Monday, 11 December 2017

Obama’s right, women are superior to men. Let me count the ways

Julie Bindel                         Guardian/UK                   6 December 2017

As a lifelong feminist I have always balked at the idea that women might be “better than men” because it perpetuates the myth that women and men are polar opposites, and that our skills (or lack of them) is to do with innate qualities rather than as a result of socialisation or opportunity. This particular competition of “who is best at what” further ingrains the false belief that “the battle of the sexes” is here for time immemorial.

The reality is that after thousands of years of living under patriarchy, through no choice or fault of our own, women have developed certain skills as a result of this tyranny. A feminist friend once remarked that “if oppression made one a better person there would be something to be said for it”, and while I agree wholeheartedly with this, the truth is that we have had to become far better than men at most things.

We beat men at raising money from crowdfunding, which is just as well because we are paid less for doing the same job. Women even fare better in those jobs traditionally thought of as “for the boys”. A study published this year in the British Medical Journal found that women make better surgeons than their male counterparts, and that 4% fewer patients die following an operation performed by a woman.

We beat men at raising money from crowdfunding, which is just as well because we are paid less for doing the same job. A report published in Fortune found that globally, women are consistently more successful than men in reaching funding targets. In terms of self-care, we even do that better. More than half (53%) of women will talk through problems with friends compared with only 29% of men according to a survey by the mental health charity Mind.

And women are much safer (and therefore more skilled) drivers, causing fewer accidents and being more likely to survive a serious crash. We are less likely to abandon our children, and therefore make better parents. Our washing up and general cleaning skills are far more honed (we have had loads more practice).

Cooking, ditto. Laundry, ditto.

While men love to brag about “boy’s food”, meaning massive burgers and slabs of greasy protein, women are more likely to have the recommended five-a-day. I would hazard a guess that those men sucking up the carrot juice and quinoa as opposed to burger and chips do so because women prepare it for them.

“Ah,” I hear some men cry over the sound of scraping at the bottom of a barrel, “We are better at DIY than you are!” But even men’s practical skills are diminishing, as they get lazier and more complacent. A survey carried out by a bathroom firm found that women are increasingly likely to get on with tasks such as fixing a leaky tap, fixing the toilet, hanging wallpaper, and sealing windows rather than hanging around waiting for the “man of the house” to drain his lager, switch off the football, and move into action.

But here is the rub. Women tend to be better than men at so many things because we have no choice. Yes we are better at washing up, but only because we do it way more often than men. This state of affairs self-perpetuates our oppression, highlighted by ridiculous scenarios such as restaurants advertising for female washer-uppers because men are rubbish at it.

Boys are privileged from the moment they are born. The fact that girls often exceed them in so many ways is testimony to the fact that patriarchy is really not up to much after all. [Abridged]

• Julie Bindel is a freelance journalist and political activist

Oceans under greatest threat in history

David Attenborough                   Guardian/UK             5 December 2017

The world’s oceans are under the greatest threat in history, according to Sir David Attenborough. The seas are a vital part of the global ecosystem, leaving the future of all life on Earth dependent on humanity’s actions, he says.

Attenborough will issue the warning in the final episode of the Blue Planet 2 series, which details the damage being wreaked in seas around the globe by climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and even noise.

Previous BBC nature series presented by Attenborough have sometimes been criticised for treading too lightly around humanity’s damage to the planet. But the final episode of the latest series is entirely dedicated to the issue.

“For years we thought the oceans were so vast and the inhabitants so infinitely numerous that nothing we could do could have an effect upon them. But now we know that was wrong,” says Attenborough. “It is now clear our actions are having a significant impact on the world’s oceans. [They] are under threat now as never before in human history. Many people believe the oceans have reached a crisis point.” His sequel to The Blue Planet will focus not only on the marvels of sea life but also the threats to it. The naturalist explains why plastic pollution, climate change and overpopulation are problems too urgent to be left to ecologists

Attenborough says: “Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, now depends on us.” Brownlow said much of the footage shot of albatross chicks being killed by the plastic they mistake for food were too upsetting to broadcast. The programme also filmed on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, witnessing the worst bleaching event in its history.

Climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise, bleaching the corals vital as nurseries for ocean life, and waters are warming rapidly in Antarctica too. Jon Copley, from the University of Southampton and one of many scientists appearing in the final episode, says. “What shocks me about what all the data shows is how fast things are changing here [in Antarctica]. We’re headed into uncharted territory”

The noise from shipping, tourism, and fossil fuel exploration is also revealed as harming sea life. Steve Simpson, at the University of Exeter, who works on coral reefs in southeast Asia, says: “There is a whole language underwater that we are only just getting a handle on. They use sound to attract a mate, to scare away a predator. You hear pops and grunts and gurgles and snaps.” He shows the noise of motorboats distracting saddleback clownfishes from warning against a predator attack.

The Blue Planet 2 team found plastic everywhere they filmed, even in the most remote locations such as South Georgia Island, an important breeding site for wandering albatrosses. There, Lucy Quinn from the British Antarctic Survey says many chicks are killed by plastic fed to them by their parents, including one young bird whose stomach was punctured by a plastic toothpick.

Overfishing, which remains prevalent around the world, is also addressed. “Every night thousands of miles of fishing lines laden with hooks are set – there is enough, it is said, to wrap twice around the world,” says Attenborough. But the programme also highlights some success stories, such as the revival of sperm whales off Sri Lanka and herring stocks off Norway after bans or restrictions were put in place.

Attenborough also visits Trinidad, where the conservationist Len Peters has transformed the prospects of the giant leatherback turtles who come to the island to lay their eggs and whose numbers have fallen catastrophically in recent decades. “I grew up in a house where turtle meat was normal,” says Peters. But his work to end turtle hunting and encourage tourism has seen numbers rise from 30-40 to more than 500.

Daniel Pauly, who leads the Sea Around Us programme at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and was not involved in Blue Planet 2, endorsed its stark conclusion. He said vast, subsidised fishing fleets were scraping the bottom of the barrel and that ocean acidification could be terminal for many species. [Abridged]

The Christmas Stories

Ian Harris                     Otago Daily Times                    December 8, 2017 

The Christmas stories blend clear-eyed knowledge with grand fabulations – and there’s truth in both, says Ian Harris.

There are many Christmases tumbling towards us, and as many ways to celebrate it. There’s the “thank God we’re on holiday” Christmas. The “what will Santa bring me?” Christmas. The retail bonanza as customers spend up large. The family reunion, with all its joys, tensions, and opportunities to over-indulge. The atheists’ Christmas – they might demur on principle, but will take the holyday anyway. The working Christmas for nurses, police and others who draw the short straw. Muslims will think of the prophet Jesus, born of a virgin under a date palm.

And Christians will again celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some will exalt him as the supernatural God in human form, others hail him as the very human son of a poor working family, born in the nondescript village of Nazareth in Galilee. Either way, he was destined to change history. Born in Nazareth? Shouldn’t that be Bethlehem, as the Bible and carols say? Modern scholarship says no. Bethlehem is there for its Jewish cultural and political associations, but as history it’s most unlikely.

Today we must distinguish between what one writer calls “respect for clear-eyed knowledge” on the one hand, and “reverence for the grand fabulations with which we redesign this messy, cheerless world” on the other. Clear-eyed knowledge is what science and verifiable historical fact tell us. The grand fabulations are the stories told to plumb the deeper meaning of events and our existence. Both are true, each in its own way.

Clear-eyed knowledge is respected when we register that the gospels of Matthew and Luke differ markedly in what they tell us about Jesus’ birth. Matthew, for example, has Jesus’ family living in Bethlehem, so they have no need to look for an inn, and they move to Nazareth later. Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. But he knows that Bethlehem, 130km south, is the right place for a messiah to be born, and needs a reason to get them there. He finds it in the census which the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius, ordered in 6AD.

