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Friday, 9 April 2021

On Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann's 'Dadirri'

Colonisation is not only about the annexation of land and the removal of those who live on it. It is also about the annexation and repurposing of imagination and thought. The ‘white possessive’ (a term from Aileen Moreton-Robinson) wants to own the brains and hearts of Indigenous peoples, as well as our territories and bodies. That is why the ‘welcome’ offered to Indigenous people into white institutions, especially institutions of learning, is deeply conditional. ‘You are welcome’ means ‘You are welcome so long as you submit to our (white) knowledges, our (white) epistemologies and our (white) ontologies’. Resisting the terms of that conditional welcome is fraught with difficulty because it is offered by the dominant, controlling, culture. It is a welcome backed not only institutional power, but also by the dominating imagination that animates that power. In this context, when a white teacher says ‘listen to me’, the invitation comes with a number of unspoken corollaries: ‘ . . . because I know the objective truth . . . because your truth is inadequate to the real (white) world you must face . . . because your survival as a worthwhile contributor to (white) society depends upon your listening . . .’ and so on.

Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann’s invitation to come listen (‘dadirri’) to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is therefore deeply radical. She is not inviting (white) people into a lovely, wafty, spiritual experience with ‘nature’, for example, the kind of experience that you can also get from a (white) Buddhism that is deeply compatible with, and supportive of, (white) middle-class suburban life. She is inviting (white) people to question and relativise the very foundations of the white possessive, including its imaginative power, its epistemologies and ontologies. What Miriam-Rose means by ‘dadirri’ is a deep and sustained process of conversion, of learning and unlearning: a learning about Indigenous practices of ethical relationality with the ancestor-creators who formed the earth, with country and waterway, with animals and plants, and finally with other people; and, with that, a subsequent unlearning of (white) practises that ignore and even abuse these deeply beloved kin. 

Conversion like this will certainly never happen if Indigenous knowledges and practises continue to be seen as interesting but marginal, pretty and decorative, like a dot painting on the wall of a suburban home that is otherwise entirely european in style. Conversion only comes, I believe, when the stability and apparent ‘success’ of a particular paradigm starts to come undone. I suppose I hope that the ecological emergency that is slowly starting to penetrate (white) Western consciousness, along with the collapse and imminent implosion of (white) churchly structures and their supporting theologies, may eventually create the kind of crisis in which Christian people will eventually turn to what the world’s oldest living cultures might have to say.

Insofar as the Christian faith can be an ally in that learning and unlearning, Miriam-Rose, myself, and many others are happy to be Christian. But the Christian faith we embrace will be necessarily different from the dominant (white) ways of being Christian. Our faith remembers that Christianity arose in a colonial setting as a protest against the excesses of the Roman empire and against the Jewish leaders who collaborated with empire in their oppression of ordinary people. Our faith remembers that Jesus was a keen observer of the processes and cycles of local ecosystems, and that he counselled his hearers to attend to the lessons he observed there in the parables. Our faith remembers that Jesus blurred the difference between bread and his body, wine and his blood, all these things being, for him, a dying and a mourning by which life and joy is given anew, as much in country and ecosystem as in human community. Our faith remembers that Jesus was concerned, most of all, with the last and the least, the forgotten victims of oppressive structures and regimes. In him we see ourselves, and we hear in his message the voice of our ancestor-creators who say that life is not yet spent, that there is hope yet for a better tomorrow.

With thanks to Prof Dorothy Lee who prompted me to write something about this.
Garry Deverell

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Notes toward a liturgical theology of the arts in latin tradition

Theology is an art

Theology’s engagement with the Arts is at least as old as the Bible itself. For the Bible, theology’s norm for both the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of theology, is itself an artefact, a collection of literary works created in the whirling crucible of God’s encounter with human beings. Theology not only reflects upon art, but is itself an art. The Gospels, for example, are at once the very act of making the ‘body of Christ,’ but also a subsequent act of reflection upon that making. It is important to understand that both the making and the reflection-on-making are theological acts.

Art is making 

This implies a particular definition of the arts. Following Aristotle and Heidegger, I am content to say that art is simply ‘making’ (poiēsis in Greek). That definition, I suggest, is wide enough to include the productions of technology and technical know-how (technē in Greek) along with those of painters, sculptors, writers, performers and musicians.

Human art is not creative in any primary sense 

You will have noticed that I didn’t use the word ‘creation’ or ‘creativity’ to define the artistic process. I have my reasons for that, and I’ll talk about them later in more detail. For now, let me say only this: I am in agreement with Rowan Williams and Emmanuel Lévinas, amongst others, in believing that the really new only comes into being by an act of God. What we human beings do, by contrast, is work upon, and with, a reality already given, a reality which both precedes and exceeds our intentionality. What human beings can do (and in this is their dignity) is to receive what is given gratefully, and then to discern the shape and form of its eschatological becoming, working and moulding what is given in a profoundly mystical co-operation with the creative intention of the divine Spirit. Only the Spirit knows the mind of God. By participating in the Spirit’s creative power (dunamis), we are able to become partners and co-labourers with God toward the completion of God’s artistry.

