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Saturday, 11 January 2020

A prayer of confession in the face of ecological catastrophe: for use by settler churches

God of Jesus Christ
we come to you because there is no-where else to turn.
There is a famine in our land, 
a famine with regard to living and telling the truth.

We confess that we invaded this land and enslaved its peoples,
the people who have cared for this country and its waterways 
for thousands upon thousands of years.

We confess that we have wilfully ignored the wisdom of the First Peoples,
wisdom about how to live in this country in a way that honours and preserves all life,
that we have trampled their knowledge underfoot and treated it with contempt.

We confess that we have treated the land itself with contempt,
      and its seas and waterways also.
We have not cared for it as we ought to have done.
Instead we have exploited and raped it to feed our selfish appetites.

Now the land is sick.
It weeps and cries out in pain.
Its plants and animals, the rich tapestry of its eco-systems,
      are burning up for lack of nourishment and care.
And it is our fault.

Teach us, O God, to amend both our lives
      and the political and economic systems in which they are embedded.
Teach us to treasure the First Nations of this land
      and their wisdom about how to live here with respect and sensitivity.
Teach us to treasure the country and waterways on which we depend,
      its cycles and seasons, its plants and animals, its fragile and beautiful ecosystems.
Teach us to call our political leaders to account.
Teach us, O God, to live and tell the truth.

God of Jesus Christ,
We come to you because there is no-where else to turn.
Have mercy on us and free us from our sins.

Offered to the settler churches
by Garry Deverell
a trawloolway man and Anglican priest
from trouwerner (Tasmania, Australia)

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Communing with the Divine: a Trawloolway man reads the Song of Songs

    A reading of country

As regularly as I can, I venture into lonely forest walks around the coastal settlement of Bridport in NE Tasmania. Whilst I have no illusions about the flora and fauna bearing much relation to that of a time prior to European annexation, I nevertheless take great comfort in walking there, in following the contoured rise and fall of land and sea and communing with my pairebeenener ancestors as I do so.

I use the word 'commune' deliberately. For that is what happens when I walk. Something of myself flows into the ancestral aliveness of land and sea; the ancestral community - she or he or they - are changed by my presence, the specificity of my body in space and time, my odour and breath, my breathing and the soundings I make by sensual contact and by vocalisation.  And something of that aliveness flows into whomever I am, also. The shape and form of sea and land as he leads me toward secret grottos and streams; her breathy, salty atmosphere caressing eye and ear and skin; the sounds made by wind and sea as they flow around ancient trees and rockscapes; the thud and thump of furry kin as they pad their way, unseen, across the forest floor: a sign and a promise of occasionally more fulsome encounter, face to face.  By this communion, this asymmetrical exchange of greater and lesser selves, we are both changed. The ancestral landscape is enlarged to account for and address myself, my presence, my unique haecceitas. And I, myself, become 'all flame', as Abba Lot would have it, an instance in one time and place of the ancestral fire who inhabits and animates all times and places; a moment of rejoicing in which the ancestral song becomes a single singer; an instance, a momentary fluctuation, by which the ancestral ocean becomes a single ebb or flow of tidal movement.  In this communion I find, momentarily at least, some kind of healing, an ointment to sooth and to seal all the scars that I carry, in body and in mind. But the healing is far from complete. It is incremental and partial. It is real, it is effective; but it is unmasterable. It gives itself certainly, but only as a gift; it will not obey any law of necessity, annexation or measured exchange I might try to impose from the colonial imagination.

The ancestor I commune with has a name but cannot be fully and finally named with this name. The name I know, the name that has survived, is Moinee. Moinee is the creator-ancestor most widely invoked and revered by my people. He is the wombat-ancestor who initiated the formation of the land of lutruwita or Tasmania which, of course, is alive with the presence of many other ancestors as well. Amongst the lesser ancestors is Parlevar the kangaroo, the totem of my particular clan, the one on whom the first palawa or human beings were modelled, albeit with significant modifications. Both Moinee and Parlevar still appear to us in their animal forms: they are concretely and unmistakably there whenever we stand face-to-face with our sister wombat or brother kangaroo. And the times when I have done so over the years, the moments in which some kind of inarticulate conversation can be said to have taken place, are truly the most joyful and the most holy of my life. So, I know with whom I commune. And yet I do not know.

For really it is clear that the wombat and the kangaroo, for all their magnificence, are a lot like you or me: unique moments, instances, expressions or substitutes who are what they are because some greater life or power animates them and puts them in play. That life or power can clearly be named or even gendered in particular instances. Likewise, it can be communed with through the mediation of particular forms or material events in country, air or seascape. But can the Thou with whom we commune be named as she or he is, in his or her own being? Can she be named, as it were, comprehensively, without remainder or doubt, in her time beyond a particular time and her place beyond a particular place? Can he be named, as Jean-Luc Marion would have it, in her divinity beyond being? Not really. For every name is, as Jacques Derrida has taught us, a trace or cipher for an identity that is, in the fullness of its self-revelation, neither fully here nor fully now. 'Now we see in part and we know in part', said the Apostle Paul, 'as through a glass darkly'.  The time for knowing God's identity, as we are fully known by God, has not yet arrived.  We do not even know who Christ is, or we ourselves in Christ, not completely. Not comprehensively.  What we do know is that the name we do know evokes in us a desire or a longing to know more fully. Thus, the quintessentially eschatological season of Advent which some of us are trying to honour as we speak.