That poses a problem or three. The Romans didn’t expect property owners to travel back to their ancestral birthplace to register for taxes – that would have created chaos and been of little use to the tax-gatherers – but to enrol where they had property to be taxed. Well, was Joseph an absentee landlord with property in Bethlehem? Probably not, as he and Mary were poor folk. And if Joseph had a property in Bethlehem, that’s presumably where he would have headed – and without Mary, because census rules did not require a heavily pregnant woman to accompany him on such a long and difficult journey. Then again, while Rome had given the Syrian governor authority over Judaea in southern Palestine, he had no responsibility for Galilee in the north, so his census would not have applied to anyone in Nazareth.

There’s one other wrinkle: Matthew and Luke both say Jesus was born while Herod was king of Judaea. Herod died in 4BC. Quirinius’s census was in 6AD. Clear-eyed knowledge concludes that Luke’s device for linking Jesus with Bethlehem is not historically accurate. Most scholars today conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Nazareth.

So why the grand fabulations, and what are we to make of them today? Jesus’ Jewish followers identified him as the king or messiah predicted in their sacred scriptures, who would restore the lustre of their people. That required a royal connection, and Bethlehem provided it. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, pivoting on the great King David. Bethlehem was David’s family home and the place where he was anointed king. The prophet Micah had written that from Bethlehem would come “a ruler who will govern my people Israel”. Matthew leapt on that, discreetly ignoring Micah’s description of this ruler as like a marauding lion devastating the Jews’ Assyrian foes.

That’s a world away from Jesus, Prince of Peace. Nevertheless, the text gave scriptural blessing to the grand fabulation: Matthew and Luke needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem to add cultural resonance to their prime purpose of affirming him as the Jews’ long-awaited messiah. When people realise this, they can see the stories in a new light, appreciating the grand fabulations for what they are, while concluding with the scholars that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. What matters from both perspectives is the man he grew up to be, and the hugely positive influence he still has on the hundreds of millions who follow him.

Monday, 27 November 2017

A New Reformation

Ian Harris                      Faith and Reason              ODT November 10, 2017

For much of last century talk has wafted in the ecclesiastical air about a “New Reformation”. Over the past year churches around the world variously noted, celebrated or ignored the 500th anniversary of the old Reformation that rocked Christendom after the Catholic monk Martin Luther proposed to debate troubling aspects of his church’s teaching. The ensuing convulsion reshaped Europe politically, and in church life produced new emphases and practices. But as English Anglican Bishop John Robinson observes, the institutions that emerged were “a cluster of little catholicisms, each reproducing the characteristics of the parent, with its own ministry and sacraments, its own buildings and budgets”.

More importantly, the basic affirmations of the medieval church – a supernatural reality, a theistic God, a divine Jesus who died to appease that God’s wrath at human sinfulness – flowed through into the Reformation churches. The Reformation transposed the Christian symphony into another key, but it was essentially the same symphony.

Closer to our own time, some hailed the movement towards unifying five major New Zealand denominations in the 1950s and 1960s as a new reformation. In hindsight, it is more likely to have entrenched those traditional doctrinal emphases further. In some denominations, that’s what happened anyway, as a confession of faith adopted by the New Zealand Presbyterian Church in 2010 attests. Powerfully appropriate as those doctrines were to people’s understanding in the 1500s, in today’s world they are past their use-by date. A living religion must be free to evolve and find new expressions within contemporary realities, or it will wash up on the shores of irrelevance. Any new reformation will have to cut much deeper than the old.

For the church, ideally, does not exist for itself. It exists for the world in which it is set – and for most New Zealanders, that world is secular. A New Reformation would be worth little unless it truly became leaven in this new cultural environment, rethinking its theology so as to offer above all the prospect of a more humble, more compassionate humanity.

Robinson is clear that in such a reformation the church must abandon metaphysical and supernatural thought-forms that have become meaningless in the modern world. American Episcopalian Bishop John Spong fleshes that out in the first of 12 theses for a New Reformation: “Theism as a way of defining God is dead . . . A new way to speak of God must be found.”

Spong would therefore happily jettison some central doctrines of traditional Christianity, based as they are on outmoded understandings of God, the world, and human life poised between heaven and hell. The only reformation that will serve the world, he says, “will not be concerned with authority, ecclesiastical polity, valid ordinations and valid sacraments . . . but rather will examine the very nature of the Christian faith itself.”

There are fringe movements which further that examination. But they are not owned or encouraged by official church institutions, and often express themselves in social activism rather than plumbing the depths of faith itself. A New Reformation, if it happens, will be as divisive for the institutional churches as was the old. You will know it is on the way when visionary leaders roll away cartloads of metaphysical embroidery, set aside the Bible’s 3000-year-old science in favour of what we have learnt since Copernicus and Galileo, Newton and Darwin, Freud and Jung, and tune in fully to the world around them. They will, as Robinson urges, sit down with community groups around them to hear the real questions of life and meaning people in society are facing and then shape their liturgies accordingly, for Christianity still has a life-enhancing perspective to offer.

Congregations will need to muscle up to expand beyond residential chaplaincies for the few, and become creative life centres, accepting all-comers, sharing but never imposing. They will add depth and breadth to their communities through tapping into the vital core of their Christian heritage, drawing inspiration from the in-dwelling Christ as archetype of love, grace and transformation.

I’m not holding my breath. Two months ago Christchurch’s Anglican Synod had a golden opportunity to blaze a new trail by saying goodbye to its medieval Gothic cathedral in order to risk a 21st-century architectural statement of faith in the heart of the city. It voted to gaze firmly backwards. Nothing significant will come from painstakingly preserving an obsolescent past. In today’s world, even a New Reformation would be inadequate. What’s required is a Transformation. For Christianity the choice is stark: transform or perish

War's toxic legacy can no longer be ignored

The battle for Mosul has left the city caked in soot and shrouded in smog. When will the world realise that the environment is not merely a silent victim of war?

Erik Solheim           Head of UN Environment          Guardian/UK           3 November 2017

The smoke that billowed from the burning oil fields was so thick it blocked out the sun. By the time I reached Qayyarah, where Islamic State fighters had set fire to 19 oil wells, a film of black soot had settled over the Iraqi town like toxic snow. Even the sheep had turned black.

The fires may have been extinguished, and Isis ousted from the city, but the environmental devastation caused by the battle for Mosul will linger for decades. The destruction of hospitals, weapons factories, industrial plants and power stations has left behind a toxic cocktail of chemicals, heavy metals and other harmful waste. Many of these pollutants are mixed up with unexploded bombs and mines in the vast amount of rubble generated by the fighting. Our team has already found high levels of lead and mercury in Mosul’s water and soil. This is the toxic legacy of one of the fiercest urban battles of the modern age.

When we measure the brutality of war, we often count the dead bodies, the destroyed homes and the lives upended by violence. Rarely do we pause to consider the environmental devastation that wars cause. In the din of battle and the rush to treat and shelter its survivors, the toxic legacy of war is often ignored – as is the long-term damage to the health of millions of people forced to live amid the pollution.

When bombs fall, the environment suffers. In Colombia, which hosts 10% of the planet’s biodiversity, half a century of war has destroyed some of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems. The mining of gold, which funded rebel forces during the conflict, has polluted the country’s rivers and land with mercury. In Ukraine, three and a half years of fighting in the heavily industrialised country has contaminated the groundwater. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan has destroyed more than half the country’s forests. Often, the environmental destruction is deliberate. Environmental infrastructure is increasingly targeted to drain the enemy of popular support. When power plants, water facilities and sewage systems are destroyed, disease and pollution spread and civilian health plummets, prolonging the suffering of people whose lives have already been devastated by violence.

The environment isn’t just a silent victim of war. When poorly managed, the environment can also trigger and fuel armed conflict. In Syria, severe drought drove millions into cities that were ill-equipped to cope with the burden. Popular anger grew inside some of the country’s poorest urban areas, fuelling protests that erupted into a civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. Around the world, natural resources are funding militias, prolonging violence and making it even harder for peace deals to stick.