God’s art is creative in the primary sense 

God’s art, by contrast, is really new. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo expresses exactly this fact. In an act of primal hospitality, God makes room within the divine being for that which is wholly other that Godself. Similarly, in the doctrine of Christ, the Father ‘others’ himself in the Son, a Son declared to be both the word (logos) and image (ikōn) of the Father. With the arrival of this word and image something entirely new and undreamt of comes to be. It is a new being, as Tillich properly says—so new that it is ‘an event without analogy’ (Moltmann). The doctrine of the Spirit also speaks of the new: the new creation in grace by faith, the new heavens and the new earth, a new community, the new commandment, new names,
identities and futures for those baptised into Christ.

Two dominant theologies of the arts

Two theological traditions have dominated Christian thinking about the arts. Both continue to operate in our churches, seminaries, and art-circles. Please note that I am claiming that they are dominant. I am not claiming that they are absolute. Other models have operated since New Testament times, but beyond the fourth century they were rarely influential.

The first is what I would like to call the Platonic Model. Its model of reality is hierarchical and dualistic: there is the Real (a hidden God) and the unreal (the sensible world). The spiritual is of far greater value than the material. Art’s role in this model is one of representation: to represent the higher realm of the absent or unseen (God, the spiritual) in sensible ways (painting, music, drama, etc.) This model tends to be logocentric, valuing the word (and onto-theology in particular) as a more faithful representation of the spiritual than other kinds of art. The visual arts tend to be used as illustration.

In this model, representation works by analogy: the material is said to be like the spiritual, but not exactly like. Every image of the unseen world ultimately needs to be negated in favour of more accurate images. The doctrine of analogy came to dominate theological thinking in the Scholastic period, and still dominates much Roman Catholic thought today. Key writers in this tradition are Pseudo-Dionysius, Bonaventure, and Aquinas.

This model grounds the possibility of artistic representation in a natural theology. God has left his imprint in the natural world, so that even those who have not heard the specific revelation of Christ are nonetheless able to reach toward the truth. There is a ‘divine spark’ in everyone, which enables them to represent something of the spiritual realm. 

Some versions of this model are highly iconoclastic. Iconoclasm can take several forms. It can be the suspicion (but appreciation) of all art characteristic of negative theology. Or it can be the suspicion of music and visual images in particular, as with many of the Reformers. Calvin, for example, permitted only the liturgical and bodily art of preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.

The second model is what I will call the Enlightenment Model. It begins, roughly, with Descarte.Its model of reality is still dualistic and hierarchical, but now human beings themselves become the ‘measure of all things’: there is the inner world of human soul and consciousness, and the outer world of things. In the modern period, there have been many pendulum swings between the two as to which is the more essential or ‘real’ reality. The overall tendency, however, has been toward the privileging of the inner world.

Art’s role in this model is still to represent, but now its primary subject is the thoughts and feelings of human beings. Both impressionism and expressionism took human subjectivity as their object. Art now becomes a psychological or cultural projection of the inner truth or spirit of a people, time or individual.

Logocentrism continued to a large extent, i.e. analytical discourse was valued over the visual and symbolic arts. In late modernity, however, there was a reversal of that hierarchy. Some of the Romantics began to believe that thought was a poor and secondary mode of representation for what they saw as the primal realities of lived experience. For them, the visual and symbolic arts were closer in being to experience, and therefore more capable of representing it’s claims. Existentialism, particularly in its French modes, took up the cause.

Analogy continued as the preferred understanding of the way in which the primary subject of art, human beings themselves, are represented. It was still understood that the spiritual was hard to represent in material terms.

This model also grounds the possibility of artistic representation in a natural theology. But now it has become a thoroughly anthropological theology. God, if he or she exists, is coextensive with the world, and particularly with the spiritual experience of human beings. The ‘divine spark’ has become the human spirit per se, which means that anyone (not only Christians and Jews) can speak, write, paint, compose or perform something of God. The theology of Don Cupit is the most frank presentation of this tendency in much contemporary theology. See, especially,What is a Story?

Iconoclasm continues to be influential in modern theological theories of art, but now it refers mainly to the capacity of artists to represent the death of God or, indeed, in late modern art, the death of the human subject. Duchamp, for example, gave up the labour of painting and sculptor in favour of hanging toilet seats on the wall. This kind of iconoclasm is supposed to be about the abyss opening under the human project now that God is dead. If God is dead, so are the moral and aesthetic values. All that is left is the conflict of arbitrary notions of taste. There can now be no ‘higher art,’ because there are no longer any transcendent criteria.

Proposals in a liturgical mode

In my view it was always a mistake to theologise about the arts beginning with a doctrine of creation. Biblically, what we may know about God is that which is revealed to us in a specific address from God, an address which comes (always) in a material and therefore bodily form. Christ is the fullness of that address. He is named, biblically, as the Word and Image of God—God’s art, in other words. In Christ, God traverses the very great distance between the divine and the human. In Christ, God reveals that it is in the very nature of God to become material and human. It is also revealed that human beings are destined to share in the divine communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In this view, there is an artwork which both precedes and exceeds us. It also infuses our very life as human beings. It is the art of God. The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the Father as the technitēs, the architect or builder of a heavenly city which is the telos or destination towards which all the saints are journeying by their faith (Heb 11.10). In a parallel passage from Ephesians, human beings are called poiēma or artefacts of God, created in Christ Jesus to do the works of good (Eph 2.10). That phrase ‘in Christ Jesus’ is crucial for my understanding of the artistic vocation of Christians (note that I do not say ‘the vocation of Christian artists’). Christians are those who are putting off the project of self-expression and self-fulfillment in favour of their formation by God into the image of Christ. Christians are those who vow themselves for deconstruction by the Spirit of Christ in their inner beings, and reconstruction after the gloriously transfigured selfhood of Christ. Christians are those who allow themselves to actually become Christ, God’s masterpiece, and so participate in all that God is making of the cosmos, which is itself traversed and held together ‘in Christ’. Christian art is that which participates, willingly and vulnerably, in this work of God’s grace, which is a work of eschatological form/ation.