    A reading of the Song of Songs

The themes I've developed through my reading of ancestral country may also be found in the Hebrew Bible's Song of Songs. After all, the divine is never comprehensively named in the poem, not even as YWH, that most elusive and eschatological of names for God in the Jewish canon. Yet, if the poem is read within its thoroughly canonical religious context and the history of its reception by both Jews and Christians, this poem about the longing of the 'Shulamite' for her lover may also be legitimately read as a celebration of the communion between human beings and the divine as it is mediated by the particularity of landscape or country.

Let's first talk about landscape or country. The poem is full of phrases which describe the lovers' bodies as features of a cultivated landscape or else as the fauna that inhabits that landscape. Here are some examples:

My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi. (1.14)

As an apple tree amongst the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow and his fruit was sweet to my taste (2.3) 

Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past and the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.  Arise my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely (2.10-14)

How beautiful you are my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead . . . Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil . . . Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lillies. (4.1,3b, 5) 

In my view, the landscape imagery of the poem is very often so dense and entangled that it is sometimes difficult for the reader to determine what image is standing in for what reality. Are the lover's breasts, for example, the reality for which twin gazelles are a signifier, or is the reality the gazelles and the lover's breasts their signifier?  Paul Ricouer, for his part, has argued that the intensity of these metaphors has the effect of dissociating the metaphorical network from its support in concrete materiality. This also means that the various characters or voices in the poem come to stand in for one another so echolalicly that it is often difficult to discern who is lover and who is beloved and who, indeed, are the friends who apparently discuss their love.

The poem is, in fact, laden to the brim with such signs of indetermination. Here are just a few:

(1) Pieces of dialogue often appear to include quotations from someone other than
the one who is speaking, with the result that it is difficult to identify the speaker
(1.4b, 1.8, 2.1, 6.10). 

(2) There are several dream-sequences that present a similar problem. Is the shepherd dreaming of being a king? (3.6-11). Is the Shulamite dreaming of being a peasant woman? (5.2-8), or is it the other way around? Or, are all these figures quite distinct from one another in the body?  

(3) There are evocations of memory that intertwine with the present in such a way
that it is difficult to tell which is which. The mother figure returns again and again in 1.6, 3.4, 3.11, 6.9, 8.1, and 8.4, but whose mother is she? Or is she the beloved as a younger woman? 

(4) The seven ‘scenes’ often referred to by commentators are said to begin with lover or beloved searching for each other, and to end with a consummation when they find each other. But these alleged ‘consummations’ are very difficult to find, in fact, because they are sung with a sense of longing rather than recounted with any sense of material gravity or traction. These features suggest that the Song is not a narrative in which characters can be readily identified, but a poem that explores the very formation of identity. The poem often asks the question ‘who?’ but the question is never entirely answered.

From the very beginning, the poem has been read as an allegory of divine human love. While the poem is certainly erotic in character, describing the mutual desire of a woman and her lover in radically fleshly ways, the canonical fathers and mothers clearly did not see the flesh, or erotic love, as somehow unworthy of God or God’s people. That this is so might appear to be something of an oddity when one considers that Judaism and Christianity alone, amongst all the ancient religions, appeared to have no sacred rites of a sexually explicit nature. Julia Kristeva explains this by reference to an analogy with the biblical canon as a whole. The Song of Songs imagines the desire of God as a desire without consummation. There is no love-making at the maternal hearth in this erotic poem. Therefore, the Song, as with the canon as a whole, imagines God as one who loves, and is desired by human beings, but who remains absent, or not entirely present. Desire is not finally consummated, and so remains desire.

Following Origen, who said that it is the ‘movements of love’ in the Song which are more important than the identity of its characters, Ricoeur argues for an interpretation of the Song in which the ‘nuptial’ metaphor for the relations between the lovers is ‘liberated’ from a purely human reference. The Greek paradigm of erotic love tended to see the point of sexual entanglement as a means of ecstatic escape from the body into some kind of self-less and unconscious communion with the divine One. But that is not what is happening in the Song of Songs. There the profound play of desire in the possession and dispossession of selves suggests, instead, a view of love that is transcendent and yet powerfully incarnational at the same time.  What happens here is not a doing away with the properly sexual reference but rather its putting on hold or suspension; this then effects a freeing of the whole metaphorical network of nuptiality for other embodied ‘investments and divestments.’ That possibility is further enhanced by the radical mobility of identification between the partners of the amorous dialogue, a mobility that smacks of the ‘substitution’ of one ancestral instance or character for another, as I propose above in my reading of country.

On this basis, Kristeva argues that the lover in the Song can be legitimately interpreted as the cipher for an absent or incorporeal God who is nevertheless made available to the human beloved in ritual, as well as in the very ordinary landscape of human life. Supreme authority, whether it be royal or divine, can be loved as flesh while remaining essentially inaccessible; the intensity of love comes precisely from that combination of received jouissance and taboo, from a basic separation that nevertheless unites—that is what love issued from the Bible signifies for us, most particularly in its later form, as celebrated in the Song of Songs.