There are encouraging signs that the world is beginning to wake up to this need. Social media, smartphones and satellite imagery are making it easier to identify pollution hotspots, allowing governments and aid agencies to respond faster and more effectively to reduce the harm to human health. The UN is drafting new laws to protect the environment during conflict, laws which have barely evolved since the 1970s. And the international criminal court may soon try cases that involve the destruction of the environment and the illegal exploitation of natural resources during conflict.

In December, the third UN Environment assembly will take place in Nairobi. Curbing pollution – in all its insidious, life-threatening forms – will dominate the agenda. It is my sincere hope that member states will pass a resolution tabled by Iraq that calls for the creation of a UN Environment taskforce responsible solely for tackling conflict pollution. This would be a major advance in the battle to combat war’s toxic legacy.

Worrying about the environment during war may seem like a luxury. But this is not about birds and butterflies. This is about protecting the soil, air and water that all of us depend on to survive. When we destroy the ecosystems that sustain us, when we pollute the rivers and land with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, we cripple our health and our ability to rebuild amid the ruins. If we continue to ignore the environmental toll of conflict, then we will continue to perpetuate the misery of war and prolong the suffering of those caught in the crossfire. [Abridged] 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The war against Pope Francis

Guardian/UK                  27 Oct. 2017

Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists, or protestants, or Muslims, but some of his own followers. Outside the church he is hugely popular as a figure of almost ostentatious modesty and humility. From the moment that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became pope in 2013, his gestures caught the world’s imagination: the new pope drove a Fiat, carried his own bags and settled his own bills in hotels; he asked, of gay people, “Who am I to judge?” and washed the feet of Muslim women refugees.

But within the church, Francis has provoked a ferocious backlash from conservatives. This summer, one prominent English priest said to me: “We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private”. Francis, the first non-European pope in modern times, and the first ever Jesuit pope, was elected as an outsider to the Vatican establishment, and expected to make enemies. But no one foresaw just how many he would make. From his swift renunciation of the pomp of the Vatican, which served notice to the church’s 3,000-strong civil service that he meant to be its master, to his support for migrants, his attacks on global capitalism and, most of all, his moves to re-examine the church’s teachings about sex, he has scandalised reactionaries and conservatives.

The crunch point has come in a fight over his views on divorce. Breaking with centuries, of Catholic theory, Pope Francis has tried to encourage Catholic priests to give communion to some divorced and remarried couples, or to families where unmarried parents are cohabiting. His enemies are trying to force him to renounce this effort. Since he won’t, and has quietly persevered in the face of mounting discontent, they are now preparing for battle. Last year, one cardinal raised the possibility of a formal declaration of heresy. Last month, 62 disaffected Catholics, including one retired bishop, published an open letter that accused Francis of seven specific counts of heretical teaching.

The question is particularly poisonous because it is almost entirely theoretical. In practice, in most of the world, divorced and remarried couples are routinely offered communion. Pope Francis is not proposing a revolution, but the bureaucratic recognition of a system that already exists, and might even be essential to the survival of the church. If the rules were literally applied, no one whose marriage had failed could ever have sex again. This is not a practical way to ensure there are future generations of Catholics.

But Francis’s cautious reforms seem to his opponents to threaten the belief that the church teaches timeless truths. And if the Catholic church does not teach eternal truths, conservatives ask, what is the point of it? The battle over divorce and remarriage has brought to a point two profoundly opposed ideas of what the church is for. The pope’s insignia are two crossed keys. They represent those Jesus is supposed to have given St Peter, which symbolise the powers to bind and to loose: to proclaim what is sin, and what is permitted. But which power is more urgent now?

The Catholic church has spent much of the past century fighting against the sexual revolution, and in this struggle it has been forced into the defence of an untenable absolutist position, whereby all artificial contraception is banned, along with all sex outside one lifelong marriage. As Francis recognises, that’s not how people actually behave. The clergy know this, but are expected to pretend they don’t. The official teaching may not be questioned, but neither can it be obeyed. Something has to give, and when it does, the resulting explosion could fracture the church.

Appropriately enough, the sometimes bitter hatreds within the church – whether over climate change, migration or capitalism – have come to a head in a gigantic struggle over the implications of a single footnote in a document entitled The Joy of Love (or, in its proper, Latin name, Amoris Laetitia). The document, written by Francis, is a summary of the current debate over divorce, and it is in this footnote that he makes an apparently mild assertion that divorced and remarried couples may sometimes receive communion.

With more than a billion followers, the Catholic church is the largest global organisation the world has ever seen, and many of its followers are divorced, or unmarried parents. To carry out its work all over the world, it depends on voluntary labour. If the ordinary worshippers stop believing in what they are doing, the whole thing collapses. Francis knows this. If he cannot reconcile theory and practice, the church might be emptied out everywhere. His opponents also believe the church faces a crisis, but their prescription is the opposite. For them, the gap between theory and practice is exactly what gives the church worth and meaning. If all the church offers people is something they can manage without, Francis’s opponents believe, then it will surely collapse.

No one foresaw this when Francis was elected in 2013. One reason he was chosen by his fellow cardinals was to sort out the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Vatican. This task was long overdue. Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as a relative outsider with the ability to clear out some of the blockage at the centre of the church. But that mission soon collided with an even more acrimonious faultline in the church, which is usually described in terms of a battle between “liberals”, like Francis, and “conservatives”, like his enemies. Yet that is a slippery and misleading classification.

The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church. Those are ideal types: in the real world, any Catholic will be a mixture of those orientations, but in most of them, one will predominate.

Francis is a very pure example of the “outer-directed” or extrovert Catholic, especially compared with his immediate predecessors. His opponents are the introverts. Many were first attracted to the church by its distance from the concerns of the world. A surprising number of the most prominent introverts are converts from American Protestantism, some driven by the shallowness of the intellectual resources they were brought up with, but much more by a sense that liberal Protestantism was dying precisely because it no longer offered any alternative to the society around it. They want mystery and romance, not sterile common sense or conventional wisdom. No religion could flourish without that impulse.

But nor can any global religion set itself against the world entirely. In the early 1960s, a three-year gathering of bishops from every part of the church, known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, “opened the windows to the world”, in the words of Pope John XXIII, who set it in motion, but died before its work had finished.

The council renounced antisemitism, embraced democracy, proclaimed universal human rights and largely abolished the Latin Mass. That last act, in particular, stunned the introverts. The author Evelyn Waugh, for example, never once went to an English Mass after the decision. For men like him, the solemn rituals of a service performed by a priest with his back to the congregation, speaking entirely in Latin, facing God on the altar, were the very heart of the church – a window into eternity enacted at every performance. The ritual had been central to the church in one form or another since its foundation.

The symbolic change brought about by the new liturgy – replacing the introverted priest facing God at the altar with the extroverted figure facing his congregation – was immense. Some conservatives still have not reconciled themselves to the reorientation, among them the Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, who has been touted by introverts as a possible successor to Francis, and the American cardinal Raymond Burke, who has emerged as Francis’ most public opponent. The current crisis, in the words of the English Catholic journalist Margaret Hebblethwaite – a passionate partisan of Francis – is nothing less than “Vatican II coming back again”.

“We need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human,” Sarah said at a Vatican gathering last year, in a denunciation of Francis’s proposals, “but what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated. You can not join Christ and Belial! What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion Ideologies and Islamic Fanaticism are today.”

In the years immediately after the council, nuns discarded their habits, priests discovered women (more than 100,000 left the priesthood to marry) and theologians threw off the shackles of introverted orthodoxy. After 150 years of resisting and repelling the outside world, the church found itself engaging with it everywhere, until it seemed to introverts that the whole edifice would collapse to rubble.

Church attendance plummeted in the western world, as it did in other denominations. In the US, 55% of Catholics went to mass regularly in 1965; by 2000, only 22% did. In 1965, 1.3m Catholic babies were baptised in the US; in 2016, just 670,000. Whether this was cause or correlation remains fiercely disputed. The introverts blamed it on the abandonment of eternal truths and traditional practices; extraverts felt the church had not changed far or fast enough.

