Murder, Mayhem, and Mercy

In this month’s Blog article, I share a reflection by Brian Gleeson, CP, on the East Timorese struggle for independence.

Lest we forget!

Timor-Leste (East Timor), an island nation north of Darwin, Australia, is one of the world’s newest countries. It has a long history with the Catholic Church, beginning with its colonization by the Portuguese Dominican mission in 1556. Timor-Leste was under Portuguese rule until it joined other Portuguese colonies in declaring its independence on November 28, 1975. Nine days later, it was invaded by Indonesia and struggled for independence until the international community finally responded in 1999. During the occupation, much of Timor-Leste’s already fragile infrastructure was destroyed, and even today the country is still recovering.

Thanks to the international news media, in 1999 the world became aware as never before, of the people of East Timor. Many people cheered at the good news that 78.5% of the East Timorese had voted for their independence from Indonesia, whose armies had invaded and annexed their territory in 1975.  Their hopes were shared across the world, that at long last they would be free to decide their own future, to choose their own leaders, and to govern themselves.

Within days, however, the hopes of the world’s newest nation turned sour. A local minority, made up mainly of murderous militias, armed to the teeth by the recently occupying Indonesian army, would not accept the people’s vote. They therefore turned against the majority of their fellow-citizens with a ferocity equal to anything that has ever been perpetrated against innocent people anywhere. In Dili, the capital, and in other cities and towns throughout the territory, these militias maimed and murdered thousands of pro-independence supporters, drove thousands from their homes, and forced thousands more to leave their own country as refugees. Once the people were gone from their homes, these militias systematically looted and plundered the people’s possessions, before finally burning their houses, their shops, and many of their public buildings to the ground.

What the world witnessed, thanks to the extensive news coverage, was nothing less than the implementation of a ‘scorched earth’ policy. It was as horrific as the sending of six million Jews to the gas chambers during World War II, the mysterious ‘disappearances’ of hundreds of citizens in Argentina and Chile during the military dictatorships there, and the more recent campaigns of so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia and Kosovo.

It has been as totally baffling and unexpected that in our own time, human beings could treat one another with such hatred and violence. Perhaps as baffling and unexpected as the way Jesus was treated by the Jewish leaders of his time. God, the owner of the vineyard, expected his tenants to yield a harvest of ripe grapes, but it was sour grapes (vinegar) only, that they produced. 

In Timor-Leste, the torture, the suffering, and the crucifixion of Jesus happened all over again. Night after night, television screens displayed scenes of undiminished horror that left viewers wondering: Is there any hope for these poor broken people? Does anyone care?’ Perhaps some even wondered: ‘Does God care?’

It was just then, when all seemed lost, and after both the humanitarian agencies of the International Committee of the Red Cross and that of the United Nations were thrown out of the country, that the world became aware of two marvellous initiatives and developments. In the midst of the carnage and destruction, the first powerful ray of hope came from the leaders of the Church. Priests, nuns, and other church workers, had constantly supported the people, 98% of whom were Catholic, in their quest for human rights, democracy, and self-determination. (Church support and protection for freedom and justice, in fact, went back to the days when Timor-Leste had been a colony of Portugal). During this time, for that love and loyalty towards their people, many church persons paid the ultimate price. They too were expelled from their homes. They too were mutilated. They too were murdered. They too saw their own houses, and the church buildings of their people, ransacked, robbed, and burnt to cinders. But their great witness of faith during that darkest period of their history, was not in vain. Put to the test, they yielded an abundant harvest for God and for God’s people.

The second ray of hope, which arrived later, was the preparation and deployment of the Interfet (the International Force for East Timor), led by Australian troops. At enormous personal risk, this Interfet force went in to protect the surviving East Timorese from further murder and mayhem, and to prepare for the re-building of their country almost from zero. Viewers became amazed at the integrity, the decency, the humanity, the generosity and the restraint of the troops, who, under mandate of the United Nations, entered East Timor not as aggressors but as peace-keepers and Good Samaritans, indeed as agents of divine mercy and compassion.

Finally, the fruits of Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence were firmly established on May 20, 2002. Further good news is that, bit-by-bit, its relationship with its former enemy has steadily improved. Today the relationship is quite peaceful and harmonious, and Indonesia is Timor-Leste’s main trading partner, and regularly contributes to its development.

Let us pray that God will continue to bless and protect the government of Timor-Leste, its peace-keeping forces, its Church leaders and workers, and the people of God entrusted to their care.

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Peter’s Rubbish School

In this month’s blog, I’d like to tell you about the ‘Rubbish School’ in Cambodia and the work one of our Australian Passionists, Peter Gardiner CP, is doing with them.

Late last year, Tom McDonough CP, the provincial of our province, asked Peter Gardiner CP, who is part of our JPIC committee, if he would be willing to spend some time in our PASPAC region, teaching some of our students English. Peter very quickly and happily agreed to this proposal.

So Peter enrolled in a CELTA course (Cambridge English Language Assessment) to teach English to speakers of Other Languages. This is an internationally recognised qualification. Halfway through the course, the pandemic blew up here in Australia, like the rest of the world. Peter managed, however, to complete the rest of the course online.

Because of the current travel restrictions, due to the pandemic, there is no hope at present of teaching face to face, as Peter had hoped to. He has, however, undertaken to do some teaching online, through our newly discovered best friend, Zoom.

Peter acquired one student in Vietnam and spent July and August teaching our Indonesian students. For Peter, it was wonderful to be able to be part of the formation of our future brothers, and see their passion for learning, and ministering to the Crucified.

But typical of Peter’s JPIC interests, he has also taken to bringing the fruits of these studies to some volunteer work in teaching English online.

It was through one of our other fellows, Br. Jim Coucher CP, that his attention was brought to a video that Jim had seen online on the BBC news site concerning Cambodia’s ‘Rubbish School’ where kids pay their tuition with plastic. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-53689175.

Here we are introduced to Kimleng Sang, who is a tour/photography guide in Angkor Wat and Siem Reap in Cambodia. Because of the pandemic, his work dried up, there being no tourists there at the moment. Also their schools are in lockdown. So Kimleng Sang decided to use his free time to start up a little school in his home. He is offering English lessons to local children. They pay their fees by collecting plastic. There is no recycling facility in the country, so what this set up does is that it has two benefits: the kids learn English, and the village gets cleaned up. They clean, recycle and repurpose the plastic into various bits and pieces.

Peter was intrigued and so tracked Kimleng Sang down on Facebook and added him as a friend. At first, he was running classes for older children, then decided to run some classes for the younger children. He advertised for someone to help, so Peter contacted him, and now teaches the children three days a week, for one hour each day.

Peter did check with his friends in Siem Reap (where we have had some pilgrimages building houses for poor rural families) that everything was above board, and okay, which it was.

Each day, Peter prepares a class on various topics, mostly basic words and phrases. He shows some video and then explains the concepts further. Kimleng then takes over, and using the slides and drills the kids in English.

“To be honest, it’s an absolute hoot,” says Peter. “The students are incredibly enthusiastic and willing to learn. The number of students varies, but we have had up to 26 students.”

Peter has found it a tremendous privilege to be involved with the Rubbish School. They are doing great work in improving their environment. And it gives the children an opportunity to learn for the future.

The future for many children, especially rural kids, is pretty bleak in Cambodia. With Siem Reap’s proximity to Angkor Wat, there are opportunities for employment as tour guides, restaurant workers, hotel employees, shop assistants and so on. It gives them an opportunity to enhance their future and their children’s children’s future.