Of course, that reading would only be possible if one were to read the Song in its canonical context as a book of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. But that is what it is! In that context, one can see how it is that the appearance of God in the materiality of the burning bush of Exodus 3 might be amplified in the Song to include lover’s bodies and whole landscapes. Furthermore, Richard Kearney has made the important point that a canonical reading of the Song would also be an eschatological reading. In this view, the love between the Shulamite and her lover looks both back to Eden’s innocence and forward to a time when God and human beings will gaze upon each other ‘face to face’. Citing Rabbi Hayyim de Volozhyn (19th century), Kearney points out that the Song is filled with eschatological imagery. 5.1 speaks of love as entering a garden filled with milk and honey, an image of the Promised Land. Similarly, the kiss of 1.2 might be read as the promise that one day the revelations of God will be given mouth to mouth and face-to-face, rather than through the mediations of angel, fire, or ritual. Such eschatology is subversive, according to Kearney, for it makes the powerful erotic charge of the poem into something more than (but still including) the erotic. If this is the case, then our received understandings of both God and desire are transformed. Law-based understandings of both God and the obedience of God are swept aside in order to say that ‘burning, integrated, faithful, untiring desire—freed from social or inherited perversions—is the most adequate way for saying how humans love God and God loves humans. It suggests how human and divine love may transfigure one another.’

I would add, of course, that all of this erotic and eschatological charge is ignited in landscape, in country and in waterway; and that precisely because human selves come from ancestral country and are instances of the ancestral that are embedded in country, that we are most ourselves as human beings when we commune with the divine by communing with country. Country is like God, in that it cannot be possessed or domesticated, used or even finally and comprehensively named. Country is like the Christ of God, whose life is poured out for us and for our salvation only insofar as we are able to respect and treasure the gift, and take it to our hearts, and love it with all the power that country so generously provides. 

I suppose this means that I belong, also, to the school of Job as Mark has described it in chapter 8 of his book. Mark understands Job as a more fluid and poetic version of the Priestly Triteuch, which wants to locate God not simply in the cry for a merely human form of justice or liberation in the face of Empire, but also in the wise utterances of creation itself (p.127), in which God speaks particular words of wisdom for particular places (p.130). This would certainly sit well with my peculiarly Aboriginal sense of responsibility for country: we cannot care for a particular place unless we first listen to what it is telling us in its own unique voice. The particularity of that voice is for that country, and especially its caretakers, those who are related to that country as kin, as ancestral stewards. To listen, of course, is the very opposite of colonisation and its bully-boy shouting. For the sake of us all, I pray we shall learn, in time, to listen more deeply to what our lands and seas and waterways are telling us.

This talk was given at a symposium in celebration of Mark Brett's book Locations of God: political theology in the Hebrew Bible on December 12, 2019.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

All Hallows Eve (Halloween)

It is October 31 and I've just been out for an evening walk. Along the way I encountered a great many gouls and goblins, witches and warlocks, ghosts and zombies, along with many a house decorated with cobwebs, spiders, and jack-o-lanterns.  The festival of 'halloween' simply did not exist in the Australia of my youth. The evening before November the 1st passed by simply as the evening before November the 1st. For a Baptist family in an almost entirely Anglo-Australian rural town, there was, quite simply, nothing to be celebrated.

But 'Halloween' is now quite a big thing. Even in my home town. The change has come because of the power of global capital. There is a great deal of money to be made out of annual celebrations. And so the festivals of other countries - in this case, the USA - have now implanted themselves in the Australian psyche alongside the consumer festivals that were already here: Christmas and Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day. The annual spend in richer countries around all these festivals is said to be so large that it is able to keep flagging economies going pretty much on its own. 

Of course, 'Halloween', just like Christmas and Easter, has its roots in a Christian festival that began early in the 4th century as a twin commemoration of 'all saints' and 'all souls'. Today, in the more liturgically catholic Western churches, All Saints in celebrated on November 1 and All Souls on November 2. 'All Saints' invites believers to remember and give thanks for the dead who have most clearly and consistently followed in the way of Christ, those who have most inspired others to imitate Jesus. 'All Souls' invites the same believers to remember and give thanks for all the baptised faithful who each, in their own very ordinary ways - and with varying quality! - also sought to follow Christ. 

The Christian festivals of the dead assume, following the teaching of St Paul, that the dead are really and actually dead. Their bodies have ceased to function, their hearts and brains have stopped entirely, and there is no longer anyone to talk to or communicate with. There is no surviving 'soul' or 'spirit' that has slipped into another metaphysical room or dimension, for the spirit - the essential character or personality - cannot survive without the body. All that is left of a dead person is the objects they possessed, their representation in word or image or textile and, most importantly, the precious memories of their loved ones and of God. But the person is simply no more. She or he has ceased to exist.

The consumer festival of halloween apparently finds this sober Christian realism just a little too dull. A more exciting story is apparently necessary to sell all those costumes and sweets. The halloween marketers have therefore revived certain pagan ideas about the dead still being alive in some sense: dwelling, perhaps, in another realm or dimension which can be accessed via certain rituals or on certain days (especially at halloween). One can therefore pretend to be such a dead person - a ghost or goul or zombie - or else one can pretend to be one of those who can help the living access the dead: a medium, a witch, a pagan shaman, priest or priestess. On the other side of the transaction one may pretend to be an ordinary representative of the living who is terrified of what the dead may do if they are not placated or bought off: you can offer a 'treat' - in pagan mythology an 'offering' or 'sacrifice' - to buy the dead's favour. In either case, the usefulness of this revived pagan metaphysics to marketers is twofold. You can sell the appropriate costume to represent the unfriendly dead. And you can sell the remedy for encountering the unfriendly dead: lots of lollies and other forms of sugary candy. Genius really. And incredibly lucrative.

