Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Hospitality: according to Jesus or according to Hyacinth Buckét?: a sermon (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14)

In our gospel lesson, Jesus went to the home of a leading Pharisee to eat a meal on the Sabbath.  This in itself may be startling to anyone who was taught the old (and highly misleading) Christian stereotype that the Pharisees were ultra-conservative, “fundamentalist” wowsers who were implacable opponents of Jesus.  Obviously in this case, Jesus had a sufficiently good relationship with a leading Pharisee to be invited to dine with him on the most significant day of the week.

Anyway, on this occasion, Jesus saw his fellow-guests trying to finesse the seating plan, choosing for themselves those seats which were, as the British used to say, “above the salt”.  In response to this, Jesus said a few things about human behaviour whenever we are either the guest or the host at a dinner-party, comments which go far beyond mere table manners.

In regard to being someone’s guest, Jesus said:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.
But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

As well, in regard to being someone’s host, Jesus said:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Much of this is echoed in our lesson from Hebrews, where we are challenged:  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

All this is the direct opposite of the philosophy of hospitality that we see represented in that well-known television hostess Hyacinth Buckét.  Hyacinth was known for her elegant entertaining, particularly her “candlelight suppers”. 

Hyacinth Buckét was never one, however, for inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”.  Instead she always invited the notable individuals in her community – the elite, the crème de la crème - to attend her “candlelight suppers”:  particularly anyone who was in any way titled.  And, if someone titled wasn’t available, the mayor or the local MP would do, or else a retired military or naval officer, or – if all else fails – the vicar.

And, whenever Hyacinth was invited to any function, she could be counted on to try to wangle a far more advantageous position in the seating arrangements than she was originally allocated.

Back to our lesson, however, nothing of what Jesus said here is about cultivating the artificial humility which is very easy to find among many religious people.  You know what I mean, the continuous breast-beating (“I’m sinful. … I’m bad. … I’m horrible.”) which is far-too-common among many religious people.  It’s one reason why unhealthily low, and often dangerously low, levels of self-esteem are often found among religious people.  Jesus wasn’t trying here to encourage his followers to compete with each other in the humility derby or the low self-esteem stakes.  (“Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m humbler than you are!”)

Instead, Jesus was doing something far more positive.  He was encouraging his disciples, both then and now, to view ourselves as being linked with all humanity, with people of all sorts and conditions, and to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to our celebrations, not out of any sense of condescension, or of superiority, or even of “outreach”, but because they are all part of the same basic humanity of which we are part. 

This is an important thing for us to note on a day which many Christian churches observe as Refugees Sunday.  All people are part of the same basic humanity as each other, even when politicians try to tell us we’re not.

In a sense, there are two ways to give and to receive hospitality:
  • There’s the Hyacinth Buckét style of hospitality.  Hospitality is given and received in order to promote oneself and one’s own self-interest.
  • Then there’s the Jesus style of hospitality.  Hospitality is given and received in celebration that we’re all part of the same basic humanity as each other.

The feast we shall share today is all about this Jesus style of hosptiality. 
  • The single most Christian thing that we as Christians do when we worship God is to share food. 
  • When we celebrate this sacrament of Holy Communion, we affirm that Christ gives himself to us most profoundly when we eat and drink in community.
  • In the Uniting Church, we celebrate an open communion.  All are welcome and encouraged to participate.  There are no barriers.  In this way, we try – however imperfectly - to reflect the example of the great hospitality of Jesus.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Bank managers, bookies, auditors, motivational speakers, Mary Poppinses, and Bond villians: Political leaders then and now.

Political leaders (and potential leaders) come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  I've tended to see that (in the past few decades, in a variety of western countries), leaders either of nations or of political parties have fallen into six major types:
  • the "Bank Manager",
  • the "Bookie",
  • the "Auditor",
  • the "Motivational Speaker",
  • the "Mary Poppins", and
  • the "Bond Villain".
The "Bank Manager" type of leader tends to be found inhabiting the moderate wing of centre-right political parties.  They were particularly prolific in the post-war years of the mid-1940s through early 1960s.  Dwight D. Eisenhower in the United States and Sir Robert Menzies in Australia are the two classic examples of the "Bank Manager" style of political leader.

The "Bank Manager" provides calm, reassuring, stable, fairly non-ideological leadership, with plenty of gravitas and with a strong sense of the country being "in safe hands".  Although when a "Bank Manager" goofs up politically, he (and they're usually "he") goofs up spectacularly.  (Note: Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis.)

