity to reveal to people their true name, to complete something about their self-understanding. What an extraordinary privilege! God Most High, help me discern the letter ה֥ when I need to bring it into a person’s life.

In Psalm 110, and on my Anglo-Catholic friend’s card, I was told I was a priest ‘for ever.’ That is a wonderful affirmation. For all of us, the new identities God gives us in baptism, in ordination, in confession and reconciliation are not passing gifts: they are permanent. I rejoice in the ongoing nature of my priesthood. But the text is not as clear-cut as that. ‘For ever’, in Hebrew le-olam (לְעוֹלָ֑ם) can indeed mean ‘eternal’. But is also means ‘for the Eternal one’. I can grasp too greedily at God’s gifts. God is generous and will not revoke his gifts; but it’s not all about me and my status before God. My service as a priest is for God, le-olam, and it is God who benefits first from it.

Melchizedek sits with me in my prayer-room recalling me to the generosity of the Most High. His presence speaks to me of:

• The righteousness and peace that I receive from God and am to channel in the service of God’s people.
• The hospitality I am invited to bring to others; in some people’s lives, maybe even bring the letter that will complete their name; and
• the privilege of serving the Eternal one.

May I be grateful that the Most High calls me to be a priest for ever in the manner of Melchizedek.