Public education is free by law, in Cambodia, but ‘supplemental’ lessons for English or other extracurricular subjects cost extra ranging from US$5 a class to hundreds of dollars, depending on the school and its location. This could be a steep investment in a country where the average person earns under $1,400.00 a year.

For poor families in remote areas, the children are sent to beg for money to increase their family income, making it difficult for them to justify paying for extra classes.

But not only are the children gaining tools that will afford them a future in terms of work, the payment method is making, of these young minds, the environmental ambassadors for the future. It helps them to understand the use, management and recycling of waste products.

Tourist sites in countries like Cambodia are often clogged with garbage. Plastic bags and bottles are tossed out without a second thought, many of which end up in garbage-choked cities or smothering once idyllic beaches. Cambodia accumulated 3.6 million tonnes of waste last year, according to the country’s environment minister. A mere 11% of this is recycled, while almost half of it is burned or thrown into rivers causing widespread pollution. The rest is trucked to ever-growing landfills and dump sites, where the piles of garbage emitting methane gas can lead to unexpected and dangerous fires as well as add to climate change.

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A History of Slavery

For this month’s blog article, I thought I’d offer you this ‘History of Slavery’ by Ron Davoran CP, who is community leader of our Sydney based community at Marrickville. Ron took a trip to Ghana in 1999 and to New Orleans in 2018, where he visited sites connected with the slave trade. His writing this history was motivated by the recent wave of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that have swept through the USA and have spread throughout the world.

At the International Congress on Pastoral care and Counselling held in Accra, Ghana in the August of 1999 we had the opportunity of going on a day trip. We left at 7.30 am and I chose the tour to the Cape Coast. This was the region that was originally the capitol and the former government centre of the Gold Coast until 1877. This coastland is famous for its ancient forts and castles built by the early European traders and armed forces to keep invaders away.

This destination took over two hours to reach. We used three buses and firstly went to a National Park, where we went on a tree top walk over the forest. We then went on to the South Coast where we saw the Cape Coast Castle Museum.  The photo shows the inside courtyard of the Elmina castle which was only one of these places of infamy where in the 1700’s the slave trade was the main export from this country, as the need for overseas labour increased in the new world. It was from castles like this along the coast that thousands of slaves were exported, in horrible conditions, not only by the Spanish, Portuguese, and the British, but also by the Africans.  The history is not a pleasant one as, prior to the European invasion, the slave trade was run by the Arabs. We had a guide who took us through the museum and then took us into the inner workings of this grotesque place.  We entered a door which the sign above the lintel that explained the whole story, and it was through this door the captives entered the dungeons, which were separate for men and women. The African men and women who participated at the conference were in tears at this point and needed a lot of support on hearing these stories about their ancestors. This really churned my guts that people could be so cruel to people of different races and languages.

Over 60% of slaves came from Africa. These people were made up from different tribal groups, also different religions, and different shades of pigment in their skin, for fear of mutiny once under way on the high seas. The traders applied a one drop rule, “one drop of African blood and you were no longer human.”

I couldn’t help but feel that we are all responsible for this blot in our human history which we, the people from the ‘first world’ have to reconcile with the people of the ‘third world’ that we exploited, and used for our benefit over the many years of this trade. The day we visited this fort was a beautiful sunny day as this photograph above shows, but we were stunned by the brutality and exploitation of people for economic benefit.

I had put this trip into the back of my mind until I was in the USA conducting the Mission appeal in 2018. I was in New Orleans for six weeks. One morning I travelled 50 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to a location called the Whitney Plantation, to a landmark built by enslaved Africans and their descendants. An estimated 354 enslaved men, women and children worked indigo, rice, and sugar fields on this plantation from 1752-1867. Today, it is the only plantation museum in Louisiana that is exclusively dedicated to telling the story of slavery.  As a site of memory and consciousness, the Whitney Plantation pays homage to all enslaved people on the plantation and across the U.S. South.

In 2014 this plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262-year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. It began when the current owner, John Cummings who was a prominent trail attorney with offices in New York, Houston and New Orleans, bought this plantation as an investment and in part of the sale was a file that had some history on the past records. When he opened this, he found out about a German couple by the name of Ambrose Haydel. He and his wife who had 9 children by 1790 and started the plantation in 1752 on what was called the German coast of the Mississippi.

This experience of visiting the Whitney plantation was overwhelming. I felt like the slaves’ spirits were present, watching over us. There was a beautiful church, the trees were very big and tall, and there were beautiful sculptures. But amidst all this beauty were the slave houses that they lived in.

The new owner of this plantation has spent a lot of his money on research and it took 15 years before this museum could be opened. In the restored church we saw these replicas of

Sculptures by Woodrow Nash haunt the church on the plantation property.

the slaves from mature adults to children. On entry we were given a name tag and mine said ‘Shack Wilson.’ The information on this tag read “… trying to forget all those horrible days of slavery and way back yonder I was born in Clinton, Louisiana and belonged to Marse B Robbins. They used to whip slaves if they did not pick enough cotton. They put four pegs in the ground and tied one leg to one peg, the other to the other and the arms were tied together. They were stripped of all clothing and whipped with a raw-hide… then they’d be put to picking cotton with all that suffering.”

Our tour guide was Cheryl and there would have been about 16 in our party. We started off in the Baptist Church, when entering we saw models of slaves, and I saw a stature of Shack Wilson, then we saw a brief video that told the history and the cruelty that the slaves had to endure from their masters and owners.

After viewing the video and being enlightened by these facts we began our journey. We walked to the “Six Memorial Walls” instead of gravestones, that told the story of hundreds of slaves, who had died. The engravings on these walls of memories represented the slaves’ perspectives on their lives. Some of the passages were long and others just had their slave name. I read some of these stories. The narratives were the hardest to cope with; reading about somebody’s life as a slave was beyond depressing. The passages were filled with horror and terror beyond belief, yet it was a beautiful honour to hear the stories from the slave’s perspective. One woman had 15 children, all from different men, and she never saw one of them, for as soon as they were born, they were whisked away to be eventually sold as slaves on the market block. She was classified as a breeder. On reading some of the slave’s stories you could not help but feel revulsion in the pit of your stomach.

From there we walked to the “Field of Angels,” This was a statue of an angel with a sheet wrapped around her waist and looking down on a baby in her arms. Around this statue was a circular brick wall, on which were the names of the slaves and their ages at the time they died. Little did I know that on the walls around this enclosure were the names of over 2200 children who died and the stories of some of these children are on these walls. Many of these children did not have names. Grotesque is the word that I have been trying to find.

We walked down a shaded path where I saw the name of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall on a plaque. This woman was a prominent historian who focused on the history of slavery in the Caribbean, Latin America, Louisiana, Africa, and the African diaspora, who studied the ethnic origins of those who came to Louisiana. She created a database of records identifying and describing more than 100,000 enslaved Africans. It became a primary resource for historical and genealogical research. She earned recognition in academia, and her contributions to scholarship, genealogy, and the critical re-evaluation of the history of slavery have been valued.