As the tiresome bore I probably am, I tend to avoid the consumer festival of Halloween (along with those associated with Christmas, Easter and Valentine's Day). I am not inclined to fall for the consumer trick of creating a problem that buying a product will solve. Nor am I inclined to import a metaphysics of death that is entirely redundant to the Christian faith I hold dear. For me, and for Christians everywhere, the dead are dead. They survive only in our memories and in the memory of God. We can mourn their loss, we can give thanks for their influence in our lives, but they are no longer alive in any real sense. One day we shall all be resurrected, of course, the dead will be reanimated not as we were but as God intends us to be. We shall be different. The whole cosmos and we ourselves will no longer be ourselves in several crucial ways. The old will have gone and the entirely new will have arrived. We will have died to ourselves and become Christ. So whether it makes any sense to talk about being 're-united with our loved ones' except in the most general of senses remains an open question.

May your Hallowtide be blessed by the knowledge that God's love cannot be bought but is simply given, unconditionally.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Garry's speech to the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne's Synod in Oct 2019

Mr President, I seek leave to speak to the motion now before us, Motion 20, ‘Next Steps for Reconciliation’.

The Anglican Church of Australia is a quintessentially colonial church. As the colony of Port Phillip Bay was being carved out of Kulin country in the mid 1830s, the local colonisers as well as those who set colonial policy back in London were overwhelmingly Anglican. Lord Melbourne, after whom this city is named, was Prime Minister. William Buxton, George Grey, Charles Grant and James Stephen, key policy-makers regarding the colonies, were also Anglicans. Collectively they were the kind of Anglicans, though, who assumed that genteel Britishness and Anglicanism were pretty much the same thing. Buxton’s Select Committee on the Aboriginal Tribes consistently conflated the promotion of British civilisation, including its newly commercial thirsts and desires, with the missionary spread of Christianity. 

Of crucial influence in the deliberations of the Select Committee were accounts of the Tasmanian frontier wars of the previous decade from Governor George Arthur and the soon-to-be bishop of Australia, WG Broughton.  Despite having little experience of Aboriginal life outside of Sydney, Broughton had presided over what historian James Boyce has called one of the ‘great whitewashes of Australian history’: the Van Diemen’s Land Government Inquiry of 1830 to consider the ‘origin of the hostility displayed by the black natives of this island’. This inquiry had infamously concluded that ‘acts of violence on the part of the natives are generally to be regarded, not as retaliating for any wrongs which they conceived themselves collectively or individually to have endured, but as proceeding from a wanton and savage spirit inherent in them.’ Against all the evidence to hand, the Inquiry reported that it was bad people – Aborigines and convicts – who caused the conflict in Tasmania. The more genteel classes were portrayed not as perpetrators but as victims, even though it was clearly their thirst for land and wealth – Aboriginal land and wealth – that caused the war.  Broughton repeated these conclusions in his evidence to the Select Committee on Aborigines. And the strategies of Swanson, Batman, Lonsdale and the many colonists that followed them here into Kulin country – a great many of them formally Anglican - were demonstrably inspired by Broughton’s plainly false assertions regarding my truwunnan ancestors.

What followed was nothing short of an apocalypse for the Kulin peoples on whose land we meet today. In the Victorian frontier wars that unfolded over the next 15 years, Kulin peoples were raped, murdered, shot, and poisoned in vast numbers. Their lands and seas were stolen. Their complex land-management systems and agricultural riches were destroyed, along with habitat and wildlife, by the arrival of sheep and cattle in their millions. And, when the wars were over, the survivors of this Armageddon were herded into church-run missions where they were forbidden to speak their languages, to practise culture, or even to work for a living.  The damage to this country and to those who had cared for it for upward of 80 thousand years, was nothing short of catastrophic, and Anglican policy-makers were at the heart of both why and how it happened.  

The ongoing effects of colonisation are now regularly reported by the Commonwealth’s Productivity Commission. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain in every way the sickest, poorest, and most disadvantaged people in modern Australia. The statistics make for horrifying reading. But I would like to remind you that we, the Aboriginal members of your church, are these statistics. We, like the apostle Paul, wear the marks of crucifixion in our hearts and in our bodies.  We, like Christ himself, are the scapegoats outside the camp who bear in our very flesh the sins of the nation.

This Synod has visited the question of justice for our people, and Anglican culpability in the destruction of our way of life, several times before.  The last discussion, in 2013 and 2014, issued in the creation of a Reconciliation Action Plan. At the request of the Archbishop, the RAP Group reviewed that plan at the end of 2017 and concluded that the RAP was unfortunately doomed to failure due to the vast gap between what it said it would do, and the resources allocated to actually do it. The Report of the Review  – tabled with AiC in February 2018 and now made available to members of Synod – argued that the diocese had entered the RAP process prematurely. Instead it asked that AiC consider how a mature Aboriginal voice might be appointed to the senior leadership of the diocese. For it remains the case, after all these many years, that there has never been a secure or tenured Aboriginal voice within the senior leadership of our diocese, nor in its schools and agencies; nor even in its theological colleges. Without a voice, we cannot call for mercy. Without a voice we cannot call for justice. Without a voice, matters of truth and reconciliation will remain a distant, and increasingly forlorn, hope.