You will remember I said earlier that Christ himself is a work of human art. His portraits, even in the gospel, vary according to the genius of each evangelist, do they not? Yes, but he is also an artefact whose form and meaning continually escape our genius and intention. Christ is, if you like, transcendent to our projective genius and intention. The resurrection is the strongest statement of that fact in Christian theology. As Marinanne Sawicki says, the resurrection is a genric disruption of every schema human beings might use to domesticate Christ to our ideological agendas. In that sense, Christ is indeed 'iconic'. For the icon is painted, prayerfully, by a human artist. Yet this apparently human artefact seems to become, in its making, a site of interruption by which Christ escapes our intention, returning to undo the objectifying gaze of the human eye, thus re-making that person’s subjectivity after his own inscrutable intention. 

The point about icons, as Jean-Luc Marion notes, is exactly this: that in gazing we see nothing we may objectify, but are rather fixed in the gaze of a love entirely excessive to our human capacity to know or encompass. Thus it is that human art and artifice can become the occasion by which God does the work of an artist upon the material of our human selves.

The story of the gospel, as told in the embodied form of liturgy, is the school of Christian art. It is the place and time in which we learn to form ourselves and our world in concert with the eschatological art of the Spirit. The sequence of the liturgy is incarnational and missional. Having praised God, and invoked the divine presence, we listen for the Word which will become flesh in the eucharistic celebration. In the offertory, it is our world, our cosmos, and our own bodies which we offer as the material for this embodiment. Christ becomes these things, that they, in turn, might become Christ. “Let us receive what we are, let us become what we receive: the body of Christ”. Then we are sent, in the power of the Spirit, to participate in God’s formation of the world, God’s making of justice, peace, beauty and joy. 

In the liturgy we make a story which has already made us, and in doing so we offer ourselves to be re-made anew so that we might remake our world according to the vision of God. The liturgy is, therefore, a school for artists who are also disciples. It teaches us both the purpose and form of Christian art, which is not a specialist vocation, but rather a vocation and calling that belongs to all Christians by virtue of our baptism. By participating in the liturgy, we are trained to live, labour, love and make after the way of Christ with things. It is the liturgy which teaches us to discern the becoming of the creative Spirit, and so join with Christ in treating life itself as a liturgy, a work of art in which we participate with God.

Garry Deverell

January 2004

Monday, 22 February 2021

Lent and reconciliation

Jeremiah 2.1-13; Psalm 26; Mark 14.1-25

As a child I was very talkative. At the edge of the vast estates of barley, wheat and potatoes which dominated the landscape where we lived, were small stands of native bush: atop hills, on the steep slopes of mountains and along creeks. Whenever the opportunity arose, this is where I would wander. And as I wandered, I would talk. Not with myself (though many might see it that way) but with the trees and the ferns, the crows and the hawks, the wallabies and the potaroos, even the rocks and the waterfalls, that I passed on my way. I would greet them all cheerfully and enquire about what kind of day each was having. I would pause to watch and to listen a while, finally wishing each well and offering a prayer or an incantation seeking their good and their well-being. Sometimes I would tell them about me, my troubles, my hopes, my bewilderments. And I would hear their voices speaking back to me. Not in English, mind. Whatever the language, however, I understood. I heard wisdom. I heard care. I heard guidance. And, after a little while, I would return to my family, my school, and all the complex negotiations of civilised life, somehow calmed and refreshed.

As a teenager, another conversation-partner was added. The bible. I became fascinated with its characters and voices, as many and as varied as I knew in the bush, though considerably more violent. Here were people I recognised. People who suffered great injustice, whose hopes and dreams were shattered. People who coveted all that belonged to another. People who stole, raped, murdered, and committed genocide in order to obtain what belonged to another. People who were afraid, but who were able to overcome their fears through faith in God. People who were able to change their hearts and their behaviour because they believed in the mercy of God. People who carried great wounds and flaws, and yet were chosen to become God’s emissaries. These days I marvel that a book as violent and as tragic a testament to our inhumanity towards one another as ever was written, could simultaneously bear a message from and about a God of love.  But it does. On every page. For what the bible finally proclaims, surely, is just this: first, that we are loved by God, even as we fail, consistently and repeatedly, to love each other; and, second, that because God has not given up on us, it is possible not only to recognise and learn such love, and also to abide in its mysterious power more deeply and consistently. 

 So, two conversation partners, two sources of wisdom for the living of life as a trawloolway man who is also a Christian. The one located in a sacred book, a book brought to this country by the coloniser, and the other located in a sacred landscape, a landscape that is alive with the presence of ancestor-spirits who can be spoken to, and who can speak.  Both book and country, in their own ways, are sacred texts. Both, being full of divine spirit, may be consulted for wisdom and guidance, if you know how. If I have a lament, this night, it is not (as some of you may perhaps expect) that the coloniser has attended carefully to the sacred book, and not enough to sacred country. No, my lament is a tad more comprehensive than that. That the coloniser has paid little attention to either.

