Wednesday, 28 December 2016

You're drunk, 2016. Go home before I call the cops.

OK, 2016, this has been quite enough.

Not only did you do Brexit, Trump, the return of Pauline Hanson, and Syria. 
Then there were the deaths of the Young Frankenstein guy, the guy in the fedora, the boxing guy, the astronaut guy, the guy who specialised in playing menacing roles in lots of English movies, the WHAM! guy, and the nice (if eccentric)  little old lady from The Vicar of Dibley
Now, there's Princess Leia as well.

You're drunk, 2016. Go home before I call the cops.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The children of want and the children of ignorance: Have Mr. Dickens's chickens come home to roost? (A Christmas reflection for 2016)

In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a particularly dramatic moment occurs at the end of the section when Scrooge is shown various Christmas celebrations in diverse contexts by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  These contexts included both the genteel poverty of Scrooge's clerk and his family and the comfortable middle-class circumstances of Scrooge's nephew and his wife.

After all this, the Ghost reveals two children hiding under the folds of his robe:  "... wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable ... meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish....  Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing."

Scrooge was appalled at the sight and asked (with a rather nerdish helplessness), "Spirit, are they yours?"

"They are Man's,*" replied the Ghost, "... This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, ... but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. ..."

As Dickens intended A Christmas Carol to be "an appeal on behalf of the poor man's child", one could say that this passage is, morally, the "business end" of Dickens' book.  What does it say to us at the end of 2016, particularly to those of us in countries that speak in the language of Dickens?

I believe that, in 2016, all of us in the English-speaking world have reaped the whirlwind of our long-standing neglect of Miss Want and Master Ignorance.  Perhaps we can say that, in this past year, Mr. Dickens' chickens have come home to roost.

Looking at such events as the Brexit referendum in the UK, the revival of the One Nation party in Australia, and the presidential election in the US, a common theme has emerged.  Voters who feel alienated from, and abused by, the economic, political, and cultural "system" have used the ballot box to express their rage.  And the results are frightening.

People have looked for someone to blame for their economic and cultural malaise, and they have found their scapegoats.  For many people, they've decided that the culprit is anyone whom they're not.  They've found their scapegoats.  They've found someone to blame.  They've found their Other.  Overwhelmingly, their culprit is someone who is Other:  ... someone black, ... someone Hispanic, ... someone Muslim, ... someone Jewish, ... someone feminist, ... someone gay, ... someone "foreign", ... someone "politically correct", ... someone in a suit, ... any someone you wish, provide that it's someone who is Other.

Some commentators compare the rise of Trump and the Brexiteers, and the resurgence of One Nation, to the rise of Nazism and the beginning of the Holocaust.  I actually believe that a better historical parallel is that of the French Revolution.  Following a reasonably long period that saw itself as an "Age of Reason", the unaddressed economic woes of a large underclass erupts into an episode of incoherent rage.  

Are Miss Want and Master Ignorance saying they've been neglected for far too long?  Have Mr. Dickens' chickens come home to roost?

And what happens in a few years' time when Mr. Trump and the Brexiteers have proven themselves unable to deliver on their extravagant promises?  What then?

Nevertheless, in the midst of it all, we still celebrate Christmas.  At the heart of this celebration, there is a birth.  A child is born to a teenage mother and her fiancĂ©.
  • Luke's gospel tells us this child is born in a stable because the Emperor decided a mass census was a good idea.
  • Matthew's gospel tells us this child and his parents are forced to become refugees because of the paranoia of the local ruler.
The small family is caught up in political machinations beyond their control.

John's gospel tells us that this child came into the midst of our world to be a living demonstration of the affirmation that - at the dynamic centre of our universe - we find a heart of love ... a heart of love that beats for us.

And this child lives in our midst today.
  • This child outlived the emperor who ordered the census and the local king who ordering the ethnic cleansing of babies.
  • This child outlived the governor who ordered his execution, and the various emperors who persecuted his followers.
  • This child outlived the people who organised the Reign of Terror in the 18th century, and the Final Solution in the 20th.
And, not only that, but ...
  • This child will outlive Nigel Farage.
  • This child will outlive Pauline Hanson.
  • This child will outlive Donald Trump.
  • This child will outlive Vladimir Putin.
And, in this hope, we also can live.