In 1966, a papal committee of 69 members, with seven cardinals and 13 doctors among them, on which laypeople and even some women were also represented, voted overwhelmingly to lift the ban on artificial contraception, but Pope Paul VI overruled them in 1968. He could not admit that his predecessors had been wrong, and the Protestants right. For a generation of Catholics, this dispute came to symbolise resistance to change. In the developing world, the Catholic church was largely overtaken by a huge Pentecostal revival, which offered both showmanship and status to the laity, even to women.

This is the first section of a very long article. You will find the full article at:

Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize

Nicola Davis                Guardian/UK                        27 October 2017

On 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was on board the Soviet submarine B-59 near Cuba when the US forces began dropping non-lethal depth charges. While the action was designed to encourage the Soviet submarines to surface, the crew of B-59 had been incommunicado and so were unaware of the intention. They thought they were witnessing the beginning of a third world war.

Trapped in the sweltering submarine – the air-conditioning was no longer working – the crew feared death. But, unknown to the US forces, they had a special weapon in their arsenal: a ten kilotonne nuclear torpedo. What’s more, the officers had permission to launch it without waiting for approval from Moscow. Two of the vessel’s senior officers – including the captain, Valentin Savitsky – wanted to launch the missile. According to a report from the US National Security Archive, Savitsky exclaimed: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

But there was an important caveat: all three senior officers on board had to agree to deploy the weapon. As a result, the situation in the control room played out very differently. Arkhipov refused to sanction the launch of the weapon and calmed the captain down. The torpedo was never fired. Had it been launched, the fate of the world would have been very different: the attack would probably have started a nuclear war which would have caused global devastation, with unimaginable numbers of civilian deaths.

“The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world,’’ Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, told the Boston Globe in 2002, following a conference in which the details of the situation were explored. Now, 55 years after he averted nuclear war and 19 years after his death, Arkhipov is to be honoured, with his family the first recipients of a new award.

The prize, dubbed the “Future of Life award” is the brainchild of the Future of Life Insitute – a US-based organisation whose goal is to tackle threats to humanity and whose advisory board includes such luminaries as Elon Musk, the astronomer royal Prof Martin Rees, and actor Morgan Freeman.

“The Future of Life award is a prize awarded for a heroic act that has greatly benefited humankind, done despite personal risk and without being rewarded at the time,” said Max Tegmark, professor of physics at MIT and leader of the Future of Life Institute.

Speaking to Tegmark, Arkhipov’s daughter Elena Andriukova said the family were grateful for the prize, and its recognition of Arkhipov’s actions. “He always thought that he did what he had to do and never considered his actions as heroism. He acted like a man who knew what kind of disasters can come from radiation,” she said. “He did his part for the future so that everyone can live on our planet.” The $50,000 prize will be presented to Arkhipov’s grandson, Sergei, and Andriukova at the Institute of Engineering and Technology on Friday evening.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel peace prize-winning organisation, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said Arkhipov’s actions were a reminder of how the world had teetered on the brink of disaster. “Arkhipov’s story shows how close to nuclear catastrophe we have been in the past,” she said.

The timing of the award, Fihn added, is apt. “As the risk of nuclear war is on the rise right now, all states must urgently join the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons to prevent such catastrophe.” Dr Jonathan Colman, an expert on the Cuban missile crisis at the University of Central Lancashire, agreed that the award was fitting.

“While accounts differ about what went on on board the B-59, it is clear that Arkhipov and the crew operated under conditions of extreme tension and physical hardship. Once the nuclear threshold had been crossed, it is hard to imagine that the genie could have been put back into the bottle,” he said. “President Kennedy had been very worried about the possibility of a clash between American warships and Soviet submarines in the Caribbean, and it is absolutely clear that his fears were justified,” Colman added, noting that certain decisions at the operational level were out of his control. “Ultimately, it was luck as much as management that ensured that the missile crisis ended without the most dreadful consequences.”

Monday, 16 October 2017

Faith, Reason, and Democracy

by Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                Oct. 13, 2017 

With the election behind us and democracy in good heart, let’s move on to a new guiding story, urges Ian Harris

Abraham Lincoln famously affirmed democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Winston Churchill considered it “the worst form of government except for all the others”. And said the best argument against democracy is “a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Somewhere in the middle of all that sits the state of democracy in this country – and, thinking not so much of the voting score-cards but the way the latest campaign was waged, it came through pretty well. There was a genuine contest of values, ideas and courses for the country to follow in the years ahead. Tribal branding words such as “socialist” and “conservative” slipped into the background. Even “left” and “right” nuanced into “progressive” and “stable” – though these can mean all things to all people. Who would not want steady gains in human well-being? Who in their right mind would favour turmoil over stability?

One of the roles of political leaders is to embody and convey the values their party stands for, even their vision if they have one, and when we look around the world, New Zealanders can be thankful for our party leaders. All but one showed they were registering a palpable mood for change and ready to move on, some cautiously, some resolutely, from a blinkered neoliberal paradigm. National’s Bill English has found a way to respond by changing the language of “welfare” to one of “social investment”. This clothes a humane impulse in the garb of financial prudence, which presumably has greater appeal to his constituency – and if that’s what it takes, so be it.

Politicians of the left work the other way round, responding first to human need and then setting out to find the wherewithal. The parties forming the new government now have the chance to show that their prescription delivers for all New Zealanders. That means getting serious about climate change, truly lifting people out of poverty, helping them into warm dry houses, assuring them of health care, and giving them the confidence to contribute to and feel fully part of their communities. If they fall short, other parties have other remedies ready to hand.

Elections are never seasons of sweetness and light, but the latest one lacked much of the visceral hostility to “the other lot” (or lots) that sometimes mars campaigns. Of course there were disappointing aspects. National resorted to fake news, Trumpeting [Subs: cap is intentional] a fictional $11.7-billion hole in Labour’s budget, falsely advertising that Labour was bent on taxing a glass of water, overtly quarrying voter self-interest and fear. Labour undermined its sunny positivity by lack of attention to economic detail where it mattered.

But a major plus of MMP is that it incentivises the larger parties to show at least some courtesy towards the smaller players, knowing they might need them one day as partners in government. Hence former prime minister Jim Bolger’s advice to his successors to show respect to Winston Peters and work with the Greens.

Another positive for democracy in New Zealand is that an MMP Parliament is more broadly representative of voters than its first-past-the-post predecessors. Till 1996, elections usually swung on a relatively small group of voters in a handful of electorates. And then the result delivered, in effect, a blank cheque to a cabinet chosen from the winner, valid for three years. True, proportional representation does not necessarily mean proportionality of power, and NZ First’s pivotal role in forming a government is out of all proportion to the seven seats it won.

However, any coalition partner can expect to have a tempering effect on whichever party it blesses (or curses) with its presence. It will be tempered in turn. Negotiation and compromise become virtuous necessities. Looking ahead, the times demand new horizons. Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote last month that the planetary environmental crisis makes the “stories” that drove politics in the 20th century – Keynesian social democracy, then individualistic neoliberalism – inadequate for the 21st. A new guiding story is needed to capture the imagination of the populace, springing from what he calls “the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid”.

Whenever there is a disaster, those qualities immediately kick in. Building community through “a politics of belonging”– Monbiot’s new story – would make our altruism and mutual aid the norm in political, economic and social life. Signs are that such a story is stirring here. Transformation and renewal lie at the heart of a Christian approach to life, meaning and purpose. Will churches see they have a part to play?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

I wanted to know why racists hated me, so I met some Klansmen

By Daryl Davis                    Sydney Morning Herald               2 October, 2017

One night in 1983, I found myself playing in a country band at a truck stop lounge. I was the only black person in the joint. Taking a break after the first set of music, I was headed to sit at a table with my bandmates when a white gentleman approached from behind and put his arm around my shoulders. "I really enjoy y'all's music," he said. I shook his hand and thanked him.

"This is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis," he continued. I told him that Lewis was a friend of mine and that he had learnt his style from watching and listening to black blues and boogie-woogie pianists. My new fan didn't buy it, but he did want to buy me a drink. While we sipped, he clinked my glass and said, "This is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man."

