Friday, 19 September 2014

Some thoughts (from Australia) on the Scottish referendum

I'm beginning to write this after the polls have closed in Scotland, but before any votes have been counted.  As a person who does not live in Scotland, and who isn't aware of any Scottish ancestry (If you think I have a Scottish surname, you're spelling it wrong!), I didn't want my blog to affect the vote of anyone in Scotland.  This is a decision that the Scots need to make themselves.

I'm in two minds about the referendum.  The historian in me is excited.  I have this image of all these noted Scots worthies of past centuries (particularly those who suffered because of their Scottishness) popping champagne corks as they watch the results:  Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, Charles I, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robbie Burns.  Perhaps they'll pop the corks whichever way the referendum goes.  And, in a real way, either result will enhance the status of Scotland.  Either it will be a nation in its own right, or it will remain in the U.K. by the expression of the will of the Scottish people in 2014, rather than as a result of the actions of seventeenth-century kings or eighteenth-century politicians.

But, as a person of faith, I see something very different.  Most faiths regard nation-states with ambiguity at best.  As a Christian, I believe (as a key aspect of my faith) that all people are part of the same human community, without regard to their race, their gender, their sexuality, their language, their culture ... or the nation in which they happen to hold their citizenship.  We are all children of the same God.  (My friends of other faiths also make similar affirmations.)

For people of faith, national identity is something that is ambivalent at its best ... and destructive at its worst.  While (here in Australia), we have politicians talking about people needing to be part of something they call "Team Australia", I am convinced that the living God wants all people of faith, and all people of good will, to be part of "Team Humanity", first and foremost, well before we are part of any specialised national, religious, ethnic, racial, sectarian, or linguistic "team".

And so, I believe (as a person of faith and, I hope, as a person of good will) that our world needs fewer nations, not more.  I believe that our world needs fewer borders, not more. 

Looking back on those years in the late 1980s and early 1990s that saw the redrawing of the map of Europe, I found that the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, and the former Czechoslovakia were things that happened ... either violently in the case of the "ethnic cleansing" of Yugoslavia, ... or amicably in the case of the "velvet divorce" between the Czechs and Slovaks, ... or clumsily in the case of the old U.S.S.R.  But none of it was terribly inspiring.

What WAS inspiring was the democratic reunification of Germany.  People pulled down the Berlin Wall, sometimes with their bare hands.  People on both sides of the divide embraced each other despite their political differences.  People coming together are always far more inspiring than people dividing.  That's why people are more likely to drink champagne at a wedding reception than they are when a divorce is finalised.

As a result, I hope that the Scots have voted "No":  ultimately not because of anything to do with Scotland or with the U.K., but because our world needs more examples of communities of people saying to other communities of people "We're all in this together".

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

“Are you envious because I am generous?”: a sermon (Matthew 20:1-16)

My encounter with this passage of scripture is related to my time as an undergraduate student, at Lafayette College, in the town of Easton, in the state of Pennsylvania.  When I was a student at Lafayette, almost every day I walked past words from this passage on the front of a large classroom building.  These words were elegantly carved for all to see - in marble, and in King James English:  “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”

The student folklore during the 1970’s when I was a student was that the biblical quote was put there as a political and economic statement.  The building was constructed in the 1930’s, during the Depression, during the era of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”.   The student folklore during my time at Lafayette - and I’m not really sure how true the folklore was - was that the donor of the building to the college chose the quote as a criticism of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies and as a celebration of free-market economics at its most unrestrained.  “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”

But this, I believe, was not what Jesus was talking about in this passage.  It’s not about economic systems, whether the systems are market, command, or mixed.  This passage, if anything, turns one of the key concepts of any school of economics on its head:  the idea that every commodity - including labour - has a price, and that these prices can be set with some degree of logic and consistency.  Instead, the workers all received the same pay, even though they put in very different quantities of work, varying from 12 hours to one hour.  We may find more of Marx than of Ayn Rand in the economics of this parable; but then, if we do, the Marx is not Karl but Groucho.