As we walked down this roadway, we saw these basic houses which was where the slaves lived. These four slave houses were in a row and only one of the four houses were open for inspection. They were basic houses with four rooms one of which had an open fire in the middle of the room which would have been used for cooking of their food. We were told that the slaves who worked the fields left in the dark mornings and it was dark when they returned at night. The major cash crop was Sugar Cane and Maze and the fields were up to 3 miles from these quarters. The cane would grow to a height of 16 feet, and they used machetes to harvest the crop. Many slaves harmed themselves deliberately by cutting their leg or arms to prevent them from working as a slave again. Today we would call this PTSD, [post-traumatic stress syndrome} and many people died from infection caused by this method of refusing to go to work in the fields. These cabins could hold up from 20-25 slaves. Of these slaves 10% of them worked near the master’s house, mainly women and the other 90% were sent into the fields. Slaves were not seen to be human, and they were not allowed to learn to read or write or even to congregate apart from church on a Sunday as this gathering could lead to a fear of riots and uprisings.

After walking past these houses on the right could be seen a rectangle steel box with bars and we wondered what this could be? This was the slaves’ jail where the slaves were placed if the master felt that a slave was disobedient or as a slaves’ punishment if he or she had run away. This steel cage had three rooms and each cell had four bunks. It was about two metres from the floor to the ceiling and was made of steel. Wall to wall was the size of the width of a person’s arm span. Each cell was closed with heavy metal padlocked doors. These cells had a small window on the front of each door. The doors, windows and the sides and the backside of this cage was crisscrossed with flat steel metal bars. The metal felt hard and it had turned burgundy after the sun had cooked the paint. It would have been extremely hot in these cages. The heat emanating from this torture chamber would have been unsettling, apart from the torture that would have been inflicted by the master for any indiscretion. The only cool air would have been at night when the wind blew. I started to feel claustrophobic as I imagined fellow slaves locked in this cage with me. On the day of this visit it was extremely hot with a high humidity level.

We then went to the master’s house which was built from 1790-1810. This consisted of a white painted two-story large house with 6 bedrooms upstairs as well as a dining room, as in the downstairs portion of the building were kept cattle and other exotic animals that were kept for the Master’s family food. Outside there was a blacksmith and two buildings that held pigeons as a delicacy for the master and his family to eat. These houses were in far better condition than the houses that we had previously seen where the slaves lived.

On return to the starting point of the tour, I bought a few books on the story and history and then saw on a map of the journey of slaves around the world. The first showed the maritime routes which were the Atlantic slave trade; Indian Ocean slave trade; the Mediterranean slave route and the Trans-Saharan slave route and most of these people came mainly from the continent of Africa.  On this map could be seen the Atlantic route where the slave ships would have travelled from the African port to New Orleans. To the side of this picture was an insert that I have added below so as to explain where the slaves had been captured as their place of origin. Slaves did not only come from Africa, of course, although the huge majority had come from this country. Who had traded these people? Where was the destination that they were transported in these horrible conditions?

The International Slave Trade commenced in 1612 and ran until the year of 1807. There are prominent dates like in 1612 when the Dutch arrived in West Africa and settled on Gorde island; then 1664 when the French Company of the West Indies was founded; in 1672 the British Royal African company was founded; In 1685 the French passes the Code Noir into law in the West Indies; in 1781 the Haitian Revolution begins with a slave uprising near the city of Le Cop; in 1807 the British parliament bans the African Slave Trade; in 1808 the US ban on the foreign slave trade took effect on the 1st January, 1815; in 1819 the British station a naval squadron on the West African coast to intercept slave ships.

Slavery went on until its abolishment in England thanks to a bill that was introduced in parliament by William Wilberforce. In the British House of Commons it was discussed and passed, but it did not come into force until 1833, abolishing this trade in the British Empire. Abolishment in the USA was not ratified until December of 1865 when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 that abolished slavery officially freeing more than 50,000 people still enslaved in Kentucky and Delaware.

The guide on our tour recommended to us a book called “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward E Baptist on this issue of slavery in the deep south. Baptist’s work is a valuable addition to the growing literature on slavery and American development … Baptist has a knack for explaining complex financial matters in lucid prose….. This is an ambitious new economic and social history of antebellum America. … The overwhelming power of the stories that Baptist recounts and the plantation level statistics he has compiled give to this book the power of truth and revelation.

When I stayed at St Augustine’s presbytery, during the week that I had in downtown New Orleans, I observed a cross made from chains, handcuffs, and torture instruments, as I used to walk to the transport routes in New Orleans. The plaque read: “On this October 30, 2004, we the faith community of St Augustine’s Catholic Church, dedicate this shrine consisting of crosses, chains and shackles to the memory the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg, Treme. The tomb of the unknown slave is commemorated here in this garden plot of St Augustine’s Church, the only parish in the United States whose free people of colour bought two outer rows of pews exclusively for slaves to use for worship. This St Augustine’s/Treme shrine honours all slaves buried throughout the United States and those slaves in particular who lie beneath the ground of Theme in unmarked, unknown graves, There is no doubt that the St Augustine’s sits astride the blood, sweat, tears and some of the mortal remains of unknown slaves from Africa and local American Indian slaves who either met with fatal treachery and were therefore buried quickly and secretly or were buried hastily and at random because of yellow fever and other plagues. Even now, some Treme locals have childhood memories of salvage/restoration workers unearthing various human bones, sometimes in concentrated areas such as wells. In other words, the tomb of the unknown salve is a constant reminder that we are walking on holy ground. Thus, we cannot consecrate this tomb, because it is already consecrated by many slaves’ inglorious deaths bereft of any acknowledgement, dignity or respect, but ultimately glorious by their blood, sweat, tears, faith, prayers and deep worship of our creator.” [Donated by Sylvia Barker of the Danny Barker Estate.]

In the early days of New Orleans, the Catholic Church was extremely prominent as the people who settled in this area were mainly from France and Germany.
This time in New Orleans has really stirred up my feelings over slavery, especially with the attitudes of President Trump over the immigration issues and how he is taking children from their parents as they cross the Mexican border as illegals or as refugees. This is a hot topic in the states of Texas and Louisiana currently in 2018.

It also raised issues in myself that we in Australia must approach the question of Aboriginal Reconciliation with honesty. This arose after my period in Port Augusta when I was parish priest from 2000-2004 and as part of this role visiting the Port Augusta Prison weekly.

The Australian Indigenous situation by numbers from an article in “The Conversation” titled ‘When it comes to deaths in custody, we need to look in the mirror’. By the numbers.

99 the number of deaths in custody documented by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

432 the number of Indigenous Australians who have died in custody since (according to Guardian Australia’s Deaths Inside project.

2,481 the number of First Nation adults in prison for every 100,000 people.

164 the number of non-indigenous adults in prison for every 100,000 people.

3% the percentage of Australian’s adult population who are First Nations Australians.

28% the percentage of Australian’s prison population who are First Nations Australians.

2015 the year David Dungay Jr was killed when prison officers restrained him, including with handcuffs, and pushed him face down on his bed and on the floor. One officer pushed a knee into his back. All along, Dungay was screaming that he could not breathe and could be heard gasping for air.

ZERO the number of successful homicide prosecutions of a death in Australian criminal courts.

With the unrest in our world today and especially in the USA over the death of George Floyd, a black man by the police in Minneapolis, this issue has raised for me that “BLACK LIVES DO MATTER”

 

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COVID and the Survival Instinct

For all our success, we obviously aren’t out of the woods yet. A new outbreak of COVID-19 in Melbourne has meant that the state of Victoria has been put into lockdown for 6 weeks. That is 6 weeks without social interaction – of social distancing (no handshakes or hugging, touch or togetherness) along with the closing of businesses, the loss of civil liberties and personal freedoms. Again we will comply as this is the price to be paid, a sacrifice to save lives. After all, we are the lucky ones in Australia.