And so to all who read this, may I wish you your choice of
  • a Blessed Christ-Mass,
  • a Merry Christmas,
  • Chag Hanukkah Sameach,
  • Happy Holidays, and
  • the classically Australian "Have a good one!"
And, giving the last word to my favourite 19th century British theologian, Dickens' Tiny Tim, "God bless us, every one!

*   Dickens wrote over a century before Germaine Greer and co. helped raise our awareness over gender-related issues.  Please pardon Dickens' use of what we today would regard as inappropriate gender-related language.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.


Monday, 19 December 2016

Santa suits and clerical collars: ethical issues when wearing either

This year, I bought a Santa Claus suit. It was a used suit from a costume shop which was going out of business.  It's pretty good, although I think I may try to upgrade my Santa suit either for next Christmas or for the following one.

I've worn it a few times for adult groups, while I haven't tried out my Santa gig on a group of kids in this suit yet.  I did some Santa Claus-ing for groups of kids some years ago when I lived in Canberra and I enjoyed it.  (One thing I learned then was that walking down a suburban street in a Santa suit is a sure way to get every dog in the neighbourhood to freak out.) 

This year, I've concentrated my Santa Claus activities on adult groups.  I may soon put "enthusiastic amateur Santa Claus" on my biographical blurb for FaceBookLinkedIn, and my blog, possibly just after "colourful Hobart religious identity".

Wearing a Santa suit involves an awesome responsibility.  When anyone puts on a Santa suit, that person "becomes" Santa Claus for all those within sight (or sound).  Wearing a Santa suit makes you the bearer of the Santa Claus tradition in all its fullness.  You must embody such quality as universal generosity and unquenchable good cheer.  For example, the man or woman in a Santa suit cannot swear, even when given ample reason to do so.  WWSND (What would St. Nicholas do?) becomes the necessary guiding principle for anyone who puts on the itchy red suit with fake fur. 

Santa Claus is a powerful metaphor for the profound truth that generosity is good fun.  If you wear the Santa suit, you become the "icon" of this metaphor.  If (while wearing the Santa suit) you swear, or give someone the finger, or use the N-word, or do anything else unworthy of the Santa Claus tradition, you dilute the power of the Santa Claus myth.

It's a bit like wearing a clerical collar (which is something else I've been known to wear).  Now some of my colleagues wear their collars all (or almost all) of the time, while others of my colleagues make a big point of never wearing their collars (and even boasting of the fact that they don't even own a collar).  Personally, I'm in between these two positions.  I wear my collar on occasions when I believe it's appropriate depending on what I'm doing, ministry-wise, such as visiting a hospital or nursing home outside of normal visiting hours.  For me, if it's not practical to robe up to lead a worship service, I at least try to "collar up".   

As with wearing a Santa suit, people who wear clerical collars need to be careful with their activities.  (It's like wearing a Santa suit, only more so.)  Once, when I was wearing my collar, I was crossing a street against a red light.  A drunk was watching me and called out "Hey, I thought your job was to tell the rest of us to obey the rules!"  (I realise this man's comment was a gross misunderstanding of the role of the Christian church and its clergy, but it's a common one here in Australia.  This misunderstanding is one reason why many churches here have just about emptied themselves of young people, working-class people, and men.) 

When wearing a clerical collar, I am carrying the past history of others with their own experiences of the Christian church, whether that experience is positive or negative.  Some people will be inclined to be open to the man or woman in the collar; while others will be similarly inclined to be closed.  (But then again, if I chose to regularly engage in ministry dressed in a business suit with tie, I'd similarly invite comparison with some of the "evangelical" preachers who function as part-CEO, part-politician, part-motivational speaker, and part-entertainer.  And I don't really see myself as part of that particular crowd.)

One other thing about wearing a clerical collar is that strangers sometimes say "hello".  Among those who frequently greet the wearers of clerical collars with a warm smile are men in yarmulkes and women in hijabs.  Sometimes I think they're asking themselves "I wonder if he catches as much flak for wearing a collar as I catch for my yarmulke/hijab." 

In my own case, the answer is that I don't.

Nevertheless, one of the things I'm aware of when I put on my clerical collar is that I'm (at least passively) in solidarity with my neighbour who will, on occasion, catch flak for his yarmulke or her hijab.

And for your enjoyment (I think?) here's a photo of myself wearing my Santa suit and my clerical collar simultaneously.

Anyway, to all of you:  Blessed Christ-Mass, Merry Christmas, Chag Hanukkah Sameach, Happy Holidays (if you're willing to risk the wrath of the various purveyors of fake "news"), and (to use a particularly Australian expression) "Have a good one!"   (Please choose the greeting or greetings you prefer.)