When there was no response to the RAP Group’s report, Glenn Loughrey and I decided to convene a meeting of the Aboriginal clergy of the Province. Chris McLeod, the National Aboriginal bishop, agreed to chair the gathering.  Our discussions, which took place in August 2018, were very fruitful. We formed an Aboriginal Council of the Anglican Province of Victoria and prepared a Statement to Provincial Leadership which Glenn tabled, in person, at the meeting of the Provincial Council in November of 2018. In this statement, which has now been shared with the members of Synod, we outline clearly and concretely our aspirations towards a modest form of justice and gospel healing for our people. We also invite the bishops and other leaders of the Province into an ongoing conversation with us about how that might happen.  To date we have not received any formal response to our invitation from Archbishop in Council.

This motion therefore seeks the Synod’s support in eliciting a nuanced and considered response from AiC to both these documents. Apart from that response, reconciliation is effectively on hold in this diocese. The motion is before you. I so move.

The motion and the reports referred to in this speech can be downloaded in pdf form from

Sunday, 11 November 2018


Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9. 24-28; Mark 12. 38-44

The book of Ruth is a parable, a story written in order to undermine the dominance of a certain kind of religious ideology that was prominent in Israel at the time of its composition.  You can read all about that ideology in the book of Ezra.  There you will read about the zealousness of a group of aristocratic religious reformers who returned from the exile in Babylon convinced that God had punished Israel primarily because its men had taken foreign wives to their beds, thus making it possible for corrupt (that is, non-Jewish) ideas and practices to flourish amongst the chosen people.  The reformers therefore forced or convinced thousands of ordinary men, most of whom had never in fact left Jerusalem at all during the exilic period, to ‘put away’ both their wives and their children as an act of religious duty.  Read against that background, one can see how the book of Ruth would have once been regarded as a revolutionary literature.  For in telling a story of the royal lineage of David, it also seeks to demonstrate that the God of Israel cannot be counted on to support such a programme.  In the verses we read this morning, the authors stress that Israel’s most lauded family only became what it was because God chose to bless and honour two revolutionary women who chose to buck the religious system of dos and donts.  Tamar, a Canaanite woman, disguised herself as a prostitute in order to get an heir for Judah, the great ancestor of the Davidic clan.  And Ruth, a Moabite woman with no firm legal or religious status in Israel, went out on a very thin and very dangerous limb in order to get a son for Naomi.  One must surely conclude, at least, that God is not one to honour our fear of ethnicities other than our own.  And perhaps we may also conclude that God will not be bound by any of our human fears or anxieties, no matter how deeply mythic or religious their origins seems to be.

Now, there is a message in this for our politicians, is there not? And for all those millions of Australians who support their current policies.  Allow me to paraphrase the Psalmist for a moment.  Prime Minister, Premier, unless God is in your vision for Australia, you dream in vain.  Unless God supports all your hard work in keeping the poor and the desperate from our shores, then you work for nothing.  In vain you rise early to plan for a strong and secure Australia, and in vain to stay up late to ‘protect’ our children from the poor and wretched, and so secure their future.  For unless God grants a future, in the sheer gratuity of his love and care, there is no future.  Unless God shares your vision, your vision will fail.  A happy and secure future, you see, is like having children.  It cannot be produced by our one’s will or effort, especially if such effort is motivated by such deeply held fears or anxieties.  Ask any parent you know, especially those who laboured anxiously to conceive for many months or years, and they will tell you that children come when they come.  They come from God, neither as reward for effort nor because of any sense of right or the privilege we could lay claim to.  They come as a gift, without reason or foretelling.  And so it is with our future, Prime Minister, Premier.  God will not labour with you to secure our children’s future by saving them from evil, dangerous immigrants.  Quite the opposite, I suspect.  Could it be, Prime Minister, Premier,, that in their arrival is our gift, God’s gift for a revolutionary future of peace and reconciliation amongst the tribes of the world?  If the parable of Ruth is to be believed, Prime Minister, Premier, then the gift comes always in the stranger, the one beyond the pale, the one who would cross a great boundary, a sea of impossibility, in order to reach us, in order to make the revolution possible.