A friend of mine, and immigrant from South Africa, told me how impressed he was by Australia’s response to COVID-19 in comparison to the USA or other parts of the world. His analysis is that Australians tend to be compliant. On the whole we do what our government asks us to do and so have, for the most part, brought the pandemic under control in this country, while other cultures who tend to ignore government guidelines or rail against the loss of civil liberties are paying for it.

The question is for how long do we comply. Because this could be the new normal, and will probably repeat itself in other states at other times, until a vaccine is produced and is readily available (if in fact a vaccine can be produced against this virus. After all, there is no vaccine for HIV).

We hear that the way we have tackled the pandemic is the envy of the world. Other nations are in much greater strife, and yet they are still less ready to comply. Why don’t they see the necessity for such sacrifice in the face of this threat? In his article, Charles Eisenstien debates these hard questions:

“The relevant question for me is, would I ask all the nation’s children to forego play for a season, if it would reduce my mother’s risk of dying, or for that matter, my own risk? Or I might ask, would I decree the end of human hugging and handshakes, if it would save my own life? This is not to devalue Mom’s life or my own, both of which are precious. I am grateful for every day she is still with us. But these questions bring up deep issues. What is the right way to live? What is the right way to die?”

The questions Eisenstien asks boils down to where our values lie. How much are we prepared to give up for the sake of survival, and have our values gradually and even exaggeratedly shifted to a place where survival outweighs all other values?

“Over my lifetime I’ve seen society place more and more emphasis on safety, security, and risk reduction. It has especially impacted childhood: as a young boy it was normal for us to roam a mile from home unsupervised – behaviour that would earn parents a visit from Child Protective Services today. It also manifests in the form of latex gloves for more and more professions; hand sanitizer everywhere; locked, guarded, and surveillanced school buildings; intensified airport and border security; heightened awareness of legal liability and liability insurance; metal detectors and searches before entering many sports arenas and public buildings, and so on. Writ large, it takes the form of the security state. The mantra “safety first” comes from a value system that makes survival top priority, and that depreciates other values like fun, adventure, play, and the challenging of limits.

“The ultimate fulfilment of civilization’s program of control would be to triumph over death itself. Failing that, modern society settles for a facsimile of that triumph: denial rather than conquest. Ours is a society of death denial, from its hiding away of corpses, to its fetish for youthfulness, to its warehousing of old people in nursing homes. Even its obsession with money and property – extensions of the self, as the word “mine” indicates – expresses the delusion that the impermanent self can be made permanent through its attachments. All this is inevitable given the story-of-self that modernity offers: the separate individual in a world of Other. Surrounded by genetic, social, and economic competitors, that self must protect and dominate in order to thrive. It must do everything it can to forestall death, which (in the story of separation) is total annihilation. Biological science has even taught us that our very nature is to maximize our chances of surviving and reproducing.”

For me the question is, how much am I personally willing to give up in terms of a ‘normal’ way of life for the sake of my own survival? I think the answer I would give is that it depends for how long I would have to live that way. The instinct to survive is basic to who we are as members of the animal kingdom. If not for that instinct we would have died out as a species a long time ago. As long as I still feel a certain freedom in my choice to comply, such that I believe that it is a necessary sacrifice with a time limit on it, then my natural inclination is to comply – if not for myself then for others. The worst-case scenario for me would be to be responsible for another’s death by passing on the virus to them.

“The assumption that public policy should seek to minimize the number of deaths is nearly beyond question, a goal to which other values like play, freedom, etc. are subordinate. Covid-19 offers occasion to broaden that view. Yes, let us hold life sacred, more sacred than ever. Death teaches us that. Let us hold each person, young or old, sick or well, as the sacred, precious, beloved being that they are. And in the circle of our hearts, let us make room for other sacred values too. To hold life sacred is not just to live long, it is to live well and right and fully.

“Like all fear, the fear around the coronavirus hints at what might lie beyond it. Anyone who has experienced the passing of someone close knows that death is a portal to love. Covid-19 has elevated death to prominence in the consciousness of a society that denies it. On the other side of the fear, we can see the love that death liberates. Let it pour forth. Let it saturate the soil of our culture and fill its aquifers so that it seeps up through the cracks of our crusted institutions, our systems, and our habits. Some of these may die too.”

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The COVID-19 Conspiracy

In last week’s blog article, I quoted Charles Eisenstien’s prophetic words, when reflecting on the current crisis over the COVID-19 pandemic, “COVID-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future.”

The Black Lives Matter movement’s response to the death of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and the world wide show of solidarity, suggests that we don’t want to return to the pre-Corona ‘normal,’ but rather that we want to bring something new forward. Of the hundred paths that radiate out in front of us, the BLM protest, that has caught on around the world, demonstrates again the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important.

The movement and mass demonstrations have flown in the face of the Corona virus threat, and the proof of the pudding will be if in 2 weeks time if we see a second wave manifest itself with devastating consequence. A month after writing the last blog post, the numbers of those who have died from COVID 19 have risen from 282,709 to 401,564. As stated in my article last month, world governments have had the problem of racial inequality in their countries for a long time and don’t know how to deal with it. Currently their moves are to go back to doing what they know best and that is to try to reboot the economy so as to prevent a global or local depression, and bring us back to the stable societal/economic model that prevailed prior to the pandemic.

Here is Australia, we are experiencing a backlash from China for canvasing support from other nations for an independent and transparent investigation of the origins of COVID-19 in China. The Chinese government has called Australia the lapdog of the USA, doing the will of the US government in blaming China for covering up the real source of the pandemic, that it came from a lab in Wuhan province that was experimenting on this virus and either deliberately or accidentally released it into the public. China has retaliated by placing a ban on the import of Australian barley, a $1.5 billion blow to our economy, as well as a ban on some Australian meat exports. The latest move has been to warn its citizens against travel to Australia for holiday or study as it claims racist violence has increased against Chinese people in Australia due to COVID-19. A blame game of conspiracy theories has developed around this crisis, again showing the human propensity to look for a scapegoat so as to feel some sense of control in face of a serious threat.

Conspiracy theories have also abounded in terms of the government response to the pandemic with imposed isolation and restrictions. After all, COVID-19 does seem to justify many items on the totalitarian wish list in terms of imposed societal controls. As Eisenstein writes in his article, “these conspiracy theories observe that the infrastructure, technology, and legislative framework for martial law has been in preparation for many years. All that was needed, they say, was a way to make the public embrace it, and now that has come. Whether or not current controls are permanent, a precedent is being set for:

  • The tracking of people’s movements at all times (because coronavirus)
  • The suspension of freedom of assembly (because coronavirus)
  • The military policing of civilians (because coronavirus)
  • Extrajudicial, indefinite detention (quarantine, because coronavirus)
  • The banning of cash (because coronavirus)
  • Censorship of the Internet (to combat disinformation, because coronavirus)
  • Compulsory vaccination and other medical treatment, establishing the state’s sovereignty over our bodies (because coronavirus)
  • The classification of all activities and destinations into the expressly permitted and the expressly forbidden (you can leave your house for this, but not that), eliminating the un-policed, non-juridical gray zone. That totality is the very essence of totalitarianism. Necessary now though, because, well, coronavirus.”

It certainly appears that China is taking advantage of the shift in world attention to use these pandemic-fuelled restrictions as a way to exert more control over Hong Kong. Some theories suggest that China released the virus so as to damage the economies of other nations by forcing them into lockdowns, allowing Chinese economic power to grow. The limited spread of the infection in China itself is held up as proof.