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Why I don't call myself "white"

In the wash-up to the recent US election, the word "white" has been tossed around a lot to describe people.  A lot of people, however, particularly those on the weirdo far-right fringes of politics, have been rediscovering their "whiteness" and shoving it down everyone else's throat. 

I never realised that some people still described themselves as "white" anymore.  (And actually, to be technical, most people who would be called "white" really have skin tones that are somewhere on the colour spectrum between a bright pink and a deep beige.)

I don't describe myself as "white" because I don't think it's all that useful a term.  (And this is for similar reasons to the reasons I don't describe myself as "Protestant".)

Thinking of my own ancestry, I know there's a bit of Irish, a bit of British, and a lot of German in my ancestry.  I'm happy about this.
  • I'm proud to be connected with the people who gave the world the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven (even while I try to resist the authoritarian tendencies that resulted in two world wars and the Holocaust.)
  • I'm proud to be connected with the people who gave the world the writings of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Jane Austen (even while I try to resist the bigotry and snobbery that is ingrained in much of British life.) 
  • I'm proud to be connected with the people whose name is synonymous with hospitality and a sense of humour (even while I try to resist the sectarianism that has been associated with the saddest chapters of Irish history and, sadly, exported to the rest of the English-speaking world.)
While I'm an American by birth and an Australian by choice, my ancestry is British, Irish, and German.  I affirm all this.

I still don't call myself "white".  Calling yourself "white" is a bit like calling yourself "Protestant".  It's focussing on what you are not, rather than on what you are.

Calling yourself "white" isn't saying that you're part of the people who gave the world Bach.  It's merely saying that you're not part of the people who gave the world jazz.  

Calling yourself "white" isn't saying that you're part of the people who gave the world Shakespeare.  It's merely saying that you're not part of the people who gave the world the Taj Mahal.  

Calling yourself "white" isn't saying you're part of the people who brewed the world's first pint of Guinness.  It's merely saying that you're not part of the various peoples who cultivated the potato, the tomato, the banana, or the coffee bean for centuries before Europeans knew these items even existed. 

Everyone, whoever they are, should be proud of their heritage.  Be proud of the interesting bits.

If your background is Irish, be proud of being Irish.  That's a much bigger deal than merely being "white".

If your background is Scottish, be proud of being Scottish.  That's a much bigger deal than merely being "white".

If your background is Greek, be proud of being Greek.  That's a much bigger deal than merely being "white".

If your background is Jewish, be proud of being Jewish.  That's much bigger deal than merely being "white".

Etc.  .. etc. ... etc. ....

Everyone, whoever they are, should be proud of their heritage.  Be proud of the interesting bits. 

And also please realise that those whose skin tones are not on the bright-pink-to-deep-beige scale are also proud of their own heritage, and they are equally as justified in this pride as you are.  No more.  No less.

Following the first time I posted these reflections a week or so ago, I had a few helpful comments on my FaceBook page.  (In some ways, I was amazed by the fact that the first critical comments I received on this article were not from irate white supremacists.) 

Some said that this article may have minimised the unearned privilege that comes with being born "white" in many western countries.  I recognise the fact of this unearned privilege.  By the fact of having European ancestry, and living in a country where the dominant culture of the country is made up by people of European ancestry, I am the beneficiary of a high level of unearned privilege, as I also am by having been born male, hetero, and a native-born English-speaker.

I actually believe that a better word to use than "white" when speaking of people of European ancestry (including ancestry from the British Isles) living in such nations as the USA, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand is, simply, "European".  "European" is a more useful word than "white" for two reasons, I believe.

1.  "European" conveys the sense that we are not indigenous to the continent on which we live.  However many generations we've been here, our culture is a still rather exotic "import".  This parallels the fact that a Chinese-Australian whose family has been here since the 1850's Gold Rush is still called "Asian".  Fair's fair.

2.  As well, "European" avoids the value-laden significance that has attached to the colours "white" and "black" in the English language.  Some people still use these words as ethical symbols.  As a result, many white supremacists have developed a rather eerie mysticism over the whole concept of "whiteness". 

Referring to those of us with European (or mostly European) ancestry, but living in countries outside Europe, as "Europeans" is a more accurate use of language, and avoids placing any cultural premium on the paleness of any person's pigmentation.

Here endeth the lesson.