But I am ahead of myself, for I wanted to talk about another of God’s revolutions, the revolution in which poverty becomes the most enriching experience in the world.  This is figured for us in the gospel story of the widow who gave all she had, all she had to live on, into the temple treasury.  Lest you think I am being romantic about her poverty, let me remind you of the situation such a woman would have faced in that time and place.  In a deeply patriarchal society, such as that of first-century Palestine, women are little more than goods to be bought and sold.  Upon marriage, they pass from their father’s ownership to their husband’s.  If that husband dies and there is no-one else, no other kin, who will marry her, then she reverts to the patronage of her father’s house.  But remember that we are talking about a desperately poor peasant society here.  Most men, because of hard labour and poor nutrition, could not expect to live beyond thirty five in ordinary circumstances.  Fathers and brothers would therefore be most unwilling, if they were still alive, to take the widows of their kin, especially if they had children already.  Jewish widows were, quite simply, at the bottom of the food-chain.  They were the ones left to fend for themselves when the going got tough.  And that often meant either Roman slavery, or prostitution, or both.  Often these options amounted to the same thing.  Now, add to all that the expectations of the religious elites who ran the temple, those whom Mark’s gospel calls ‘the Scribes and the Saducees’.  These groups had enormous power in Israel, in both religious and political terms.  They enjoyed the highest religious and social status because they were the heirs of the priestly casts.  But this also gave them enormous economic power, because, by declaring a person or place ritually unclean, they could also successfully blackmail any person who wished to claw their way back into a state of purity.  The phrase in Mark’s gospel, ‘they devour widows houses’ probably refers to precisely that practise.  It is likely that some of the priestly class, at least, were given to extracting money from pious widows in return for a declaration of cultic purity from sin.

Given all that, why does Mark record the story of the widow’s offering?  Wasn’t she being ripped off?  Why would she put in all that she had to live on, unless she was being blackmailed in some way?  Some commentators say that the story is told simply to highlight the evil practices of the scribes.  But I do not think this is so.  For later tradition will make explicit what is already right here in Mark’s text, namely, the intention to hold this woman up as an example of a truly revolutionary discipleship under very trying conditions.  For while it is true that the text does warn the reader against the false piety and moral blackmail of the priestly system, it does not propose an entirely socio-economic solution to the problem.  How could it?  How could a widow possibly be saved from economic ruin in such circumstances?  Is someone going to step in to give her more cash, or protect her from what the system makes inevitable?  There is no hint, in Mark’s text, that Jesus or his benefactors intend to do so.  So why is the story told?

The answer lies, I think, in a reading of the story which takes the whole flow of Mark’s gospel into account.  In chapter 1 we read that Jesus had come to preach the kingdom, to heal, and to exorcise.  In chapters 2 and 7 we read stories about Jesus’ willingness to confront or break the laws of the temple aristocracy in order to do so.  In chapters 8 & 10, Jesus tells his disciples that there is salvation only in being willing to die, to be baptised with his own baptism, to become the slave of all.  Also in chapter 10, in what I believe to be the key utterance of the gospel, Jesus declares that salvation, while impossible for human beings, is indeed possible for God.  Can you see where all this is heading?  By the time we come to this story of the widows offering, the reader couldn’t possibly believe that Jesus is offering some kind of socio-economic solution to the problems at hand.  On the contrary!  What Jesus seems to be implying is this:  that in order to overcome, to be saved, to be healed, to be liberated, or whatever, one must ultimately give the powers arraigned against us what they want:  our very lives.  Why?  Because Mark believe that it is in giving our lives over to the powers that be, that we shall ultimately gain our freedom from those powers.

Now, one can see how Karl Marx came to his stinging criticism of Christianity, can’t you.  Religion, he said, was an opiate to keep the poor in their place.  But this is of course to entirely miss the point of what Mark is trying to teach us!  You see, for Mark – and indeed for Paul who wrote before him – there are two powers in the world:  the power of religion or karma, which says that we get what we deserve, and the power of gospel and grace, which gives without reason or cause.  Now, in Mark’s world as in ours, it is the power of karma that appears to reign supreme.  We get ahead by paying our dues, working hard, and keeping our patrons happy.  Which implies, of course, that we want to get ahead, that we are happy to invest in the very system that enslaves us because we believe it will reward us.  But grace inhabits this world of karma in such a way that its power is stolen away.  The power of karma is death:  death is what the karmic system threatens us with in order to make us do and be what it wants.  But Grace says:  “in order to find yourself you must lose yourself.  In order to live, you must die.  In order to gain all things you must lose all things.”  In this way, grace promises that the moment of capitulation will ultimately become the moment of freedom, for it is in being willing to let go of what we cling to so desperately that we shall gain ourselves anew as a free people whose lives are hidden with Christ in God.  What seems ludicrous and impossible for human beings, is of course entirely possible for God.  This is God’s revolution:  the coming of a new and strange peace, at precisely that point when justice seems dead.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the new Matrix movie is called Revolutions.  In that story, it is at the precise moment when the new Son of Man, Neo Anderson, gives himself over to the power of inevitability - to the evilly karmic power of Smith who wants to repeat his banality over and over in the world until there is nothing left but the Same - that the revolution begins.  As he lies crucified upon the power of the machines, absorbed, it seems, into the power of the same old thing, a miracle begins to happen.  What was absorbed begins to absorb.  What was dead now begins to infect the whole system with life.  What had been given away now spreads through all the world, bringing light and life and peace where there was only darkness, death and enmity.  So it can be for us.  Jesus promises that if we give over to him that which controls us most, our desire to ascend the karmic ladder and become someone, then we can be saved.  Only in dying is there is life, only in stillness is there dancing, only in suffering the evil of what surrounds us is there freedom from it.  This is the revolution the gospel promises.  What is impossible for human beings, is possible for God.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Gondwana Theology: a Trawloolway man reflects on Christian Faith

My new book, Gondwana Theology, is now available for purchase from Morning Star Publishing. It will be launched at 7pm on November 27 at the Anglican Chuch of St Stephen and St Mary, 383 High Street Road, Mt Waverley.