Whether any of these theories are true, Eisenstein’s article continues, “the same progression of events could unfold from an unconscious systemic tilt toward ever-increasing control. Where does this tilt come from? It is woven into civilization’s DNA. For millennia, civilization (as opposed to small-scale traditional cultures) has understood progress as a matter of extending control onto the world: domesticating the wild, conquering the barbarians, mastering the forces of nature, and ordering society according to law and reason. The ascent of control accelerated with the Scientific Revolution, which launched “progress” to new heights: the ordering of reality into objective categories and quantities, and the mastering of materiality with technology. Finally, the social sciences promised to use the same means and methods to fulfil the ambition (which goes back to Plato and Confucius) to engineer a perfect society.

Those who administer civilization will therefore welcome any opportunity to strengthen their control, for after all, it is in service to a grand vision of human destiny: the perfectly ordered world, in which disease, crime, poverty, and perhaps suffering itself can be engineered out of existence. No nefarious motives are necessary. Of course they would like to keep track of everyone – all the better to ensure the common good. For them, Covid-19 shows how necessary that is. “Can we afford democratic freedoms in light of the coronavirus?” they ask. “Must we now, out of necessity, sacrifice those for our own safety?”

If so, then the defiance of COVID restrictions on mass gatherings worldwide, shown in the rallies for BLM, could not have come at a better time to short circuit any such aspirations on the part of world leaders. If anything, it has thrown China’s move on Hong Kong into the human right’s spotlight more starkly than before.

“True or false,” Eisenstien explains, “the idea that the epidemic is some monstrous plot perpetrated by evildoers upon the public is not so far from the mindset of find-the-pathogen. It is a crusading mentality, a war mentality. It locates the source of a socio-political illness in a pathogen against which we may then fight, a victimizer separate from ourselves. It risks ignoring the conditions that make society fertile ground for the plot to take hold. Whether that ground was sown deliberately or by the wind is, for me, a secondary question.

What I will say next is relevant whether or not SARS-CoV2 is a genetically engineered bioweapon, is related to 5G rollout, is being used to prevent “disclosure,” is a Trojan horse for totalitarian world government, is more deadly than we’ve been told, is less deadly than we’ve been told, originated in a Wuhan biolab, or originated at Fort Detrick, or is exactly as the CDC and WHO have been telling us. It applies even if everyone is totally wrong about the role of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the current epidemic. I have my opinions, but if there is one thing I have learned through the course of this emergency is that I don’t really know what is happening. I don’t see how anyone can, amidst the seething farrago of news, fake news, rumours, suppressed information, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and politicized narratives that fill the internet. I wish a lot more people would embrace not knowing. I say that both to those who embrace the dominant narrative, as well as those who hew to dissenting ones. What information might we be blocking out, in order to maintain the integrity of our viewpoints? Let’s be humble in our beliefs: it is a matter of life and death.”

(To be continued in next month’s blog article)

 

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The Choice Before Us

There is a quote by Sonya Renee Taylor that originated on Instagram that has been doing the rounds on Facebook that reads: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature. “

I must admit that at the beginning of the period of lockdown I too longed to go back to what I considered ‘normal,’ even though I did recognise a lot wrong with the world and was an advocate for change, especially for the sake of the environment.

Here in Australia we had just come through a summer of drought and devastating bushfires, clearly results of human made climate change. But during this period of enforced inactivity through lockdown we have all been given a glimpse of what could be with the air and water clearing and noise reduction from less road and air traffic.  The main problem is that for those personally and financially affected by the economic downturn and job loss as a result of the pandemic, their glimpse of a future without the economic model that afforded them the lifestyle they enjoyed pre-corona has nothing to recommend it. Whatever future we move into has to take into account the human fallout of a global financial crisis.

We are faced with 2 realities: the truth, positive and negative, of the world we considered ‘normal,’ and the truth, positive and negative, about the post-pandemic world we hope for. To explore this theme, this will be the first of a series of blog articles, using as a basis a piece that appeared in ‘Golden Age of Gaia’ by public speaker and author Charles Eisenstein where he masterfully captures the issues involved in choosing where to from here. In that article he writes:

“For years, normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter, waiting for a nip of the black swan’s beak to snap it in two. Now that the rope has snapped, do we tie its ends back together, or shall we undo its dangling braids still further, to see what we might weave from them?

“COVID-19 is showing us that when humanity is united in common cause, phenomenally rapid change is possible. None of the world’s problems are technically difficult to solve; they originate in human disagreement. In coherency, humanity’s creative powers are boundless. A few months ago, a proposal to halt commercial air travel would have seemed preposterous. Likewise for the radical changes we are making in our social behaviour, economy, and the role of government in our lives. COVID demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important.

“COVID-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future. We might ask, after so many have lost their jobs, whether all of them are the jobs the world most needs, and whether our labour and creativity would be better applied elsewhere.

“We might ask, having done without it for a while, whether we really need so much air travel, Disneyworld vacations, or trade shows. What parts of the economy will we want to restore, and what parts might we choose to let go of? And on a darker note, what among the things that are being taken away right now – civil liberties, freedom of assembly, sovereignty over our bodies, in-person gatherings, hugs, handshakes, and public life – might we need to exert intentional, political and personal will to restore?

“We are right to stop, stunned at the newness of our situation. Because of the hundred paths that radiate out in front of us, some lead in the same direction we’ve already been headed. Some lead to hell on earth. And some lead to a world more healed and more beautiful than we ever dared believe to be possible. 

“Going without hugs for a few weeks seems a small price to pay if it will stem an epidemic that could take millions of lives. There is a strong argument for social distancing in the near term: to prevent a sudden surge of COVID cases from overwhelming the medical system. I would like to put that argument in a larger context, especially as we look to the long term. Lest we institutionalize distancing and reengineer society around it, let us be aware of what choice we are making and why.

“The same goes for the other changes happening around the coronavirus epidemic. Some commentators have observed how it plays neatly into an agenda of totalitarian control. A frightened public accepts abridgments of civil liberties that are otherwise hard to justify, such as the tracking of everyone’s movements at all times, forcible medical treatment, involuntary quarantine, restrictions on travel and the freedom of assembly, censorship of what the authorities deem to be disinformation, suspension of habeas corpus, and military policing of civilians. The same goes for the automation of commerce; the transition from participation in sports and entertainment to remote viewing; the migration of life from public to private spaces; the transition away from place-based schools toward online education, the decline of brick-and-mortar stores, and the movement of human work and leisure onto screens. Covid-19 is accelerating pre-existing trends, political, economic, and social. 

“While all the above are, in the short term, justified on the grounds of flattening the curve, we are also hearing a lot about a ‘new normal’; that is to say, the changes may not be temporary at all. Since the threat of infectious disease, like the threat of terrorism, never goes away, control measures can easily become permanent.”

At the present moment, a third of the way through May, the official statistics are that 282,709 have died from COVID-19. By the time it runs its course, the death toll could be ten times or a hundred times greater. Each one of these people has loved ones, family and friends. Compassion and conscience call us to do what we can to avert unnecessary tragedy.

What will the final numbers be? The question is impossible to answer, but more recently, estimates have plunged as it became apparent that most cases are mild or asymptomatic. A recent paper in the journal ‘Science’ argues that 86% of infections have been undocumented, which points to a much lower mortality rate than current case fatality rate would indicate. Everyday the media reports the total number of COVID-19 cases, but no one has any idea what the true number is, because only a tiny portion of the population has been tested.