Why? "I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan," he said. I burst out laughing. Then he handed me his KKK membership card, and I recognised the Klan's symbols. In that moment, I was overcome by a question: How could anybody hate me when they didn't even know me?

I decided to figure it out by getting to know those who felt hostility towards black people without ever having known any. Several years later, I recruited that man, whose name was Frank James, to put me in contact with the grand dragon of the Maryland Klan. He tried to deter me, warning that the leader would kill me. But eventually, after I promised not to reveal how I'd got the grand dragon's contact information, James gave it to me.

By then I had decided to travel around the country and interview KKK leaders and members from various chapters and factions to get the answer to my question: how can you hate someone you've never met? I was planning to write a book detailing my interviews, experiences and encounters with these Ku Klux Klan members. (The book, Klan-Destine Relationships, was published in 1998.)

I had my white secretary, who typically booked my band and assisted me with my music business, set up a meeting with the Maryland grand dragon, explaining that her boss was writing a book on the Klan and would like his input. As per my instructions, she did not reveal the colour of my skin.

The grand dragon agreed to participate, and we secured a room at a motel in Frederick, Maryland, where my secretary filled an ice bucket with cans of soda so I could offer my guest a drink. Regardless of how and what he felt about me, if he entered my room after seeing the colour of my skin, I was going to treat him with hospitality.

Punctual to the minute, there was a knock on the door. The grand nighthawk (the grand dragon's bodyguard) entered first, and then the dragon himself. "Hello," I began, "I'm Daryl Davis." I offered my palm, and the dragon shook my hand as he and the nighthawk introduced themselves.

We were both apprehensive of the other, and the interview started haltingly. We discussed what he had hoped to achieve by joining the Klan; what his thoughts were on blacks, Asians, Jews and Hispanics; and whether he thought it would ever be possible for different races to get along. A little while later, we heard an inexplicable crackling noise and we both tensed. The dragon and I stared each other in the eye, silently asking, "What did you just do?" The nighthawk reached for his gun. Nobody spoke. I barely breathed.

My secretary realised what had happened: the ice in the bucket had started to melt, causing the soda cans to shift. It happened again, and we all began laughing. From there, the interview went on without a hitch. It was a perfect illustration that ignorance breeds fear and possibly violence. An unknown noise in an ice bucket could have led to gunfire had we not taken a moment to understand what we were encountering.

Even though the grand dragon,had told me he knew that white people were superior to blacks, our dialogue continued over the years. He would visit me in my home, and I would eventually be a guest in his. We would share many meals together, even though he thought I was inferior. Within a couple of years, he rose to the rank of imperial wizard, the top national leadership position in the Klan.

Over the past 30 years, I have come to know hundreds of white supremacists, from KKK members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists to those who call themselves alt-right. Some were good people with wrong beliefs, and others were bad people hell-bent on violence and the destruction of those who were non-Aryan.

There was Bob White, a grand dragon for Maryland who served four years in prison for conspiring to bomb a synagogue in Baltimore, where he had been a police officer. When he got out, he returned to the Klan and later went back to prison for three more years for assaulting two black men with a shotgun, evidently intent on murder. But afterwards I reached out to him with a letter while he was in prison for the second time, Bob became a very good friend, renounced the Klan and attended my wedding.

Imperial wizard Frank Ancona, who headed one of the largest Klan groups in the country, would also become a very close friend. When Frank was killed this year (his wife and stepson have been charged with murdering him), one of his Klan members, knowing how close we had been, called me and told me before notifying the police. I accepted the Klan's invitation to participate in his funeral service.

Three weeks after this summer's violent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was invited by the leaders of the Tennessee and Kentucky chapters of Ancona's branch of the Klan to speak at their national Konvocation. I accepted, spoke and took audience questions after the lecture. Whether or not anyone there immediately changed their minds, we talked as people - and we all benefited from that.

I am not so naive as to think everyone will change. There are certainly those who will go to their graves as hateful, violent racists. I never set out certain that I would convert anyone. I just wanted to have a conversation and ask, "How can you hate me when you don't even know me?"

What I've learnt is that whether or not I've changed minds, talking can still relieve tensions. I've seen firsthand that when two enemies are talking, they are not fighting. They may be yelling and beating their fists on the table, but at least they are talking. Violence happens only when talking has stopped.

And sometimes, people do change. One day in 1999, after having been in the Ku Klux Klan for about 20 years, the Klan leader from the motel interview, whom I watched go from grand dragon to imperial wizard, called me, said he was leaving the Klan and apologised for having been a member.

He told me he could no longer hate people. I had not turned out to be what he had always thought of black people. He went on to become one of my best friends, and today I own his robe and hood - one set of many in my collection of garments donated to me by apostate Klansmen and Klanswomen, which is always growing. [Abridged]

Daryl Davis, author of Klan-Destine Relationships and the subject of the documentary Accidental Courtesy, is an award-winning musician, actor, lecturer and race relations expert.

Reclaiming the Truth About Vietnam

Robert C. Koehler                  Pub by Common Dreams            2 September, 2017

Just the other day 89 senators voted to pass the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, signing off on a $700 billion defense budget, which ups annual military spending by $80 billion while also authorizing the production of 94 F-35 jets, two dozen more than the Pentagon requested.” And of course there’s no controversy here, no demanding to know where the money will come from.

The Full Disclosure campaign rips away the lies that allow America’s wars to continue. The U.S. Air Force dropped over 6 million tons of bombs and other ordnance on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1964 and 1973, more than it expended in World War II, Howard Machtinger notes at the Full Disclosure website. And more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals, including the infamous Agent Orange, were dumped on the Vietnam countryside.

“Accurate estimates are hard to come by,” he writes, “but as many as three million Vietnamese were likely killed, including two million civilians, hundreds of thousands seriously injured and disabled, millions of internally displaced, croplands and forests destroyed: incredible destruction — physical, environmental, institutional, and psychological.

And then there was the war’s effect on the soldiers who fought it and the “moral damage” so many suffered: “To date,” Machtinger writes, “estimates of veteran suicides range from a low of 9,000 to 150,000, the latter almost triple the number of U.S. deaths during the actual conflict.” So I pause in the midst of these numbers, this data, letting the words and the memories wash over me: Agent Orange, napalm, gook, My Lai.

Slowly, the powers that be regrouped, redefined how we fought our wars: without widespread national sacrifice or a universal draft; and with smart bombs and even smarter public relations, ensuring that most of the American public could watch our clean, efficient wars in the comfort of their living rooms. Eventually, endless war became the new normal, and blotting the shame of our “loss” in Vietnam from the historical record became a priority.

The Full Disclosure campaign is saying: no way. One aspect of this campaign is an interactive exhibit of the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers rounded up and killed more than 500 villagers. The exhibit was created by the Chicago chapter of Vets for Peace, which hopes to take it on a national tour and rekindle public awareness of the reality of war.

A slice of that reality can be found in a New Yorker article written in 2015 by Seymour Hersh, the reporter who broke the story some four and a half decades earlier. In the article, Hersh revisits the story of one of the GI participants in My Lai, Paul Meadlo:

After being told by (Lt. William) Calley to ‘take care of this group,’ one Charlie Company soldier recounted, Meadlo and a fellow-soldier ‘were actually playing with the kids, telling the people where to sit down and giving the kids candy.’ When Calley returned and said that he wanted them dead, the soldier said, ‘Meadlo just looked at him like he couldn’t believe it. He says, “Waste them?” When Calley said yes, another soldier testified, Meadlo and Calley ‘opened up and started firing.’ But then Meadlo ‘started to cry.’

And that’s the war, and those are our values, buried with the dead villagers in a mass grave.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Election Voting 2017

by Ian Harris                   Otago Daily Times               Sept. 8, 2017

Before we settle on which political party to support, let’s ask a few questions of ourselves, urges Ian Harris.

An election is traditionally an opportunity to ask questions of would-be politicians. More fruitfully, it’s an opportunity to ask questions of ourselves. Questions to candidates will then follow, but the self-examination is actually the more valuable for democratic engagement. That’s because a healthy democracy involves more than ticking a box on a ballot paper once every three years. It thrives when we give serious thought to what kind of society we want to live in, and what changes we are willing to contemplate to bring it about. If you think you already live in an earthly paradise, of course, you will want nothing to change at all.