Here are two commendations:

'In this compelling work, Garry Deverell offers a remarkable synthesis of autobiographical reflections, theological analysis and liturgical creativity. Putting aside theoretical jargon and conventional God-talk, we encounter here an Aboriginal voice that none of the churches in Australia can afford to ignore. This is a book that all Australian Christians need to read.'

Professor Mark Brett
Whitley College, University of Divinity

‘In this brief volume Garry wrestles with questions Indigenous Christians everywhere regularly confront. As have others before him he asks, “How does an Indigenous person authentically make the faith that has been used as a means of oppression of him and his people, the ultimate source of his liberation from that oppression?” “Furthermore,” he inquires, “how can he challenge the White Christian world that has all but subsumed his and his people’s lives in theirs, with the need for reconciliation and change of heart, if their own hearts continue to harbour only bitterness, resentment, and anger?” The key concern is, of course, “What will it require of each of us to live together well in the land?” Personal story, embedded with pointed inquiry, and a spiritual pleading for transformation, invites the reader to consider her own way of faith and her own journey toward wholeness. Enjoy in these pages, a work of heart and soul seeking the good way.’

Dr Terry LeBlanc
North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies

The book may be purchased direct from Morning Star Publishing by browsing to:

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Vocation of Preachers

John 12. 20-33; 1 Corinthians 1.18-31

In 1819 John Keats, the English poet, sat transfixed before an ancient vase he happened upon in an Italian museum.  It was an urn from ancient Athens, the principle city of Greece, and it featured the carved figures of women and men dancing to some kind of ritual in a forest glade.   Something about these figurines captured the poet’s attention and, more than that, took him away into a rapt meditation upon the capacity of art to convey spiritual truths.  What Keats found most moving was the way in which the artist had captured a moment of truth—the truth of a particular human joy and longing—in the stillness of such beautiful forms.  He wondered at the way in which such truth could be frozen in stone, and therefore rendered communicable even to people who would view the urn thousands of years later.  The poem he wrote to commemorate the occasion closes with the famous aphorism,

Beauty is truth, truth beauty.—That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

In saying this, Keats revealed his admiration for a particularly Greek way of seeing the world.  Many of the ancient Greeks believed that the deepest truth about things was revealed to human beings through their eyes, particularly in beautiful and bright forms, and even more particularly in the beautiful and bright forms of the human body.  I’m sure that many of you will have seen pictures of those strong and erect young men carved in white marble, often standing at the entrance of public buildings or temples, often naked, and often with some kind of weapon in their hands.  Or of slender women draped in bejewelled finery with garlands in their hair.  Usually in a state of semi-undress.  Understand that such figures represented far more than an ideal for human beauty.  They also represented a Greek understanding of God.  For them, God was exactly like one of these statues:  strong beyond all strength, glorious and bright with the brightness of the sun, beautiful such as to inspire a longing to be joined with God, but also distant and impervious to any kind pain or suffering. 

Now, in the passage we read from John’s Gospel this afternooon, who asks to see Jesus?  Some Greeks.  Some Greeks ask to see Jesus.   And because they are Greeks, they are perhaps hoping to see a particular kind of Jesus, a Jesus who is like one of their Athenian statues of the human form divine:  a strong and noble Jesus, a Jesus whose form is beautiful in that classical Greek sense, a Jesus who shines with divine light and ignites their desire for him, a Jesus who is clearly more than human, who somehow sails above the ordinariness of human pain and regret and grief in some kind of cool, divine inscrutability. 

Now, in case you believe I might be imputing motives to these fellows that don’t exist, consider the following.  That John’s whole Gospel might be characterised as a sermon to the Greeks, and particularly to Greek-speaking intellectuals.  More than the other gospels, John talks about Jesus in a language which Greek-speaking intellectuals would understand and appreciate.  He samples, for instance, their idea of the logos—a differentiated idea or a form that is already there in mind of the God before the universe begins—to explain how Jesus could be considered divine.  “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.”  The Gospel also seems to address that peculiarly Greek obsession with light and seeing and form as the appropriate way to find out about divine things.  Only in John’s gospel do you have Jesus proclaiming that he is the light of the world.  Only in John’s gospel do you find passages where Jesus exhorts his listeners to become “children of the light,” children who gaze at the glorious brightness of God and are drawn to that light like moths to a flame.  Now, all of this is very, very Greek, right down to the word which John uses for ‘seeing’ in this passage.  It is eidein,  from which we get the English words “idea” and “idol”.   The Greeks, in wanting to “see” Jesus, are therefore looking for a form, an “idol,” if you like, in which their divine “idea” might be both seen and admired. 