 Here I want to draw your attention to the second chapter of Jeremiah which says, in part:

Thus says the Lord:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
   your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
   in a land not sown.

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
   that they went far from me,
   and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
I brought you into a plentiful land
   to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
   and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who handle the law did not know me;
   the rulers transgressed against me.

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
   be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
   for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
   and dug out cisterns for themselves,
   cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

This oracle, first uttered in the presence of the last king of Judah, is uncannily prescient about where we find ourselves, right now, as a nation and as a church. It is true, is it not, that we have forgotten the ancient ways, the ways here described as a covenant, a marriage, a communion with the divine in the wild places, a country not sown or intensively cultivated by the invader. Is it not true, as the prophet says, that upon entering this country the colonists saw the land not as a cathedral in which God might be known and worshipped, but rather as a commodity to be exploited in exchange for wealth and influence? Did not the colonists clear the land of its owners and managers, its first peoples, in a manner that fundamentally fractured the terms of God’s law and covenant? Did they not covet what belonged to their neighbours, did they not steal and rape and murder in order to obtain what they desired? Does not that theft, rape and murder still continue to this day? Is not the lament of those of us who have survived that genocide also the lament of the land itself, and the ancestor-spirits who dwell therein, and of God’s own self? Are we not the voice of the crucified one who is, at one and the same time, both Christ and country?

By commodifying this country and removing those whom the divine Spirit placed here to manage and cultivate its fruitfulness, colonists have polluted the sacred stream God provided for all of us as a gift, the stream of sacred lore designed to sustain us in life over many hundreds of millennia. Instead we have dug cisterns for ourselves, cisterns so badly designed that they can barely hold water: practices and structures and policies which have brought us to point of ecological emergency, and to the certainly, certainly I say, of a fundamental implosion in the biological operating-system of our planet.  Unless. Unless we repent of our sin. Unless we turn again to the God whose wisdom and way may be discerned in both sacred text and sacred country.

In the world of politics and public policy, this means removing the puppets of capitalism from government and replacing them with people who are willing to listen to the still, small, voice of the divine Spirit. In our church it means jettisoning all that remains of that possessive, status-hungry, exclusionary impulse in every state-sanctioned church and replacing it with the disciplines of listening, hospitality, and prophecy. For unless the voices we generally exclude, ignore and belittle are welcomed to the table, then we shall be as guilty of killing the prophets and dancing on their graves as the kings of Israel and the priests of its temple. And we shall pay for it in the end by finding ourselves at the wrong end of the Magnificat: scattered to the bottom of the food-chain, rendered empty, nothing.

All of which is to offer an invitation for you all in this season of Lent. See, I place before you the way that leads to death and the way that leads to life. If you die to your self-importance, and the self-importance of the colonial imagination, you will be empty enough for God to fill you with life.  But if you hang on to such things, you will find that you are already dead. And your deadness will continue to infect the systems and networks of which you are part, both publicly and privately. As the spiral of Lent into Easter is properly a return to the waters of baptism, to receive there, through repentance and the death of self, the risen life of Christ; so may it also be, for you, a turning to the rivers and creeks of country, through which that same God’s speaks a word of grace that will renew not only your own life, but the life of the whole planetary eco-system.

Garry Deverell

This homily was first preached at Christ Church South Yarra on the 1st Sunday of Lent, 2021.

Friday, 5 February 2021

‘Boundless plains to share’: Why the National Anthem supports and encourages Australia’s original sin

Australians all let us rejoice,

For we are young and free;

We've golden soil and wealth for toil;

Our home is girt by sea;

Our land abounds in nature's gifts

Of beauty rich and rare;

In history's page, let every stage

Advance Australia Fair.

In joyful strains then let us sing,

Advance Australia Fair.


Beneath our radiant Southern Cross

We'll toil with hearts and hands;

To make this Commonwealth of ours

Renowned of all the lands;

For those who've come across the seas

We've boundless plains to share;

With courage let us all combine

To Advance Australia Fair.

In joyful strains then let us sing,

Advance Australia Fair.

These are the lyrics for the national anthem of Australia as officially adopted by the Parliament of Australia in April 1984. It is a song that I have never personally sung. On those occasions when, as part of a school or civic assembly, I was invited to sing the anthem, I declined. I still decline. Why? Because, as a trawloolway man whose family has lived in northern lutrawita/Tasmania for at least 35 thousand years, I will not sing the victory songs of the invader.

For make no mistake, this is a victory song. It is an anthem that entrenches and encourages the myth of terra nulius, that most destructive of colonial fictions. This fantasia about an empty land that has been legitimately occupied by free and hard-working pioneers who deserve the spoils of their adventuring on the other side of the globe does nothing but hide and obfuscate the truth of this nation’s history. The truth is this: that the continent was stolen from the most ancient civilisations on earth by largely absentee landlords from Britain; that the stealing was done through the agency of paid servants from the working and criminal classes who waged bloody war against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations who were already here; that the survivors of these wars were removed from our lands and placed in camps where the speaking of our languages and the practice of our religions and cultures were outlawed; that we were forced into indentured servitude and slavery both in these camps, and on the newly stolen lands of white settlers; that, despite some gains, most of us still do not have access to our own lands, sacred stories or elders; that we remain amongst the most impoverished, unwell and incarcerated people on the planet.