Most of you are familiar with the story.  A vineyard owner hired some day labourers at the beginning of the day.  Throughout the day, he kept hiring more labourers.  In fact, the last group he hired really put in only one hour’s work.  At the end of the day, he paid them all, beginning with the ones hired last and ending with those who worked all day.  When those who worked only an hour received a full day’s pay, the others began to imagine what a fantastic bonus they’d receive.  But they, too, only received the same thing as the others:  a day’s pay.  When they grumbled, the vineyard owner replied:  “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

Or, as it says in the marble carving:  “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”

But then the vineyard owner continued with a quote that wasn’t found on the building:  “Or are you envious because I am generous?”

And I believe that these words are the key to the story:  “Are you envious because I am generous?”  If the vineyard owner is seen as a symbol of God, these words are a celebration
·        of God’s great generosity,
·        of God’s great patience,
·        of God’s great love,
extended to all people. 

Now, some religious people, particularly the more religious sort of religious people, may be uncomfortable with this image of God’s generosity being extended to all people:
·        the fervently religious and the not-so-religious ... equally,
·        the strictly moral and the not-so-moral ... equally;
but it’s a powerful image we find in this lesson.

So the exchange between the vineyard owner and the all-day workers regarding the one-hour wonders can be seen as a comment on God’s response
·        when religious people scorn those who are not-so-religious, or
·        when moral people scorn those who are not-so-moral: 
“Are you envious because I am generous?”

There are some religious people who are powerfully offended with the idea of God’s radical grace and overflowing generosity here. 
·        There are those who, it seems, resent God’s generosity. 
·        There are those who act as if their own status before God is somehow diminished if God also welcomes others who didn’t work quite so hard - or even didn’t work much at all - at their faith. 
·        There are those whose response to a more inclusive view of God’s love is somewhat like the child’s eternal battle-cry of “It’s not fair!” 

But for all people of faith - whether we gather in churches, synagogues, or mosques – God challenges us to realise that this is just the way God is:   persistently generous and radically inclusive.

And, in the midst of it all, we keep hearing God’s persistent question:  “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Jesus summed up the story by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Saturday, 13 September 2014

When "Dr. No" became "Dr. This-is-a-deal-we-can-live-with": reflections on the death of Ian Paisley

Earlier today, I learned of the death in Northern Ireland of Ian Paisley at the age of 88.  In the last few years since his retirement from politics, Mr. Paisley also held the title Lord Bannside.

For most of Mr. Paisley's career, as an "evangelical" preacher, as a far-right-wing politician (in the Northern Irish Parliament, the House of Commons, and the European Parliament), and as a "professional bigot", his impact on the wider community (of Northern Ireland, of the United Kingdom, of the European Union, and of the wider human family) was mostly negative.  Not only did he encourage high levels of sectarian bias against Roman Catholics, but he was known at times for casting a much wider net in his prejudices (even if anti-Catholicism was his specialty).

By his repeated refusals, over the years, to endorse any peace proposals for Northern Ireland that gave any significant role to the (mostly Catholic) Nationalist community, Mr. Paisley earned himself the nickname "Dr. No" among the political, religious, and media communities of both Ireland and Britain.

However, toward the end of the decade of the 2000s, a change began to appear in the attitudes of the (even then) octogenarian Paisley.  Negotiations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and between Unionist and Nationalist groups within Northern Ireland, led to some serious peace proposals, proposals that included power-sharing among the Unionist and Nationalist communities.  This time, Mr. Paisley did not reject the proposals out-of-hand.  In fact, he showed serious interest in the new proposals. 

After elections early in 2007, the new Parliament of Northern Ireland was seated, with a power-sharing executive that included Mr. Paisley as First Minister and with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein (traditionally affiliated with the IRA) as his deputy.  "Dr. No" became "Dr. This-is-a-deal-we-can-live-with".