But wait.  Doesn’t this imply that John is basically on board with all this Greek stuff, that he is something of a pagan philosopher, seeking to transform Jesus into some kind of semi-divine hero like Ulysses or Hercules, therefore priming his image for popular consumption in a world dominated by Greek thinking?  Well . . . Yes and No.  Yes, he wanted to talk about Jesus in a way that people other than his own tribe, the Jews, would understand and appreciate.  As one must always do, if one is a preacher.  But no, he didn’t buy into a pagan version of God in the process.  Indeed, the passage we are reading contains one of the most damning critiques of pagan versions of the divine you will find in all of literature!  Note, if you will, Jesus’ response to what the Greeks ask.  I quote.
The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified.  Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life . . .  Now my soul is troubled, but what should I say? “Father save me from this hour?”  No, it is for this hour that I have come.  Father, glorify your name! . . .  Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of the world will be driven out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
What we find here is a specifically Christian warping or transfiguration of the Greek idea of divine beauty so admired by Keats.   For John argues that the human form of God is not strong and beautiful, in that classical sense we described earlier.  Nor is it impervious to the ravages of ordinary human life—the passing of time, the reality of evil, or of human suffering.  On the contrary, according to John, the human form of God is the crucified Jesus.  A suffering man, hanging from the most vile instrument of torture of the ancient world.  A man vulnerable to being troubled in soul.  A man, like seed planted in the ground at winter-time, who is as erasable as anyone else by death.  In describing Jesus like this, John effects nothing less than a transvaluation of all that the Greek intellectuals of his time would have considered both rational and beautiful.  Beauty, he declares, no longer has anything to do with the classical forms of the Olympic body or the Olympian gods, objects of religio-erotic desire that they were.  For the real beauty of God, says John, is manifest in a love for what is generally understood as the least desirable of all: the weak one, the ugly one, the criminal one, the suffering one.  And, if I may be permitted to bring St. Paul into the conversation as well, the reason of God—God’s logos— is manifest in those whom the world considers fools.  What we learn from these two great apostles, then, is that God actually loves the unlovable, and desires the undesirable.  Such love, we are taught, is also very powerful.  So powerful that it is able to create fruit for God from dead seeds, to raise these little ones, these ‘nothings’ (as Paul would have it) from despair to hope, from darkness into light, from misery into blessedness.  Of course the power we speak of now is also a transvaluation of the dominant discourse of power.  It is the paradoxical power of the powerless and the broken.  It is the pouring out of God’s very life, on the cross of Christ, that those who were dead may live.

Perhaps you are wondering what all this might mean for our valedictorians, and about the ministry they are called to exercise?  Well, allow me to suggest that thinking of the Greek intellectual has not, in fact, withered away.  It is everywhere present in the Western account of reality, perhaps especially so in the bright light of Australia.  It visits us in every commercial which represents happiness and the good life in terms of the beautiful forms of sculptured bodies that reflect our bright sunlight, impervious, it seems, to age or poverty or distress.  It visits us in New Age notions of God as some kind of universal being which is everywhere present, especially in nature, and yet (like nature) is blind and deaf and dumb to our specifically human anxieties.  It is with us in that form Christianity which exalts the idea that we can have a direct and ‘pure’ relationship with Jesus that somehow bypasses the messy materiality of church and tradition, in both their fidelity and their infidelity.  Finally, it visits us in our cultural obsession with seeing as the preeminent way of knowing what is true.   If we see its form, even if “it” is only on the TV or on the web, we believe it.  If we don’t see it, then we don’t believe it.   These are the realities we live with as members of Western civilization, and they are not so very different from the assumed realities of John’s “Greeks”.  The colonial powers might have changed.  But their message has not!

In this context, in this civilization in which the church itself is also, so often, a very willing participant, ministers of the gospel are called to do what the apostles did, in their different ways.   To so immerse ourselves in the story of the crucified and risen Christ, that the most dominant sight and sense and values of our civilization are displaced, cast aside, even put to death.  Like Paul and John, we are called to a prayerful passivity before the crucified, a passivity that, with time and by the Spirit, comes to so scarify and refigure our sight and sense and values that we are no longer the slaves of what our world would consider either reasonable or beautiful.   In the grace of God, this habitual contemplation of the crucified will eventually empower us to let go of the way we see with our eyes—which, of course, is to see according to our cultural conditioning—in favour of a seeing that comes by faith in a God who gives life to the dead and wisdom to fools.  With that different kind of vision, in the ‘dark light’ that spills out from the cross, we are called, first, to deconstruct and unmask the gods of our age.  To say our ‘no’ to their oppressive power.  To announce that the judgement of God has arrived to expose their lies.  But then we are called to declare the promise of God toward everything these gods have wrecked and wasted: nothing less than the conversion, the transfiguration, the resurrection of the broken soul after the image of God’s son.  To declare, in other words, the good news that God loves the fool, the weakling, the sinner.  To declare that God, in Christ, will raise the sinner up to life and dignity and the inheritance of children, first in Christ’s church, and finally in the joyful paradise of the redeemed. 

I know of no better poetic summation of the vocation of Christ and of his messengers that this one, from Leonard Cohen, who happens to b a Jew.  It takes the form of a prayer:

If it be your will that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before
I will speak no more, I shall abide until
I am spoken for. If it be your will.

If it be your will that a voice be true
From this broken hill I will sing to you
From this broken hill all your praises they shall ring
If it be your will to let me sing

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will to make us well

And draw us near and bind us tight
All your children here, in their rags of light
In our rags of light, all dressed to kill
And end this night. If it be your will.
If it be your will.

In this prayer of surrender, valedictorians, is your calling as pastors and teachers of Christ’s church.  To such praying as this you are, or will be, ordained.  May God give you power to contemplate and really accept the truth of God’s amazing love, and then freely to share its inexhaustible riches with all God’s children.

This homily was preached at the Valedictory service for the Uniting Church Theological College, Melbourne, in 2009.