For all that, we are still here, and we continue our fight to regain some of what has been lost or stolen. We cannot rejoice in the ethically questionable achievements of the colonising project called ‘Australia’ and we cannot rejoice in the immoral annexation of our lands and waterways.  For, in Australia, it seems, it is ONLY ‘those who’ve come across the seas’ that may share in the bounty that this continent has to offer without contest or question.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, a small change in the wording of one line in this anthem will make not an iota of difference to the overall character and message of the song: that this is a white country, and everyone else (especially the original inhabitants) must be content with the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.  We aren’t ‘one’ people and we shall never be so until the dense web of colonial injustice is unwoven.

In August 1996, the singing trio Tiddas made a poignant critique of the anthem in song that remains true:

This land may be beautiful

But it cannot be called fair

So don't sing me your anthem

'Til we've learned how to share


‘We are 'the lucky country'

Where anyone can win’ -

If you were born to the right family

And have the white-coloured skin


So don't sing me an anthem

'Cause the words can't be felt

What's pride in a country

Without pride in yourself?

I long for the day when ‘closing the gap’ will mean, alongside the usual indicators of improvements in health and wellbeing, a recognition of our ongoing sovereignty in this country. Until then, this anthem (along with Australia Day, the flag, and all the other apparatus of the colonial state) will remain, for Indigenous people, yet another symbol of white supremacy.

Garry Deverell


Monday, 4 January 2021

Fellow Heirs Through the Gospel

 Text: Matthew 2.1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12

We live in a world in which it is difficult to regard people of a different ethnicity than our own as human beings worthy of our love and care. We live in a world, in other words, that is racist to its very core.  Two personal stories will suffice to illustrate that contention.  In August I spent a day riding the trains and buses of Los Angeles in California, and in doing so learned two things about that city that I hadn’t known before.  The first is that the population of Los Angeles is mostly Hispanic.  That was surprising to me, because most of the LA-based TV shows and movies I’ve seen are full of Anglo-Saxons, with an occasional smattering of African-Americans.  The second thing I learned about Los Angeles is that it fosters a segregated society.  The white minority seems to confine itself to living in the hills or by the sea, and to the suited professions for work, and to cars as a mode of transport.  I think that in the whole time I spent riding the trains and buses, I saw two Anglo faces, and they were tourists from New York.  I came away with the distinct impression that despite the enormously multicultural profile of contemporary American life, the enormous prosperity of the United States is still controlled by and for one particular ethnic enclave: white Europeans.

A second story.  At lunch recently with a group of intelligent, sophisticated, Uniting Church ministers, the talk turned towards the role of Aboriginal people in our church.  Suddenly the talk became less intelligent and less sophisticated.  These people, whom I knew and respected, suddenly started to caricature, stereotype, and make fun of Aboriginal people in a way that seemed to contradict everything else they believed in.  Now, most of you know already that I am a blackfella with a white face, a native of Tasmania from long before the Dutch or the English arrived.  So the apparent fun of this turn in the conversation was far from fun for me.  Indeed, I felt deeply wounded by what was said.  So wounded that I was stunned into a tumultuous silence so confusing that I found myself unable to say anything to them about either how I was feeling or about the substance of what they were doing.  Now, you also know that I am rarely short of things to say, especially if I catch a whiff of injustice somewhere. So this was a really strange and bewildering experience for me.  It had been a very long time since I had felt that fearful, that powerless, and that small. But that is what racist taunts do to a person.  They makes you feel as though you are not a human being.  They bring home to you the tragic fact that there are people in the world who believe that you are unworthy of the respect they would normally extend to other human beings—simply because you belong, in some way, to an ethnic group that is other than their own.

So now I want to ask the ethical question “Why is racism wrong?”  The usual way of answering the question, in contemporary Australia, is that racism is wrong because human beings are equally deserving of respect and care, whatever their ethnicity.  Which I agree with.  But what if one were to then ask “but why are human beings equally deserving of respect and care”?  Now that is a question that Australians find much more difficult to answer, I suspect (not that we ask ourselves the question very much at all).  I know this because we Australians seem to so easily put our prohibition of racism aside, when it suits us—which says to me that deep down we don’t really know why racism is so very wrong.  Why did the Cronulla rioters chant racist slogans and beat each other up?  Why did the Aussie cricket fans at the Melbourne and Sydney tests make racist remarks towards the South African bowler Makhaya Ntini?  Why did our Department of Immigration deport three non-Anglo Australian citizens last year, when there was no evidence of their having committed any crime against the state?  Because, deep down, many Australians do not believe that the ethical injunction against racism is absolute.  We believe, rather, that the prohibition can be put aside when it suits us, when something more important comes along, like wanting to defeat or belittle a person or a group or a team that we perceive, for one reason or another, to be a threat.

Let me suggest to you, tonight, that there is, in point of fact, a reason why racism is wrong, why it is always wrong, and why the prohibition against racism should never be put aside for any reason whatsoever.  The reason is revealed to us in the event of the Epiphany, when Christ appeared in the world to show us that God loves and cares for everyone, without distinction, no matter what their ethnicity.  For that is the message Matthew wants to communicate in the story of the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child in Bethlehem.  He writes to a predominantly Jewish audience in one of the most multicultural areas of the Roman Empire—the province of Galilee.  Most Jews had traditionally believed that God had chosen them, exclusively, to be the recipients of his love and care, and there were apparently vestiges of  precisely this kind of theological racism in Matthew’s community.  In reading the gospel carefully, it becomes clear that Matthew’s predominantly Jewish constituency found it very difficult to accept that others—non Jews, Romans, Greeks, Cretans, Arabs—might also be welcomed by God into the divine covenant of his love, peace and justice.