A "Bank Manager" leadership usually occurs after a significant period of centre-left government, when the electorate wants a bit of a "breather" after a period of rapid social change, so that public opinion can catch up with public policy.  An example of this is Malcolm Fraser's administration following the rapid social change of the Whitlam government in Australia.

"Bank Managers" sometimes also follow more aggressively right-wing leaders, providing leadership that, while still essentially conservative, seeks to be significantly "kinder and gentler" than that of their predecessor (George H.W. Bush in the US, John Major in the UK, Malcolm Turnbull in Australia).

While the "Bank Manager" style of leadership is usually considered a thing of the past, there have been some recent examples of "Bank Manager" leaders (or potential leaders):  David Cameron in the UK, Mitt Romney in the US, and (as I've mentioned before) Malcolm Turnbull in Australia.

Within centre-left political parties, the traditional leadership style of past decades (paralleling the "Bank Manager" in centre-right parties) is the "Bookie".

"Bookies" in political leadership frequently project themselves as "a man of the people" (and "Bookie" political leaders are overwhelmingly men, rather than women, with Israel's Golda Meir being a notable exception). 

"Bookie" leaders promote themselves as:
  • conscious of their working-class origins,
  • fiercely proud of their racial, religious, ethnic, or regional origins,
  • highly street-wise,
  • everyone's "mate" or "buddy",
  • able and willing (in the right company) to drink like a journalist, smoke like a 1970s cabdriver, swear like a cop, and fart like a Labrador (but knowing when to refrain from doing so).
Even if the "Bookie" is a well-educated member of the upper-middle class, he'll cultivate an accent that says either "urban working-class" or "regional rural".  He'll drop the "g" from the end of a word, and (in the UK and Australia) drop the "h" from the beginning of a word.  In Australia, he'll also pronounce "aitch" as if it were "haitch".

Even if the "Bookie" has high personal standards of honesty and integrity (and, in my experience and observation, most do), the "Bookie" is usually well-connected with those whose ethics are far more casual.

"Bookies" are effective "retail politicians".  They are happiest making the rounds of the various ethnic social clubs, both those of their own heritage and of the wide range of other backgrounds.

Al Smith (Democratic candidate for the US presidency in 1924) was the archetypal "Bookie" politician.  Probably the most successful political "Bookies" in recent decades were Australia's Bob Hawke and the USA's Bill Clinton.  (Although both combined a predominantly "Bookie" style with a bit of the "Auditor".) 

The recent Bernie Sanders campaign in the US has shown that there is still some serious life left in the "Bookie" model of political leadership.

More recently, since the 1980s, the majority of centre-left political leaders are not "Bookies", but "Auditors".  "Auditors" arose after a time when centre-right parties made great inroads on power in the Reagan-Thatcher years, particularly by portraying centre-left parties and leaders as economic innocents and fiscal ignoramuses (as, admittedly, many were during the 1970s.)

The "Auditor" is a leader or senior figure in a centre-left political party who is a bit of a "policy-wonk" in terms of economic issues, who sometimes lets his/her sense of economic rectitude overcome his/her sense of social justice.   Essentially, the "Auditor" is the centre-left equivalent of the "Bank Manager" and has the gravitas of the "Bank Manager" in bucketloads.  Usually, the "Auditor" comes across as a bit ... well ... boring in their own personal style, as befits the financial professional after whom I've named them. 

Most centre-left political leaders in recent decades have been "Auditors".  Examples of noted political "Auditors" in recent years have been Gordon Brown in the UK, Paul Keating and Julia Gillard in Australia, François Hollande in France, and Hillary Clinton in the United States.

A popular style of political leadership in centre-right parties in recent decades, and the right-wing equivalent to the "Bookie", is the "Motivational Speaker".  The rise of the "Motivational Speaker" - paired with the rise of the "Auditor" - represents a major shift in the popular perceptions of political parties in many western nations.
  • The centre-left has replaced the centre-right as the political home of boring respectability and gravitas, with centre-left political leaders being the political equivalent of the local Methodist minister or high school principal.
  • The right has replaced the centre-left as the political home of the borderline con-artist, the sort of person known to Australians as a "larrikin" and to Brits as "Jack the Lad".