In a real sense, the late Mr. Paisley comes across as a rather Dickensian character.  By this, I mean not just any Dickensian character, but one specific Dickensian character:  Ebenezer Scrooge.  Just as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" was the object of a remarkable transformation of his attitudes late in his life, so was Mr. Paisley. 

Obviously, the bigotry of his early life (and, indeed, of the majority of his public life) should be firmly criticised and condemned by all people of good will.  Still, let's not minimise the reality of his transformation. 

The message of Mr. Paisley's later years runs in stark contradiction of the message of an old proverb.  You can indeed teach old dogs new tricks.  And, not only that,  the "old dogs" can have real fun performing their new tricks.  (In the language of Christian faith, that's called "grace".)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

“Some good news and some bad news”: a sermon (Exodus 14:19-31)

There is a reasonably old joke based on our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. Moses is leading the Jews out of Egypt, and is standing on the shore of the sea, watching the Egyptian army beginning to gain on the people.
As Moses begins to pray he hears a voice.
“Moses, Moses, I’ve got some good news. And I’ve got some bad news.”
Moses knew the routine, so he said, “OK. Lord, give me the good news first.”
“I will split the sea, so that you and your people can cross safely to the other side, then I will cause the sea to return to its place so that the army cannot follow you.”
Moses said, “That’s really great, Lord. What’s the bad news?”
“You get to write the environmental impact statement.”
I said it was an old one.
Many of us, when we hear this lesson, think of Cecil B. DeMille’s version of this story in the film The Ten Commandments, with special effects piled upon special effects.
The reality of this story may well have been a lot less dramatic than the Cecil B. DeMille version.
Many biblical scholars today feel that the Israelites could have crossed over through a marshy, swampy area on the edge of the land and the sea. It was an area that people on foot, along with their flocks of sheep, could have crossed, even if a bit uncomfortably. It was an area where horses, chariots, and soldiers in heavy armour could easily have become bogged down.
But, you know, just as in the joke with which I began, in this story there is “some good news” and “some bad news”.  
The good news is that the group of slaves led by Moses escaped. They became a nation of free people. Their belief in a single God not only survived but spread. That is good news.
But there is also bad news in this story. There was a great loss of life among the Egyptian soldiers (not to mention their horses). The Egyptian soldiers may have been on the wrong side in this conflict, but they had little – if any – personal choice in the matter. Their horses had much less choice. There was bad news in this story as well.
It reminds me of a scene in one of Mike Myers’ films in the Austin Powers series. These were comic films made in the 1990s which were essentially spoofs of the James Bond style of spy thriller film.  Anyway, in one of these movies, there was a combat scene where a number of the henchmen of the main villain were killed. After each death, the film cut to a scene where the reaction of the henchman’s friends and family was seen, such as a scene where a friend of a henchman said to another:
“I just heard that Fred died yesterday. …. Yeah, even if he was working for an evil madman who wanted to rule the world, he was such a nice guy.”
… or a scene where a henchman’s wife said:
“I begged Charlie not to get a job as a henchman. Even if the pay was good, it was far too dangerous.”
And, as with these characters in Mike Myers’ movie, there was a similar thing going on with the Egyptian soldiers. Even if they were on the wrong side on the conflict, their deaths were still profoundly tragic.
And there is a sense of this universality whenever the Jews remember the Exodus at their annual Passover celebrations. While there is a great sense of rejoicing over the liberation of the community from slavery, there is no sense of gloating over the misfortunes of the Egyptians.
On the contrary, there is one part of the Passover meal in which the Jews remembered – with sympathy – the misfortunes of the Egyptians. As the list of plagues are read, each person dips a finger into their cup of wine, takes a drop of wine from their cup, and drips it onto the table for each of the plagues. The idea is that every person’s tragedy should be shared by all people. If our neighbour suffers – even if our neighbour positions himself as your enemy – we should respond in sympathy. And so, there was a reduction in the Passover celebration for each of the misfortunes of the Egyptians. The Passover is a celebration of liberation, and it is a celebration of universal compassion.
And, for us as Christians, we know that whenever we gather to celebrate the central act of Christian worship: the service that Christians have variously called the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, and Holy Communion; we do so in the awareness that Jesus was celebrating the Passover at the time when he gave us this sacrament. Jesus was participating in a celebration of universal compassion.
The note of universal compassion that is a mark of the Jewish Passover celebration continues into the Christian Eucharist. Both the Passover and the Eucharist remind us that all humanity is one family, sharing our joys and sharing our sorrows.
Al humanity is a single community:
  • We are one in our shared suffering.
  • We are one in our shared liberation.
Whenever we gather at Christ’s table, we know that
  • we share in the one bread,
  • we share in the one cup,
  • we are part of each other’s life,
  • we are part of the life of the whole human family.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Y'all, yunz, youse, thou, thee, and thy