That’s unlikely, so here’s a check-list to get you started: 

■ What values are core for you – so important that they will determine your vote? Do those values tilt more towards yourself and your own advantage, or towards society and the common good?
■ Do you think economic considerations outweigh social issues? Moral issues? Environmental issues?
■ Are you content with the New Zealand that 30 years of neo-liberal economics have produced, and therefore want more of the same? Or do you favour a more inclusive economic model?
■ Are you open to good ideas, no matter which party offers them?
■ Is this invitation to self-reflection a waste of time, because you always vote for the same party regardless?

Only when you have held up the mirror to yourself are you democratically primed to turn your gaze outwards and evaluate the parties, their programmes, and the candidates who aspire to represent you in Parliament. And there, as often as not, a trade-off begins. No party is perfect, and there will always be unintended consequences from whatever policy is implemented. That’s why the values shaping those programmes should be the crucial test and measure.

A previous column highlighted the values of care, community and creativity. So another question: How important are those values to you? Will you apply them to assess the parties and their platforms? There are plenty of other questions touching on New Zealand and its place in the world. One bears directly on the kind of country that we’d like to pass on to our children and grandchildren, but it is distinguished by hardly figuring at all: a comprehensive population policy to give stability and direction as we move steadily forward into a globalising world.

For many years the prime focus has been on growing the economy, as though that were sufficient in itself, without worrying too much about the overall effects on people and the land. One result has been a tight lid on wages through ramping up immigration. That’s totally inadequate. A population policy would settle on a desirable level of immigration, taking into account the diversity and balance of ethnicities, the country’s bicultural foundation, what will be needed in housing, health care, schools, social welfare as the numbers grow, increasing pressures on the natural environment, the impact on productive land as cities sprawl into orchards, market gardens, and farms.

The market-driven emphasis on growth, growth and more growth has a lot to answer for, and one serious effect is its colonisation of head-space, closing out other options. Let’s strike a blow for freedom by unhitching “wealth” from its present connotation of amassing piles of money, and restoring its original meaning of “well-being”, both individual and social. That is a prime concern of all major religions, and people of faith should want to see that truer concept of wealth applied across the board.

Politicians won’t usually look to the prophetic poetry of the Bible for guidance, but a distinguished American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, thinks voters can and should. He says the poetry of the prophets urges people: Don’t let anyone tell you that the dominant ideology is a given. It may suit the moneyed elites of the day to say so, but you can maintain a zone of freedom in your lives that allows you to imagine otherwise – and then act accordingly.

Your vote is an excellent place to start. Child poverty in a land of plenty, housing too expensive for many to contemplate, rivers too polluted to swim in any more, health care unavailable to many who need it, a tepid response to climate change, not requiring a living wage for the lowest-paid – these are not inevitable states of nature. They are the result of political decisions based on economic theories serving those who already have the most. How different all these would be if care, community and creativity were central! It’s time they were. 

The best weapon to de-radicalise Isis returnees? Our own humanity

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini                     Guardian/UK               15 September 2017

With relentless air strikes and ground attacks against Islamic State in Syria, hundreds of their foreign fighters and supporters are massing on the Turkish border, trying to get out. Of the at least 20,000 foreign fighters estimated to have been in Syria, 2,500 were thought to be Europeans, of whom 850 were British. Many may have died, but those who remain are likely to try to return home at some stage. The looming question is: what now? How do we treat them? Even if they say they are repentant, can we trust them? What if these former fighters are returning to form sleeper cells and plan attacks on home soil? It is easy to dehumanise: these are the ultimate bad guys, dressed in black, killing and maiming with glee.

However, there is more to them than meets the eye. For years researchers and activists have delved into why people have been radicalised. Some went to Syria out of compassion for the plight of Syrians at the hands of the Assad regime, and profound anger at the seeming inaction of their own governments – ignoring the thousands of Syrian civil society activists who begged them to stay away. Others, particularly, the younger women, wanted to free themselves of the shackles of familial expectations, and were lured by a mix of online sexual grooming and the promise of empowerment. Many were petty criminals evangelised in state prisons. Undoubtedly some have mental health issues, and others are simply opportunists.

So what do we do? Many might assume they will be imprisoned. But prisons are key sites for recruitment and radicalisation. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis founder, was a two-bit nobody until he landed in an American prison in Iraq. The humiliation he experienced at the hands of US forces motivated his founding of Isis. Prisons in the UK, Belgium and France could enable them to recruit a new cadre of supporters.

In Pakistan the Paiman Trust, a non-governmental organisation, combines psycho-social care with religious literacy, livelihood-skills training and even civic education to teach the reforming Taliban about their multiple identities and cultures as Pakistanis, Pathans and Muslims. Recognising their humanity is at the core of any of these programmes. “I wish them happy birthday, because no one has ever done that. They call me Baba,” says Shafqat Khan, of the Paiman Trust. It turns out caring brings the best outcomes. But it is painstaking work, and families can face tremendous stigma. Some may be ashamed to reclaim sons – and especially daughters – who have transgressed acceptable social norms. Others may be fearful of constant police surveillance. There is doubtless much anger, pain and sense of betrayal.

To avoid a backlash against minority communities, the government and media must emphasise that these returnees represent a minuscule minority of the 2.7 million Muslims in the UK. Some Muslims, like any other Britons, may have felt similar grievances as those who were radicalised, but they have gone on to lead normal lives – so rehabilitation programmes cannot be perceived as rewarding violence. If we fall victim to this sort of thinking, we become that which we abhor and fear

Ultimately, we must be mindful of our own humanity. Extremists can be violent because they separate themselves from “others”. They lose empathy and compassion. As we face the prospect of Isis returnees to the UK, we must challenge our own perceptions. It would be easy if they were all one-dimensional, Bond-movie bad guys – but they are not. If we fall victim to this sort of thinking, we become that which we abhor and fear. Instead our collective task as a nation is to find our own deep well of decency and humanity, to be fair and compassionate, just and kind, and perhaps above all to care: about the victims, the perpetrators, and those who are both victim and perpetrator. [Abridged]

• Sanam Naraghi Anderlini is the co-founder and executive director of the International Civil Society Action Network

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The most arrogant people in Australia are business people and we're sick of them

Ross Gittins                     Sydney Morning Herald                      September 6 2017

How the worm – and the world – turns. When the Abbott government came to power just four years ago, it claimed its arrival signalled the "end of the age of entitlement". Don't laugh, it's happening – but in the opposite way to what treasurer Joe Hockey had in mind. As Hockey saw it, the sense of entitlement we'd acquired, but which could no long be afforded, applied to the social needs of individuals and families.

We saw the results of this attitude in Tony Abbott and Hockey's first budget of 2014, which got an enormous thumbs-down from the public and the Senate, so that pretty much all that remains of the attack on unwarranted entitlement is the unending crusade by the government's Don Quixote, Christian Porter, and his loyal Sancho, Alan Tudge, to root out the last welfare cheat.

Not content with the grand stuff-up that was the "robodebt" use of unguided computers to collect amounts that may or may not have been overpaid, the pair are now hot on the trail of drug-taking welfare recipients. Drug testing isn't cheap, so it's likely the exercise will cost the taxpayer more than it saves. And drug care experts – who weren't consulted - say addicts can't be successfully coerced into treatment.

Trouble is, successive governments have been cracking down on welfare cheats every year for decades, so there can't be all that many of 'em left. Why do I get the feeling that cracking down on welfare cheating is, at best, what governments do when they want to be seen to be cutting their spending but aren't game to. Or, at worst, when they want to exploit the popular delusion that we could all be paying less tax if it weren't for the massive sums being siphoned off by dole bludgers and the like.