The political "Motivational Speaker", like the ex-athletes and similar types who make their livings addressing business conventions, is a person who can enunciate a viewpoint well, persuade an audience to believe their viewpoint, and make the members of an audience (and the citizens of a country) feel very good about themselves. 
  • The "Motivational Speaker" tends to be a bit of a con artist. 
  • They tend to be politicians within the right wing of centre-right parties. 
  • They're not all that heavy on policy details, compared to the "Auditor", but the best "Motivational Speaker" leaders rely on competent policy people to do their heavy lifting, policy-wise, for them. 
  • They're not all that strong on gravitas, but they can fake gravitas when necessary, almost as well as they can fake sincerity.
Many of the most successful centre-right political leaders in western countries in recent decades have been "Motivational Speakers" in their leadership styles, including Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan in the US, and John Howard in Australia. 

On the other hand, Charles Haughey in Ireland, Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, George W. Bush in the US, and Tony Abbott in Australia were national leaders with a "Motivational Speaker" style, but whose leaderships were far more accident-prone.

Then there's the "Mary Poppins", based on the fictional character who was described as "practically perfect in every way".  The "Mary Poppins" is generally a centre-left leader (very occasionally a centre-right leader, such as Germany's Angela Merkel) who, at least initially, seems to combine the better qualities of each of the previous styles of leadership:
  • the seriousness and gravitas of the "Bank Manager",
  • the "Auditor's" ability to grapple with serious policy,
  • the articulateness of the "Motivational Speaker", and
  • the accessibility of the "Bookie" to members of the public.

Some "Mary Poppins" leaders have been serious disappointments, because of serious flaws in their approach.  In Australia, Kevin Rudd's anger management problems and his tendency to micromanage, in particular, ruined a promising political leadership.  In the UK, Tony Blair's willingness to be talked into participating in George W. Bush's Iraq fiasco had a similarly ruinous impact on his leadership. 

Other "Mary Poppins" leaders have had noted flaws, but are still viewed positively on the whole because of the impressive quality of other aspects of their leadership.  Both Gough Whitlam in Australia and Jimmy Carter in the US tended to be economic innocents, for example.  However, this major flaw was overshadowed by:
  • Whitlam's significance while Prime Minister as a promoter of social reform; and
  • Carter's record as a global peacemaker, humanitarian, and human rights advocate after his presidency.

And there have been some "Mary Poppins" leaders, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US and Pierre Trudeau in Canada, whose significant and inspiring long-term leadership seems to have reduced any of their flaws to merely amusing foibles.

With the two über-classy "Mary Poppins" leaders currently serving their nations in leadership roles (Barack Obama nearing the end of his presidency in the US, Justin Trudeau beginning his prime ministership in Canada), I'll reserve my judgement as to how history will regard them.  (I suspect, though, that history will be very kind to both Barry O and to Trudeau fils, regarding both in a class with Trudeau pere.)

And, then, there's the "Bond Villain"

In a sense, the "Bond Villain" is the anti-"Mary Poppins".  Like the various fantastic fictional villains found in the James Bond series of adventure films, the political "Bond Villain" exudes an almost mobster-like sense of menace.  Russia's Vladimir Putin and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi are two classic recent examples. 

Unlike any of the other groups of leaders, all of whom declare solemnly (as candidates and in office) that they are in service to all the voters, not only their own supporters but the supporters of their opponents, the "Bond Villain" makes no such claim.  This is what makes the "Bond Villain" a "Bond Villain".  Like Richard Nixon and (more recently) Donald Trump in the US and Mark Latham in Australia, they speak openly of groups and individuals within the community they consider "enemies" (as per Nixon's "enemies list" in the 1970s) and whom they see it as their duty to "screw".  (Latham's term, I believe.)

Similar to the actual villains in the actual Bond movies, some of the "Bond Villain" political leaders maintain ostentatiously luxurious - and, occasionally, openly playboy - personal lifestyles (Berlusconi, Trump).

While the typical "Bond Villain" leader is a politician on the political right (Putin, Berlusconi, Trump, Nixon), very occasionally you'll find one on the left (Latham).  One could, however, maintain that Latham has been steadily vacillating between the wild left and the wild right (without any intermediate period in the political centre) for most of his career.

I hope this exploration of six styles of political leadership has been helpful. With the irredeemable exception of the "Bond Villain", we can find good political leaders in various nations among each of the five other types of leader.