What Matthew says to his community, by way of a response, it this:  ‘Who were the first to recognise the significance of the Jesus’ birth?  Who were they, who were first called by God through the rising of the star, to come and worship him?  Who were they who were first called to be God’s evangelists and prophets, those who tell the good news that Messiah is born?  Are they Jews?  Are they members of the ‘chosen people’?  Actually no.  They are Easterlings, foreigners, infidels.  What they understood, and you must learn to grasp yourselves, is that the Christ born in Bethlehem is a light not only for Israel and for the Jews, but for everyone.  What he offers us, by his teaching, his way of life, and finally by his death and resurrection, is a light to guide the feet of all people into the loving embrace of God’.

What Matthew says to his community was, of course, foreshadowed by the writer to the Ephesians.  The mystery revealed in the gospel, he says, is simply this: that Christ has come to make all people, regardless of their history or ethnicity,  fellow-heirs with the Jews, of all that God has promised.  Crucially, he adds one more thing, however.  The church, he says, is the means by which this mystery of Christ’s universal love is made known in the world, and especially to those who are most powerful, the rulers and authorities who control things.  That means that we, the church, are called not only to preach the universal love of God and to oppose racism, but also to embody this gospel in our own communal life.  Which the church, to its shame, has not always done.

And so I conclude my brief reflection with this.  Racism is wrong for one reason, and one reason only:  that in Christ we have learned that God loves and cares for all people without distinction.  Such pan-ethnic love is absolute, because it is of the very nature of God, whom the 1st letter of St. John names Love itself.  Therefore the prohibition against racism can never, under any circumstance or for any reason, be legitimately put aside.  Let us praise the God whom has made it so by the sending of his Son into the world.  And let us pray that racism shall wither way, both in our wider culture and society, but also within the dark seeding-places of our own hearts.

Garry Deverell

This homily was first published in Cross Purposes: a forum for theological dialogue 11 (2008): 3-5.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Two Poems. Christmas 2020

YB Yeats – The Second Coming (1919)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats wrote this poem in 1919 as the world lay waste in the wake of the Great War, and as Ireland held its breath to see how the British would respond to its independence movement, and as his wife lay sick in bed, apparently dying in childbirth, having contracted the Spanish flu. The poet expresses his real anxieties about both the future of the world, and about his personal and domestic peace.  What is to become of us, he muses, if the centre cannot hold, if the falcon can no longer hear the falconer’s voice, if every sense of order and meaning that one might have once counted on is no longer there? What if anarchy takes over and the notion of a common good is replaced by the rule of the angry mob or, worse still, the rule of  some kind of monstrous sphinx-like dictator who cares nothing for life or for common decency? Is the monster a man, or is it a virus, some kind of cosmic force? The poet doesn’t know. But he has a deep sense of foreboding and wonders whether an anti-Christ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born in a grotesque mockery of the birth of Christ. 

Greg Weatherby 'Birth of Jesus'

There are equally anxious voices out there in the ether right now, on this very night.  For it has indeed been the worst year many of us are able to remember. The Australian bushfires that raged from late December to mid-January were the most destructive on record, destroying 9 million hectares of forest, farmland, town and residential country in the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. In some places, the fires burned so hot that stone structures melted and even the biomatter below the surface of the ground was utterly obliterated. Ecologists are now saying that in such places, nothing will ever be able to grow again. Even where this is not the case, in parts of the forest where regeneration is possible, whole ecosystems – millennia in the making - have been utterly laid waste. It is also estimated that over 1 billion native animals perished in the fires, many of them belonging to species already close to extinction such as koalas and mountain pygmy possums. A large portion of those animals apparently died either because the fires were travelling too fast or because they could not make their way through fences erected by property owners.  The response of government is to continue to bury its head in the sand and go ‘la la la la’ with regard to the now decades of warnings about climate change that have been coming in, across the airwaves, from scientists and Indigenous peoples alike.  2020 has been the warmest on record, and next year will be warmer, so get used to the Australia you know going up in flames or being washed away by floods and gale-force winds.

And then there’s the pandemic. Not the Spanish flu this time, but Covid-19. To date Covid-19 has killed 1.8 million people and sent the global economy into its worst recession since the early 1930s. The disease has been cruel in the choices it forces upon both governments and individuals. Some have continued to work, to keep their businesses open, to meet with friends and family in the same way as we’ve always done.  The cost of this choice is very often contracting the disease and passing it on; many who chose this path have died.  The other choice is not so good either, really. To stay at home, to cease working in the social way we have been used to, to stop meeting up with friends and family in order to slow the progress of the disease through the community. But, for many, embracing this second set of options – often in the name of caring for others – has unleashed unprecedented levels of loneliness, isolation and, for some, a life and death struggle with that equally merciless killer, depression.  To avoid one kind of pandemic, it seems, many of us have had to throw ourselves into the path of another.