Sorry, the people doing by far the most to keep welfare spending high and rising are known as age pensioners. And no one has a stronger sense of entitlement than an oldie fighting for the pension. "I've paid taxes all my life . . ." But though one of Aussies' less attractive traits has been our proneness to "downwards envy" – the delusion that people worse-off than us are doing it easy – polling by the Essential organisation suggests it may be wearing off, replaced by disapproval of wealthier tax dodgers.

They used not to be so arrogant, but more than three decades of neoliberal ideology – under which governments should do as little as possible to burden the private sector or restrict its freedom – have left business people convinced they're demi-gods, the source of all goodness and justly entitled to our approbation. They're the source of all jobs, and thus entitled to have their every demand satisfied.

The developed world is still recovering from the carnage of the global financial crisis, caused by letting American banks do hugely risky things in the pursuit of higher profits and bonuses, confident in the knowledge that, should things come unstuck, the government would bail them out. Meanwhile, journalists are uncovering a remarkable degree of lawlessness by other businesses: young people paid less than their legal entitlement, exploitation of foreign workers on visas, employers failing to pay in their workers' super contributions. It's as though business people see themselves as so economically virtuous as to be above the law. Just a bit of red tape those gutless pollies have yet to clear away.

What's changed with the end of the era of neoliberalism, however, is the willingness of politicians on both sides to toughen up on the banks and other businesses. They'll be paying more rather than less tax in future, and governments are already far less hesitant to regulate them more closely. I see a lot more coming. Why? Because voters have got sick of arrogant business people. [Abridged]

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

There’s a disaster much worse than Texas. But no one talks about it

Jonathan Freedland                Guardian/UK                  3 September 2017

In this story America is not the victim. Along with Britain, it is on the side of the perpetrator – helping to cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

What is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster? If you nominated storm Harvey and the flooding of Houston, in Texas, then don’t be too hard on yourself. Media coverage of that disaster has been intense, and the pictures dramatic. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this supposedly once-in-a-thousand-years calamity – now happening with alarming frequency, thanks to climate change – was the most devastating event on the planet. As it happens, Harvey has killed an estimated 44 Texans and forced some 32,000 into shelters since it struck, a week ago. That is a catastrophe for every one of those individuals, of course. Still, those figures look small alongside the havoc wreaked by flooding across southern Asia during the very same period. In the past few days, more than 1,200 people have been killed, and the lives of some 40 million others turned upside down, by torrential rain in northern India, southern Nepal, northern Bangladesh and southern Pakistan.

That there is a disparity in the global attention paid to these two natural disasters is hardly a novelty. It’s as old as the news itself, expressed in one, perhaps apocryphal Fleet Street maxim like a law of physics: “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”

But I’ve not yet given an answer to my quiz question. Full marks if you put your hand up to say … Yemen. In July the UN determined that it was “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. If you think it’s hard to get westerners interested in flood victims in Nepal, just try talking about Yemen.

The scale of the suffering in the Arab world’s poorest country is clear. Since it became the site of a proxy war in March 2015, 10,000 people have been killed, with 7 million made homeless. The UN is especially anxious about cholera, which has already killed 2,000 people and infected more than 540,000. It threatens to become an epidemic. That’s no surprise, given that sewage plants have been among the infrastructure bombed from the sky. The Saudi-led coalition has kept Sana’a airport closed, which means food and medicines cannot get in and the sick cannot get out for treatment. Pictures of gaunt children, listless babies and starving mothers recall the worst of Africa’s famines – but this disaster is entirely human-made. Nor is this a remote story utterly unconnected to us. On the contrary, the Saudi government is armed to the hilt with weapons supplied by the UK and the US: £3.3bn worth of British firepower in the first year of this vicious war alone. And yet Yemen has barely registered in the western consciousness, let alone stirred the western conscience.

Of course, there are all the usual factors explaining public indifference to horrible events far, far away. But there is one that is relatively new. Before 2003, whenever word came of some distant catastrophe that posed no threat to our own safety, a discussion soon followed on what “we” should do about it. The two sides would take up their positions: the “something must be done” brigade pitted against those who argue that, however awful things are, it is none of our business and we will only make matters worse. Sometimes the latter camp would prevail – think of Douglas Hurd and mid-1990s Bosnia; sometimes, the former: witness Tony Blair and Kosovo.

After Iraq, that changed. Thanks to the invasion, as well as the bloodshed and mayhem in Afghanistan and Libya, the argument is now settled – and the non-interventionists won. The test case is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people – more than Saddam ever did – and yet has been allowed to retain his throne untroubled by outside challenge. There’s not much interest even in pressuring London and Washington to stop arming the Saudi regime that is responsible for the country’s torment, despite the warnings that Yemen risks becoming the next Syria: its soil soaked in blood, rendered fertile for the next generation of violent jihadists.

It is worth noting one consequence of this shift: it’s as if, now that we know that we will do nothing about these distant tragedies, we have lost interest in them altogether. If we are not going to act, then why bother knowing about them? The result is that the children of Yemen are dying cruel deaths, while the rest of the world ignores them. They are dying under a hot desert sun, killed by our allies – and by our inattention. [Abridged]

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Jesus and Christ, Part 2

By Ian Harris                       Otago Daily Times                      August 11, 2017

Jesus and Christ are linked but not the same, says Ian Harris. So be sure to place the Christ within the human thought-world where archetypes belong.

There’s only one great, interconnected world. But there are worlds within that world, and two biggies stand out. Theologian Sir Lloyd Geering identifies them as the physical world of nature and science, and the world of human thought. The physical world takes in geology and biology, physics and chemistry, quantum physics and everything where the laws of science apply. The thought-world is very different. It’s all we experience that isn’t subject to the scientific method of observation, experiment, and replication in order to reach a predictable result. It’s the realm of emotion, imagination, reflection, interpretation, dreaming and creativity. It’s the realm that produces a Shakespeare or Beethoven or Mandela in a way no scientist could predict. It’s the realm that prompts people to affirm values and look for purpose in life.

Obviously there would be no thought-world without the physical world, because we’re physical beings – but the fact of being flesh and bone doesn’t go anywhere near to telling us who we are. Obviously, too, our physical brains and bodies affect our thought-world, just as our thought-world impacts on our brains and bodies, as in helping or impeding healing. Traditionally, God was located in that physical world – creating it, intervening directly in it, to cause good harvests, trigger earthquakes, help this person recover from illness but let that one die, protect from danger, bring sunshine or rain. Lots of prayers still assume so.

Today, however, many people see God rather as a product of the human thought-world, finding the concept relevant as they reflect on their experience, seek meaning and purpose, think about values and what is ultimate for them, and wonder about the dynamic interconnectedness of all life. That’s the world of religion, because religion belongs within the world of human thought and consciousness rather than the physical world. The human Jesus belonged in the physical world in the same way as we do, but he contributed to the thought-world in a massively positive and empowering way. So did the apostle Paul. He built on Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God by tapping into a powerful and universal archetype latent within the thought-world: an archetype of love, grace and transformation, which he and others of his day called “the Christ”.

For Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, an archetype is a primordial image or motif that has evolved in the collective experience of humankind and identifies a basic human model or experience. Examples are the hero, the mother, the wise old man, the caregiver, the one who delivers from bondage, the lover, the visionary. They crop up repeatedly in dreams, in mythology, and in religion. Jung’s term wasn’t available to Paul, but the messiah or Christ as an archetype of the bearer of love, grace and transformation was at the heart of his thinking – just as those qualities were the core of Jesus’ teaching in his metaphor of the kingdom of God. So it’s not one or the other, Jesus or Christ, but a fusion of both, with the practical purpose of furthering Jesus’ vision for bringing wholeness to individuals, societies and the world. It’s a wholeness in one’s very being, from which good deeds will flow.

Paul gives that vision wings in a phrase he uses like a signature tune: “in Christ”. Again and again he urges action and reflection “in Christ” as archetype of love, grace and transformation. He greets Christian communities “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus”. Why not “in Jesus”? Because that would shift the focus to the historical Jesus, a man in the physical world, whereas an archetype belongs in the collective subconscious of the thought-world. Hence Paul talks of “Christ dwelling in you and you in Christ”, echoing Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches, each a living part of the other so that the vine might bear much fruit. This Christ would mean nothing without Jesus behind it. But as an archetype, it lies deep within the human psyche. It has a dynamic that offers a new way of being, empowering and energising right at people’s core.