The point of this reflection is, however, if we can change so radically for COVID-19, why can’t we imagine doing it for other conditions too? In 2013, according to the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization), 5 million children worldwide die of hunger every year. Suicide kills a million people globally each year, connected of course to despair and depression. Drug overdoses kill 70,000 in the USA alone each year. Why are we also not frenzied about averting nuclear Armageddon or an ecological collapse? Why are we able to unify our collective will to stem the Corona virus, but not to address other grave threats to humanity?

The answer is simply because in the face of world hunger, addiction, suicide, or ecological collapse, we as a society do not know what to do. That is because there is nothing external against which to fight. COVID-19 is an external threat that we know how to meet, unlike so many of our other fears.

Charles Eisenstein’s article continues, “Today, most of our challenges no longer succumb to force. Our antibiotics and surgery fail to meet the surging health crises of autoimmunity, addiction, and obesity. Our guns and bombs, built to conquer armies, are useless to erase hatred abroad or keep domestic violence out of our homes. Our police and prisons cannot heal the breeding conditions of crime. Our pesticides cannot restore ruined soil. Covid-19 recalls the good old days when the challenges of infectious diseases succumbed to modern medicine and hygiene, at the same time as the Nazis succumbed to the war machine, and nature itself succumbed, or so it seemed, to technological conquest and improvement. It recalls the days when our weapons worked and the world seemed indeed to be improving with each technology of control.

“What kind of problem succumbs to domination and control? The kind caused by something from the outside, something Other. When the cause of the problem is something intimate to ourselves, like homelessness or inequality, addiction or obesity, there is nothing to war against. We may try to install an enemy, blaming, for example, the billionaires, Vladimir Putin, or the Devil, but then we miss key information, such as the ground conditions that allow billionaires (or viruses) to replicate in the first place.

“If there is one thing our civilization is good at, it is fighting an enemy. We welcome opportunities to do what we are good at, which prove the validity of our technologies, systems, and worldview. And so, we manufacture enemies, cast problems like crime, terrorism, and disease into us-versus-them terms, and mobilize our collective energies toward those endeavours that can be seen that way. Thus, we single out COVID-19 as a call to arms, reorganizing society as if for a war effort, while treating as normal the possibility of nuclear Armageddon, ecological collapse, and five million children starving.”

(To be continued in next month’s blog article)

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The Ballad of Dunny Roll

The year was 2020, early March, or thereabouts;

off the back of quite a summer plagued by bushfires and droughts.

So the nation was exhausted, many folks weren’t thinking straight

Which goes some way towards explaining #ToiletPaperGate.

It started with a virus, some say China was the donor.

They called it COVID-19 but we called it My Corona.

And we saw the illness spreading and the cruise ships quarantined.

And we sanitized our fingers as we lined up to be screened.

Then in amongst the panic, someone headed down to Coles

And loaded up their trolley full of toilet paper rolls.

We’ll never know who did it, what their motive was or why.

Or what brand of roll they hoarded, was it scented or two-ply?

All we know is in that moment, when they took it from the shelf,

They unleashed a chain reaction as a nation shat itself.

Now we’ve faced wars and cyclones, we’ve survived them all as one.

But a toilet paper shortage? Well it made us come undone.

For the people started hoarding all the last remaining sheets.

There were punch ons in the aisles, there was panic in the streets.

“Me crack’s in need of wiping!” Someone cried in desperation.

What else can I bloody use to solve this situation?

Some stooped to using gum leaves. Others left it on the floor.

Many wiped with plastic bags and returned them to the store.

While others rocked on the verandah with a shotgun fully manned.

To protect their precious stock, they’d rather die then use their hand.

And the cheeky bidet owners with their derrieres unhurt?

Well they rented out their bathrooms, $20 for a squirt.

But the greatest single irony throughout this sordid farce,

You get Corona in your nose and lungs, not shooting out your arse.

So we’ll never know when faced with a pandemic-level slaughter,

Why we spent our cash on poo tickets instead of food and water.

‘Cause history will tell you how the virus was contained.

But the rush on toilet paper? That can never be explained.

And I wonder if the Anzacs were infected by some jerks

Who’d fight over a dunny roll instead of fighting Turks.

‘Cause it seems to me it could just be a true blue Aussie trait,

to panic in a crisis and steal bog roll from your mates.

This poem, by comedian Sammy J, appeared on the ABC on March 12 of this year. I begin this month’s blog entry with it as, while a humorous and satirical commentary on the panic buying of toilet paper that marked the first real impact of the COVID19 pandemic on Australian society, it concludes with a pertinent question about, not only Australian society, but human beings in general. That question is really just how civilised are we as human beings?

It’s clear, as the panic buying illustrated, that our higher capacities for reason, civility, compassion and rationality quickly vanished when the instinct for self-preservation kicked in. It is somewhat surprising and painful to discover how shallow a veneer our ‘civilized’ way of life really is. We like to think of ourselves as progressing and growing in sophistication, education and in our humanity. But the truth is that we are still members of the animal kingdom, with all the instincts for survival that we share with other animals. This is not a new realisation. The theme was explored poignantly in the novel, “The Lord of the Flies,” by William Golding. Golding explored this very point in his story about a group of upper class English school boys marooned on an uninhabited island and how their behaviour quickly deteriorates to include murder, violence, and domination of the weak by the strong.

The story asserts that in such a situation where the structures and norms that keep us civilised are removed, we revert to a Darwinian survival of the fittest. When our survival is threatened, all reason and rationality fly out the window. In our case, even though there was enough for everyone in terms of food, toilet paper, etc., unnecessary panic buying quickly developed, and the most vulnerable missed out.

Yet, this behaviour shouldn’t surprise us. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs points out that our ‘higher’ pursuits are dependant on having our more basic needs met.

Our need for safety is pretty low in the scale, which suggests that once it is threatened, we would abandon our higher pursuits in favour of efforts to assure our survival.

For many of us, though, who hold a high opinion of humanity, it is disappointing to see our fellow human beings revert to more base behaviour. It feels as if it reflects on us. The behaviour of our fellow human beings challenges our own self-esteem, which we have pinned on participation in the human race or in our culture, race or society. We rely on the society to which we belong to give us a measure of ourselves. When that society behaves in a way we do not expect, or rather in a way that is less than we expect of ourselves, we are dismayed and wonder what does this say about us. It weakens our anchor point and our sense of security. Our confidence in society is based on believing we understand the rules we all play by. We feel secure in the belief that people in our society will behave in a certain way and we can rely on them to be civilised, rational and reasonable. When that proves not to be true, our security is threatened. We lose trust in them, though denial usually holds us for a while as we put the blame on a few ‘ratbags’ rather than accept that human beings on the whole are not as civilised as we like to think they are.

To steel ourselves in response to this realization we may be the kind of person that tends to consider the worst case scenario, so as not to be taken by surprise again. Our disillusionment with humanity, however, can jaundice our outlook. To get the full picture, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the other end of the spectrum. Crises like the COVID19 pandemic, while bringing out the worst in some people, also brings out the best. Stories of selfless acts have emerged such as that of an infected elderly priest in Italy who declined the use of a respirator in favour of a younger patient, and dying as a result. We shouldn’t blind ourselves to the number of volunteers who have stepped up to help those who are most vulnerable by shopping and delivering groceries to them. We shouldn’t fail to take into account the sacrifices and professional commitment of our healthcare workers and essential service providers, who put their lives at risk daily in this crisis to continue to care for the sick and the dying.