Climate change. Pandemics of body and mind. We could go on to consider the impact of these things on the refugee crisis, the plight of Indigenous peoples, international students, casual workers and so on. We could talk about Trump and Sco-Mo and Boris, we could talk about populism as a symptom of anxiety. But I will refrain.  You get the point. There’s a lot of anxiety out there, and the anxiety is not a response to things that aren’t actually there. There are very good reasons to feel anxious.  There are good reasons to believe that the centre can no longer hold, that the order of things we have come to take for granted is about to go belly-up.  Very good reasons.

I want to point out, however, that when Yeats wrote his poem in 1919 he conveniently forgot a few things. He forgot that the British has been brutalising and starving the Irish for several centuries already, and that the prospect of a new crackdown on the independence movement was therefore hardly unexpected.  He also forgot that the Great War was not the first conflict to have devasted Europe. It was simply the latest in a continuous series of conflicts that had already killed or maimed millions and destroyed economies utterly. Hardly new. He also conveniently forgot that the Spanish flu was not Europe’s first pandemic. There had been plagues and 'black' deaths for centuries.  Again, hardly unprecedented.  All of which is to say that whilst Yeats brilliantly captures the anxiety he felt in 1919, his poem can hardly be taken as a witness to something entirely new or unforeseen in the story of humanity. 

Quite simply, there has never been a ‘centre’, some kind of cosmic or moral order, that is suddenly falling into rack and ruin. Rack and ruin has been the name of the game from the beginning. There has always been war, there have always been bully-boy politicians, there has always been poverty. There has always been illness and death. At the time when Jesus was born, for example, the Jews had been ruled by foreign powers for three centuries already.  They knew well that everything had gone to pot. The life-expectancy of your average landless male peasant was around 30 years, and just 40 years if you happened to have a trade, such as carpentry. Most of the Jewish population now expected that life would be short, and it would be brutal. You were born, you worked yourself to the bone to keep your family from starving, and then you died very young, and usually left a widow but hopefully some sons and daughters who could take over the family business and do it all again.  To a family like that, just like that, Jesus was born.

It’s easy to give into despair. Very easy. Most days, especially in the lead-up to Christmas, I am sorely tempted to go there. Afterall, my own people were colonised by the British and felt the savagery of the moral 'order’, the ‘centre’ they wished to impose. I still carry the trauma of that in my mind and my body. So, too, this stolen ‘country’: our lands, seas and waterways. There are deep wounds in our dreaming-places wherever you turn. But I don’t go there: to despair, I mean. And the reason I don’t is actually very simple.  I believe that in spite of all that is wrong, there is a power in the world for right. That is spite of all that is brutal and cruel, there is a power in the world that is caring, and knows how to offer love and succour to all who are hurting. I believe that in spite of the darkness and ignorance that floods our country and our lives, that there is a power in the world for light and life, and for living with country as kin, as family. That this power is here with us - that it is all around us, that it waits patiently to seep into our minds and hearts at the first indication that we are willing and in need - I can never prove to anyone. Not in the unassailable manner that many expect, anyway. But I can testify to its reality, to its power, and to its essential character: love, kindness, welcome, shelter, hospitality.  I see and feel and know these things every single day.

Rather than rabbit on and on and on about love, and about Jesus as the way in which love shows itself to the world, I want to read another poem: a poem, this time, from a humble parish priest from the Welsh countryside, a place somewhat subaltern to the English seats of power. 

RS Thomas - The Coming
And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.

The Son did come here, to live amongst us, to teach us his way of love, and to save us from the worst excesses of our inhumanity and hatred of country. It is that coming, the coming of light and love and kindness and compassion, that we celebrate tonight, and to which we commit ourselves anew for a more hopeful future.

I wish you all a holy and most joyful Christmas.

Garry Deverell
Christmas Eve 2020

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Not the Messiah, People!

 Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28

Well, greetings everyone. Thanks for having me back. It’s an unusual thing, people having me back to preach more than once. It’s possible, of course, that you may have forgotten just how excruciating my preaching can be.  If that’s the case, don’t worry. I’m here to remind you!

You laugh, but I’m only partly joking. My homily will, I promise, be an immense non-event for many of you. For what do folks reasonably expect from a preacher when they get along to church?  Words of wisdom for a topsy-turvy age? Sorry, if I ever knew how to dance wisdom’s tune, I’ve now forgotten the steps. Words of comfort for a hurting world? Nope, fresh out of those too. I have no idea what to do with my own hurt, let alone anyone else’s. Practical solutions for practical problems? Nuh, I’m famous for my lack of practical know-how.  One reviewer of my most recent book said: ‘Dr Deverell is very good at lamenting the problem, but offers very little by way of practical solutions.’ So, here we are. Two paragraphs in and things are looking pretty grim already.

Still, I have one competent-preacher trick to keep your attention. Name-dropping. When Nathan and I were discussing my visit during the week . . .   Sorry, just messing with you. I really meant to drop the name of that other famous Baptist. John. John the Baptist.  I have great affection for John, even though I’m an Anglican. Why? Because he, too, was a lamentable preacher.

According to the account we have from the other John, John the Evangelist, when some faculty members were sent from the Jerusalem theological college to ask who John was, he replied ‘I’m not the messiah’.  I’m Not The Messiah. Which is another way of saying, ‘Nuh, not wise. Struggling to see a big picture in all of this. Nuh, not a healer of hurts.  Not a doctor or psychologist, people. Nuh, no practical solutions to our social and political problems. Not a canny politician.’ Nope. Not the Messiah. Not the bloke with the answers. No-one’s saviour. Not me. Nuh.