The Christ, then, is Christianity’s archetype of the lover, the caregiver, the visionary, and the one who sets free, working out in acts of love and grace, and transforming lives. Other world faiths have their equivalents, and whatever name they give it – such as the Buddha within – it’s the same primordial motif or experience they’re drawing on. And as archetypes, they belong normally and naturally within the framework of the human thought-world that spans every age, including our own.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Engagement With North Korea Works

by Kerri Kennedy                    Common Dreams                     July 19, 2017

With a little will, both sides can take small steps to ratchet down the pressure — and avoid a war. 'We know proven methods for engagement can and do lead to further opportunities for diplomacy,' writes Kennedy, 'and that diplomacy leads to a decrease in military tensions.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are at an all-time high — and continue to escalate following North Korea’s test of a missile that can supposedly reach Alaska. It’s still possible to turn down the heat with small steps that could lead to more robust diplomacy later on. But this requires the political will to engage instead of trading threats. "Americans want to see diplomatic engagement with North Korea, not an escalation of tensions and the threat of nuclear war."

While the Trump administration once signaled an interest in diplomatic engagement, since then their saber rattling has pushed us even closer to the brink of war. There’s another, better way forward. Observers have noted that when the U.S. has opened lines of engagement, North Korean missile tests have been scaled back or stopped all together. Simply put, engagement works. open lines of dialogue. Addressing humanitarian concerns, for example, could lead to political progress, as it has between the U.S. and other countries.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of engagement to open important doors. I work for the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization that’s had a presence on the Korean peninsula since 1953, when we responded to calls for refugee assistance. In particular, AFSC is one of the few U.S.-based organizations that’s kept a presence in the North since the 1980s, and we’ve done it through exchanges of delegations hoping to reduce tensions.

When famine struck we sprung into action. Because we’d opened lines of communication and identified the crisis early on, we were ideally positioned to help. Since the end of the famine, we’ve been working with farmers in the region on sustainable agriculture practices. Ours has been the most continuous example of a successful relationship between U.S and North Korean-based organizations. And we’ve seen that engagement lead directly to opportunities to address a humanitarian crisis and save lives. Peer-to-peer exchanges like those we participate in have the potential to open diplomatic lines of communication. But this requires a willingness to do the work of engagement from those in political power.

What other options might be on the table? Retrieving U.S. veterans’ remains from North Korea and reunifying Korean families divided by the war are both important and viable. Hhumanitarian issues that need to be addressed before time runs out, as survivors of the Korean War are aging. Working together on those goals could prime the pump for further diplomacy. Americans want to see diplomatic engagement with North Korea, not an escalation of tensions and the threat of nuclear war. We know proven methods for engagement can and do lead to further opportunities for diplomacy, and that diplomacy leads to a decrease in military tensions.

We know what we need to do to begin to address this conflict in a productive, non-violent manner. What we need now instead of military threats is the political will for real engagement. [Abridged]

A collection of quotes

To hide behind the mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is an act of fallacious sophistry. Toasters don’t make toast, people make toast. True. But toasters exist to make toast: guns exist to kill people. [Gary Younge, Guardian 6/2/2017]

Thomas Merton: You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God. [Quoted by Revd Brenda Rockell] 

Desmond Tutu: “My humanity is bound up in yours and we can only be human together.”

Wilfred Owen:
“Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son,
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe one by one.”

Cultural Divides:
“Whether that’s an ethnic or a religious divide, or to do with gender or politics, there are power-mongers at every level of society, who succeed best when they demonise the ‘other’."  Brenda Rockell

“If Thou humblest Thyself Thou humblest Me.
Thou also dwell’st in Eternity.
Thou art a Man: God is no more:
Thy own Humanity learn to adore,
For that is My spirit of life.”

Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks:
Four months after Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island he came to Detroit as part of a U.S. trip to promote sanctions against the South African government… Mandela came off the plane amidst the cheering crowd of dignitaries and well-wishers, and froze when he saw Mrs Parks. Slowly he began walking towards her chanting “RO-SA PARKS! RO-SA PARKS! The two seasoned freedom fighters embraced.” [From “The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, P. 231 Highly recommended.]

Monday, 17 July 2017

Jesus or Christ?

By Ian Harris                 Otago Daily Times               July 14, 2017 

It’s not either/or, says Ian Harris – both are central to Christianity. 

At a Progressive Spirituality conference in Napier last year the keynote speaker, Dr Robin Meyers of Oklahoma City, ended his final address by asking: “Are you followers of Jesus, or worshippers of Christ?”

The question was well received. Many Christians today think following Jesus is quite sufficient, thank you, so are not drawn to worship Christ. This has led to a significant movement in some churches away from any serious contemplation of the Christ. In those churches the emphasis is on living the Jesus way, which its adherents find both appealing and relevant. Jesus they can relate to, a good man, a superlative teacher, a sage – such a pity their religion is identified as “Christianity”, a name derived from the Christ.

Game, set and match? Not quite. I asked Meyers afterwards what lay behind his question. “Well,” he said, “on the one hand you have the man Jesus and his teaching about bringing in the kingdom of God here on Earth, on the other a divine Christ who was born of a virgin, performed one miracle after another, rose from the dead, and ascended bodily into heaven.”

I said I wasn’t enamoured of that either – but what if the Christ was rather Christianity’s archetype of love, grace and transformation, and therefore the inner dynamic for living the Jesus way? Meyers said he had no problem with that at all. Which left me wondering why he set up the alternatives in the way he had. After all, the gospels attribute all those stories about a virgin birth, miracles of healing and supernatural power, bodily resurrection and ascension, to Jesus, not Christ. So how come Meyers and others insist on dislodging them from Jesus and heaping them on to the Christ? 

The title “Christ” is used mainly in the four gospels to refer to the leader Jews longed for, commissioned by God to free them from subjection to Rome, restore their unique identity as a people, and bring in God’s rule. That’s highly political and down-to-earth, not evidence of divinity and the supernatural.

Some sleight of mind seemed to be happening here. Actually, “Jesus” and “Christ” are both intrinsic to the New Testament as a whole. The significance of each individually is indelibly linked to the other, but they lose something when treated as if they were just alternative names for the same person. They need to be uncoupled, first to appreciate Jesus in the fullness of his humanity, and then to discern why his earliest followers found it appropriate to claim him as “mashiach” or messiah, or in Greek “Christ”. That happened primarily as they tried to make sense of their experience of Jesus, especially the shock of his crucifixion – and then, somehow, their continuing experience of him. 

This was the earliest period of Christianity, when Jesus’ Jewish followers were still part of the synagogue and worship was steeped in the Jewish scriptures. That setting goes far to explain why they came to regard Jesus as their messiah. Their scriptures told them of others who had been “anointed” (that’s what “mashiach” means) to lofty tasks of leadership as kings or high priests. There was even a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, accorded the title. Nearly 600 years before Jesus’ time, Cyrus had freed Jews long held captive in Babylon and allowed them to return home. He was their deliverer, to Jews a messiah.

The apostle Paul had a prime role in developing the vision of Jesus as messiah, and today some see this as perverting Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God. Rather than promoting the kingdom as such, he preached Jesus as its harbinger, using the Greek word for anointed, “christos” or Christ. It is a matter of historical fact that Christianity took root as a religion because Jesus and his teaching were conveyed more through the imaginative possibilities of a universalised messiah or Christ than the bare memory and wisdom of Jesus’ teaching.

Some scholars surmise that without the Christ concept, the Jesus movement would have faded away by about 500 AD, like many other groups of his day. Paul took Jesus and all he represented and projected them into the future through gatherings of people in which Jesus was felt to be dynamically present as the messiah or Christ. If psychiatrist Carl Jung’s term “archetype” had been around, Paul might well have used it, because that’s very much in tune with his thinking. Such a link carries the Christ concept forward into our own day and age – more on that next time