As human beings, we are a mass of contradictions, and always have been. Victor Frankl, in his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ put it this way: “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

 

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The Threat from the Right

I was taken aback last week when I heard ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) director-general Mike Burgess naming neo-Nazi groups as one of Australia’s most serious security threats. In his first annual threat assessment from Canberra, he expressed concern at the ‘hateful ideology’ of right wing extremist groups saying, “In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.”

Pope Francis recently condemned the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. He linked it to the rise of populism. “It is troubling to see, in many parts of the world, an increase in selfishness and indifference, lack of concern of others and the attitude that says life is good as long as it is good for me, and when things go wrong, anger and malice are unleashed,” he said. “This creates a fertile ground for the forms of factionalism and populism we see around us, where hatred quickly springs up…where hatred is disseminated.”

To some degree I would expect to find this in some countries of Europe, fuelled by the war on terror, the fear of terrorist attacks, the great influx of Muslim refugees, the global financial crisis, and now the Corona Virus Pandemic. Nazism was born in a time of economic hardship for Germany, and as part of that nation’s memory, it is easy for those seeds to germinate amongst those who feel disenfranchised.

It is even easier to expect to hear about this taking place in the United States where a civil war was fought along the lines of white supremacy (at least in the public mind), and segregation was part of its history.

But for me it is another thing to find it named as a serious threat in Australia. From what I’ve read, Australia’s alt right groups are diverse, according to experts, and would not necessarily publically self-describe themselves as Nazi, nor would it be common for them to be talking about or collecting memorabilia. In Australia there are some key groups and many of these groups overlap in their ideas, but many of these groups are quiet, which ASIO considers a danger. Only one group proudly claims the title ‘Nazi’ and that is the ‘Antipodean Resistance.’

The Antipodean Resistance describe themselves as ‘the Hitlers you’ve been waiting for.’ To join the men’s chapter, you need to be white, straight, young, monogamous and date only other white people. The group rose to fame when they put up swastika stickers in places like Fitzroy and on the Monash University campus in Melbourne.

Another identified group are ‘The Lads Society,’ run by Blair Cottrell and Tom Sewell, who brand themselves as a fitness group, but have radical racial undertones and want to create ‘Anglo-European’ enclaves in Australian cities. Because it is not overtly Nazi at the start, it’s easy for a wide range of people to see appeal. Dr. Campion, a lecturer of terrorism studies at Charles Sturt University, said, “They use whiteness, heritage, the natural order, narratives around threats through immigration and invasion, and that’s when they start to attack Jews, Muslims, occasionally Christians.”

Other groups are more hidden and silent, but their ideologies have only hardened, particularly since the Christchurch Mosque massacre. That attack energised the extreme right and awakened certain ideas. According to ASIO they have infiltrated the ‘Young Nationals,’ committed murder and arson, hold Reclaim Australia rallies, and recruit members as young as 13.

Last December, the distinguished German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, spoke of his concern about the resurgence of nationalism around the world. Moltmann himself served in the Hitler Youth as a boy and was a WWII POW at the time of his conversion to Christianity. So he has a personal perspective on the evils of nationalism. He called the new wave of nationalism taking root in many countries a ‘setback for humanity.’ “Humanity precedes nationality,” he said in a lecture to students at the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, Switzerland.

Moltmann, now 93 years old, spoke candidly about growing up under the extreme nationalism of Nazi Germany and the impact this had on his own family. He recalled that, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he was seven years old. “My larger family was divided between anti-Hitler socialists and pro-Hitler Nazis.”

In 1937 his father was told to either join the Nazi party or lose his job as a teacher. His father joined the party to save his family and when the War broke out volunteered for the army, remaining at odds with Nazism. Moltmann, himself, was drafted into the Army along with his entire school class at just 16. After the war ended, when he returned to Germany, he felt lost over the things he’d learned about Auschwitz and the killing of German soldiers by the SS.

“Since then I have been convinced there is no fatherland in dictatorship,” he said. He challenged Christians to reject nationalistic ideas saying, “The church of Christ is present in all the people on earth and cannot become a ‘national religion.’ “The church of Christ ecumenically embraces the whole inhabited earth,” he said, “She is not a tribal religion, nor a Western religion, nor a white religion, but the church of all humanity.”

 

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Health, a Justice Issue

When it comes to health concerns, at present all attention is focused on the Corona Virus outbreak and efforts to contain it. Of the infections and diseases that afflict humankind, some are caused by viruses and others by bacteria. Bacteria can be combatted using antibiotics. These drugs have no effect on viruses. The best approach with dealing with viral infections is prevention – that is by developing a vaccine, whose effect is to trigger an immune response in the person vaccinated so that they develop an immunity to that particular viral strain.

The development of antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial infections, when it first came, was a game changer and has allowed human life to successfully flourish. Prior to their advent, most people did not survive many curable infections, although the use of Sulpha drugs and alcohol disinfectants improved things compared to what had happened previously.

In recent times, though, overuse or incorrect use of antibiotics, as well as the natural processes of genetic mutations and natural selection, has seen the development of the ‘Super bugs,’ or antibiotic resistant bacteria. These bacterial strains have developed a resistance to normal antibiotics and as a result Pharmaceutical companies have invested a lot of research money into developing new generations of antibiotics to combat these diseases. It is like a medical arms race. As new drugs are developed, it is only a matter of time before the bacteria develop resistance to them, and so the research must continue as to lose this arms race could plunge humanity back to the dark ages of pre-antibiotic levels of infection and death.

But today the world is at risk of losing effective antibiotics altogether. Big Pharmaceutical companies are now abandoning the expensive pursuit of developing new antibiotic strains, leaving the global population at the mercy of previously treatable diseases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned of declining private investment and lack of innovation in the development of new antibiotics that are undermining efforts to combat drug-resistant infections.

The perverse reason for this is that there is no real money in it. It costs billions to develop new strains of antibiotics, much of which is soaked up by repeated failures. As a result of such costly development, once a new drug hits the market, hospitals can’t afford to pay for them.

Antibiotics, which are ordinarily taken over a number of days, aren’t money-spinners for the Big Pharmaceuticals, unlike cancer drugs or the treatments for chronic ailments like arthritis. Smaller companies that have stepped into the breach are going bankrupt, discouraging further research and development. These smaller to medium sized companies are the primary drivers of research and development for new antibiotics while the Big Pharmaceuticals (like Novartis and Allergan) continue to exit the field. But because the costs are prohibitive for little financial reward, start up research projects fail to go the distance. Many of the remaining US antibiotic companies are teetering towards insolvency.

Two new reports by the WHO established that the 60 products in development bring little benefit over existing treatments and very few target the most critical resistant bacteria, while drugs currently in research will take years before they reach patients. But the grim financial outlook for the few companies that are still committed to antibiotic research is driving away investors and threatening to strangle the development of new lifesaving drugs at a time when they are urgently needed.

A UN report that came out in 2015 laid out that drug-resistant diseases already caused at least 700,000 deaths globally per year, including 230,000 deaths from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, a figure that could increase to 10 million deaths globally per year by 2050, under the most alarming scenario of no action being taken. About 2.4 million people could die in high-income countries (including the US, Canada and Australia) by 2050 without a sustained effort to contain antibiotic resistance. The economic damage of uncontrolled antibiotic resistance could be comparable to the shocks experienced during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis as a result of dramatically increased health care expenditures; impact on food and feed production, trade and livelihoods; and increased poverty and inequality.

What is the way out of this mess?