Now, it is extraordinary to me that the Jerusalem theologians didn’t leave it at that and walk away. I mean, John had told them clearly that he was nobody special and that there was nothing to see here. But hey! They’re theologians! Not particularly bright! So they asked him two more questions about his identity: ‘Are you Elijah?’, ‘Are you the prophet?’ Remember, people, that these were crazy times. The Romans had occupied the countryside and folk were desperate for a saviour.  So people speculated about the coming of a messiah, a saviour anointed by God, who would rescue God’s people from their oppressors. There were rumours that a prophet, a great preacher, would arise to announce the messiah’s imminent arrival, and it was possible that this preacher would be Elijah, one of the greatest, returned from the dead. Perhaps John was that prophet? Perhaps John was Elijah? 

Well, ‘No. I am not.’ That was John’s categorical reply. And I don’t think he was lying. Because liars, in my experience, tend to present themselves as saviours. Like Trump telling his supporters, in 2016, that he would ‘drain’ the Washington ‘swamp’ of its political corruption when his real plan was to corrupt it even more. Or Peter Dutton promising, this week, to save us from terrorists by granting himself the power to detain people without judicial review, when his actual plan is to discourage dissent by creating a legal apparatus to gag journalists and whistle-blowers. John the Baptist wasn’t like the Donald. Neither was he like Dutton. He didn’t lie by presenting himself as a saviour.  Instead, he was up-front and disarmingly truthful: ‘I am not Elijah, I am not the prophet, I am not the messiah.’ (Sings ‘It ain’t me babe, no no no, it ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for babe’). Sorry, I digress.

Apparently John’s going all Bob Dylan just made the theologians even more curious. ‘Ok then,' they said. 'If you’re not Elijah, not the prophet, not the messiah, who are you? Give us an answer for those who sent us. For you wash people's sins away in the river, which looks like the kind of thing the prophet who announces the messiah would do.’ To which John memorably replied, and I quote:

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said . . . I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.

Ooh. Now this is getting interesting. ‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness’.  What does that mean? Can’t claim to know precisely, but that ‘voice’ reminds me of a couple of phrases in the 2017s ‘Statement from the Heart’, promulgated by a broad coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders. Amongst other things, the Statement calls for the ‘establishment of a First Nations Voice’ to be ‘enshrined in the Constitution.’ This ‘Voice’, the statement goes on to say, would be there to ensure that in our relationships with settler communities are built upon truth rather than lies. Truth. Truth about what has happened in this land. The invasions, the stealing of lands, the massacres, the removal of children from their parents, the exiling of elders, the slavery, the stolen wages, the destruction of language and culture. The truth. A voice to ensure that the truth is told. A voice crying in the wilderness. The wilderness of lies and denial. The wilderness of Australia today.

Perhaps the voice of John the Baptist is like the voice proposed by the Statement from the Heart, which makes no promises about a saviour but, more modestly, expresses a hope that the truth will be told; that someone, anyone, will become a voice of truth. For whilst lies and denials cover everything in darkness, truth uncovers things, reveals things, bathes them in light. Remember what the evangelist says of John at the beginning of his gospel?

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

John’s baptism was meant to be a testimony to the light, to the truth. It had to do with repentance, a washing away of all the shitty lies we tell ourselves. Especially the lie that we ourselves are the light, the source of our own salvation, or that a charismatic man of passion like John is the light, or that your favourite church or preacher is the light.  Newsflash people. John was no saviour! He bore witness to the saviour. He pointed away from himself toward the saviour. For the light was the messiah who was yet to come. It was Jesus, who came and lived amongst us, who taught us his ways, who was murdered by the state and exulted to the right hand of God. Who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and whose reign of justice and peace will have no end. It is he who is the true speaker of the words Isaiah records: 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

One of the church’s most terrible mistakes was to take this passage to itself, as though it were we, the church, who take on the mantle of the messiah. We do not, not even as the ‘body’ or ‘temple’ of Christ in whom Jesus’ Spirit has come to dwell.  For the best way to ‘be’ the body of Christ is, somewhat paradoxically, to point away from ourselves to the Jesus who is not yet here, to the mystical, cosmic, body that has not yet entirely arrived. To be like John the Baptist. To tell the truth that we are nothing special, that our answers to the great questions are at best educated guesses, and that our ‘good deeds’ are worth little more than the thong of Jesus' sandal, so regularly do they fall short of the mark. But then we are called to look toward the horizon, toward the light that is coming into the world entirely of its own accord. And to encourage others to do the same, to follow our gaze, and to wait with eager expectation for the one who, alone, has the power to do some decent saving.

All of which is to say: If you’re looking for wisdom, look for it in Jesus. If you are hurting and in need of healing, look for the salve that is Jesus. If you need practical solutions to difficult problems, look for them in Jesus. Because your preachers and the churches that ordain them, we aren't really up to it. We can't be relied upon to know what we are doing. The most honest of us know that it is so, and cast ourselves upon the grace of God as our only chance for redemption. But some of us are also canny enough to point to Jesus, the first and only source of all such grace. Like a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread when you have none of our own. As every Baptist worthy of that name should.

Garry Deverell

This homily was preached at South Yarra Community Baptist Church on the 3rd Sunday of Advent 2020.