English is a funny language in many ways.

One of the funniest things about English is the fact that it has the same word for the second person singular and for the second person plural.  If I say "I'm going now, and I'll see you later."  "You" can refer to one person, to two people, to ten people, or to a crowd of three hundred people.  It's still "I'm going now, and I'll see you later."

That's not the case in some other languages.  In German, for example, I'll use "du" if I'm speaking to one person, but "Sie" if I'm speaking to two or more people.  "Du" is the second person singular, and "Sie" is the second person plural.  (If you want to be painfully polite, you'll use the second person plural to speak to someone you really want to impress, but that practice is dying out.)

In English, however, "you" does double duty as both the second person singular and the second person plural.

It wasn't always like this.  "You" was once only the second person plural in the English language.   Back in the day when Shakespeare wrote his plays, when Cranmer compiled the Book of Common Prayer, and James I (James VI if you're Scottish) commissioned his scholars to produce a new translation of Scripture, the second person singular in the English language was "thou / thee / thy".  People tended to use "you" as a second person singular at times when they wanted to be very polite (with a similar feel as the "royal 'we'"), and eventually the use of "thou / thee / thy" tended to die out in most normal speech.

Today, "thou / thee / thy" is seen as specialised religious language (and, for that matter, "thou / thee / thy" is rarely used in the churches).  "Thou / thee / thy" is most often used in comedy routines in which members of the clergy are lampooned.  Functionally, "you" is both the second person singular and the second person plural.

Except ... in some geographical areas, there are other words used as a regional second person plural.
  • In the southern United States, "y'all" is used as a second person plural.  If you're bidding farewell to two or more people, you may say "I'll see y'all later."
  • In western Pennsylvania, "yunz" (or "yinz") is used in a similar way:  "I'll see yunz later."
Both "y'all" and "yunz"/"yinz" are used broadly within their regions.  The terms are used by many people of many ethnicities, social classes, ages, and educational levels, and of both genders.

Here in Australia, there are some people who have developed "youse" as the second person plural (as if they were characters in a B-grade gangster movie from the '40s).  "Youse" tends to be more socially specific than "y'all" or "yinz".  To say "I'll see youse later" normally marks a person of a working-class background, of minimal educational attainments, and more frequently male than female.  (Either that, or the person saying "youse" is trying to be funny.)

The existence of "yunz", "youse", and particularly "y'all" points to a need that exists within English. 

Like speakers of other languages, speakers of English occasionally need a second person plural that is distinct from the second person singular.  For example, when taking leave of a group of people, all of whom you'll see on the weekend, but one of whom you'll see before that, which statement works better?:
  • "I'll see you on Saturday, but I'll see you on Thursday."?
  • "I'll see you on Saturday, but I'll see thee on Thursday."?  
  • "I'll see y'all on Saturday, but I'll see you on Thursday."?
Apologies to any "grammar fundamentalists" out there, but my money's on "y'all".