WHO noted that only government intervention might save the day. The UN report notes that the issues are complex but not insurmountable and perhaps not even that economically costly if a longer-term view was taken by government. Stronger political leadership, advocacy, coordination and accountability are needed at all levels to enable a sustained “One Health” response to antibiotic resistance. All stakeholders – including governments, civil society and the private sector – need to be engaged and to collaborate in an unprecedented effort across the human, animal, plant, food and feed production and environmental sectors, based on a shared vision and goals. If we address this issue, the results would pay for themselves due to costs averted.

Sadly, however, when the UN report was released, the ABC reported: “In Australia it’s taken the government 6 years to respond to a senate committee into the issue, and it’s acting on few of the recommendations.”

The prime unanimous recommendation was the establishment of an independent coordinating centre. The Federal Government rejected the recommendation. Professor Lindsay Grayson, Department of Medicine at the University of Melbourne, said that we’re not talking about spending a lot of money but rather about the coordination of the existing structures. It is this that has not been implemented nor supported by the government.

In the News recently there was talk of control of prescribing antibiotics and preventing doctors from prescribing repeats of antibiotics as a way of containing the spread of resistance.

We may have grown up with the impression that the Big Pharmaceutical companies are altruistic organisations and that research into medical treatments are fuelled by the drive to help humanity fight disease and live longer. The truth is, as always, money is the driver. It is profits and not our health that is the primary interest for the Big Pharmaceuticals.

So if we can do something to push the agenda along, we need to do so. Write to local politicians and to federal politicians about your concern. Write to the Big Pharmaceuticals or sign petitions, when they come along. Do not presume that they have your best interests at heart. They are only interested in lining their own pockets.

 

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St. Anthony In the Fields Ecology Project

Many of you know that St. Anthony in the Fields, at Terrey Hills, NSW, was the birthplace of the Passionist Family Group Movement, but you may not know the lead it is taking in becoming a green church that is implementing the teachings of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si.

The parish was given to the care of the Passionists at the end of the 1960’s and flourished under the leadership of Fr. Peter McGrath, CP. Some 20 odd years ago, the Passionist Congregation gave the parish back to the Broken Bay Diocese due to our lack of personnel to continue to care for it directly. Since then, with a change of administration, many who used to attend, and who had come from other nearby parishes, decided to worship in their own geographical parishes, leaving a faithful remnant to carry on the Passionist Charism and Spirit.

I recently visited the parish on a tour to support and promote the Passionist Family Group Movement and gathered with some 40 people to talk about the future directions of the Church and the place the Family Groups have in that future. It was through this visit that I was introduced to a project initiated by the Social Justice group in response to the call to care for the environment and act on the teachings of Laudato Si. Ann Lanyon and Brian Norman showed me what they have been doing and their plans for the future. I’d like to share that initiative with you in this month’s blog article, in the hope that it may inspire others to take such initiatives in their own parish grounds or other green spaces. What follows comes in the words of those involved in the project, expressing their vision and hopes, the current state of their efforts and what has to be done.

“St. Anthony’s is located close to Garigal National Park and to endangered Duffy’s Forest plant communities. Kierans Creek, which traverses the site, provides important habitat for many species of small birds such as the Yellow Robin, reptiles such as the Eastern Water Dragon and the Black Swamp Wallaby. Surrounding properties in Myoora Rd. have been, or are in the process of becoming alienated from the natural vegetation, with the St. Anthony’s property soon to become one of the last remaining tracts of Duffy’s Forest Wildlife Corridor. There is a sacred duty to help preserve the movement of life and the revegetation project has attracted interest and support from Greater Sydney Landcare, Northern Beaches Council and other conservation bodies.

“In our Parish, God has given us both a unique challenge and an opportunity to respond to the call of the Gospel, to bring Laudato Si to life. For several years now, we have been revegetating the grounds at St. Anthony in the Fields Church to create a ‘Sacred Forest,’ a place to inspire ecological conversion and reconciliation, somewhere truly Australian to celebrate what it is to be Church in the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.

“The grounds of St. Anthony’s are of particular significance to the local Aboriginal cultural identity, and religious ceremony. We have learned that it stand on both men and women’s country, near to a bora ring, where Gaimaraigal, Guringai and Dharug peoples met, traded and engaged in ceremonial ritual. Our creek was a thoroughfare for women and girls, travelling from as far as the area where Gosford now stands. The grounds continue to inspire Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to commune with nature and, through nature, with God. Each of our three parish churches were carved from indigenous Australian bushland and we recognise that we owe a debt to repay some of what we have taken and to display the stewardship Pope Francis asks of us.

“Over the years, teachers and clergy have used the grounds at St. Anthony’s for days of reflection and prayer. People come into the grounds to enjoy the serenity and to pray outside our Eucharistic chapel. Open-air celebrations of the Eucharist were a tradition over many years. Aboriginal people hold ‘yarn-ups’ around a campfire, whilst for Somali-Australians and their children from the Auburn area, the grounds at St. Anthony’s represent a place of wonder. Members of the David’s Place Community from Surry Hills visit for prayer, reflection and fellowship with our community and Mass.

“The church buildings are flexible, providing space for meetings, forums, gatherings and dinners. We hold forums on ecological issues and their related impacts and on other social Justice issues. We also hold gatherings and concerts with our indigenous friends and our youth use church and grounds for their activities. For a number of years, the church has been turned into a warm and welcoming environment for a gathering in solidarity with survivors of abuse.

“With the church buildings used for seminars, faith and environmental education, inter-faith dialogue, social justice forums and the like, regeneration of the grounds is providing first-hand opportunities to learn about and to experience the story of creation.

“Emboldened by Pope Francis and wishing to bring Laudato Si to life, our parish has begun to create, at St. Anthony’s, a sacred bushland space which, we hope, will become a resource for our diocese and our community, where people can discover God through the gifts of creation and use this discovery to bring healing to the environment.

“Our hopes and goals for a Sacred Forest at St. Anthony’s include:

  • To respond to the call of the Earth and the call of the Church through Pope Francis to nurture the Earth, to nurture creation, to keep it and make it grow according to its laws.
  • To revegetate the bushland of St. Anthony in the Fields church so as to enhance movement of native-species through the Duffy’s Forest Wildlife Corridor.
  • To seek reconciliation with the natural world, through symbolically attempting to restore what has been destroyed or taken away.
  • To continue to develop St. Anthony’s as a place for retreat, prayer, reflection and liturgical celebration, as a centre for environmental education and the development of environmental ethics.
  • To become a focal point for youth and young people to incorporate the social justice messages of the Church Fathers into a vibrant, contemporary sense of Christianity.
  • To establish the Parish as a good environmental citizen, through bush restoration, which is consistent with international practice in increasing carbon capture.
  • To provide safe habitat for threatened species of birdlife and other animals affected by habitat removal in nearby properties.
  • To enhance on-going sharing of the story, sharing the land relationship between the Northern Beaches Aboriginal community and the Frenchs Forest Catholic Parish.
  • To contribute towards growing the Church community through engaging the community in the project into the future.
  • To grow relationships with the local community through keeping it informed of activities and inviting participation in the project and use of the facilities.
  • To increase financial sustainability of St. Anthony’s through generation of a range of sources of income.

“It is vital for the present generation to hand on to future generations a world that is beginning to heal and to recover from the damage inflicted upon it since industrialisation. Pope Francis said, “Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environment crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”

“An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this Earth somehow better than we found it. We love this magnificent Earth on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The Earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters…” (Evangelli Gaudium #183)”

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