Does the World Need Christianity?

Having just finished reading another history of Christianity, I again find myself feeling disappointment and disillusionment. Why do I read such histories? Because I believe history is one of the most important disciplines to study for the context it gives, the grounding in reality of who we are as human beings, and with that the tempering of inflated ideas of ourselves. Young people today have little interest in history due, I believe, to the fact that with their keeping up with the constant and rapid developments in technology, history appears as if it has nothing worthwhile to offer them. This worries me for, as the saying goes, “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.”

Paul Johnson’s, ‘History of Christianity,’ certainly does not paint a rosy picture, yet comes to a very interesting conclusion and one that I believe is very important for us to consider, living in a world where, at least in the West, Christianity is in decline. His conclusion asks us to consider the alternative, a world without the influence of Christianity. Given the many concerns we have for the future of our planet both from the perspective of the environment and human rights, his message is an important awareness raiser of what we stand to lose when we so hastily judge Christianity as obsolete, or worse, as the cause of all humanity’s problems.

When considering the role that Christianity has had in the development of Western society, it becomes clear from a study of its early history that its relationship to that development was not just luck. Christianity appeared at a time when there was a wide and urgent, if unformulated, need for a monotheistic religion in the Graeco-Roman world. The old beliefs with their many gods no longer provided satisfactory explanations for the cosmopolitan society of the Mediterranean, with its rising living standards and its growing intellectual pretensions; and, being unable to explain, they could not provide comfort and protection from the terrors of life. Christianity offered not only an all-powerful God, but an absolute promise of a joy filled life to come after death, and a clear explanation of how this was to be secured. Furthermore, it was disembodied from its racial and geographical origins, and endowed by its founder with a variety of insights and guidelines calculated to evoke responses from all natures. It was, from the beginning, Universalist in its scope and aim. St. Paul, by giving it an internationalist thought-structure, made it a religion of all races. Origen expanded its metaphysics into a philosophy of life, which won the respect of the intellectuals while retaining the enthusiasm of the masses, and so made Christianity classless as well as ubiquitous.

Once Christianity became the national religion of the Roman empire, it inevitably replaced the state religion. But of course it was more than a state cult – it was an institution in itself, with its own structure and cycle of growth. In the West it drained the empire of talent and purpose, and substituted its own Augustinian vision of society, in which Christian ideas penetrated every aspect of life and every political and economic arrangement. Europe was a Christian creation not only in essence but in minute detail. And therein lay Europe’s unique strength, for Christianity proved a matchless combination of spirituality and dynamism. It offered answers to metaphysical questions, it provided opportunities and frames of reference for the contemplative, the mystic and the devout; but at the same time it was a relentless gospel of work and an appeal to achievement.

But most importantly, Christianity contained its own self-correcting mechanism. The insights provided by Christ’s teaching are capable of almost infinite elaborations and explorations. The Christian matrices form a code to be translated afresh in each new situation, so that Christian history is a constant process of struggle and rebirth – a succession of crises, often accompanied by horror, bloodshed, bigotry and unreason, but evidence too of growth, vitality and increased understanding. The nature of Christianity gave Europe a flexible framework of intellectual and moral concepts, and enabled it to accommodate itself to economic and technological change, and seize each new opportunity as it arose. So Europe expanded into western-dominated society of the twentieth century.

Paul Johnson’s account of Christianity is full of failures and shortcomings, and its institutional distortions, but he admits that this is so if measured by its own stupendous claims, and its own unprecedented idealism. As an exercise in perfectionism, Christianity cannot succeed, even by its internal definitions; what it is designed to do is to set targets and standards, raise aspirations to educate, stimulate and inspire. Its strength lies in its just estimate of humanity as fallible with immortal longings. Its outstanding moral merit is to invest the individual with a conscience, and bid him follow it. This particular form of liberation is what St. Paul meant by the freedom men find in Christ. And, of course, it is the father of all other freedoms. Conscience, after all, is the enemy of tyranny and the compulsory society; and it is the Christian conscience which has destroyed the institutional tyrannies Christianity itself has created – the self-correcting mechanism at work. The notion of political and economic freedom both spring from the workings of the Christian conscience as a historical force; and it is thus no accident that all the implantations of freedom throughout the world have ultimately a Christian origin.

Of course human freedoms are imperfect and full of egocentric delussions. Here again, Christianity is an exercise in the impossible; but it is nevertheless valuable in stretching human potentialities. It lays down tremendous objectives but it insists that success is not the final measure of achievement. Indeed, the primary purpose of Christianity is not to create dynamic societies – though it has often done so – but to enable individuals to achieve liberation and maturity in a specific and moral sense. It does not accept conventional yardsticks and terrestrial judgments. As St. Paul says: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength…to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. God has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings to overthrow the existing order.” (1 Cor 1:25,27)

We must bear this in mind when we consider the future of Christianity, in the light of its past. During the past half-century there has been a rapid and uninterrupted secularization of the West, which has all but demolished the Augustinian idea of Christianity as a powerful, physical and institutional presence in the world. But of course Christianity does not depend on a single matrix: hence its durability. The Augustinian idea of public, all embracing Christianity, once so compelling, has served its purpose – perhaps, one day, to re-emerge in different forms. Instead, the temporal focus shifts to the Erasmian concept of the private Christian intelligence, and to the Pelagian stress on the power of the Christian individual to effect virtuous change. New societies are arising for Christianity to penetrate, and the decline of western predominance offers it an opportunity to escape from beneath its Europeanized shell and assume fresh identities.

Certainly, humankind without Christianity conjures up a dismal prospect. The record of humanity with Christianity is daunting enough, as history shows. The dynamism it has unleashed throughout its history has brought about massacre and torture, intolerance and destructive pride in the name of God on a huge scale. There is a cruel and pitiless nature within us which is sometimes impervious to Christian restraints and encouragements. But without these restraints, bereft of these encouragements, how much more horrific the history of these last 2,000 years would have been! Christianity has not made humanity secure or happy or even dignified. But it supplies a hope. It is a civilizing agent. It helps to cage the beast. It offers glimpses of real freedom, intimations of a calm and reasonable existence. Even as we see it, distorted by the ravages of humanity, it is not without beauty.

In the last generation, with public Christianity in headlong retreat, we have caught our fist glimpse of a de-Christianized world, and it is not encouraging. We know that Christian insistence on humanity’s potentiality for good is often disappointed; but we are also learning that our capacity for evil is almost limitless – is limited, indeed, only by our own expanding reach. The human person is imperfect with God. Without God, what are we? As Francis Bacon put it: “They that deny God destroy man’s nobility: for certainly man is a kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.” We are less base and ignoble, in other words, by virtue of divine example and by the desire for the ideal that Christianity offers. In the dual personality of Christ we are offered a perfected image of ourselves, of what we could be. Christ is for us the eternal pace-setter for our striving. Christianity’s history over the last 2 thousand years has reflected humanity’s effort to rise above our frailties. To that extent, the chronicle of Christianity is an edifying one.

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Closer to Midnight

Finally some good news! Today’s Daily News report that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is willing to talk with the United States about giving up his nuclear weapons program is a remarkable turnaround. This announcement followed meetings between Kim and a South Korean delegation. South Korean national security chief Chung Eui-yong said the North’s leader had also agreed to refrain from conducting nuclear and missile tests while engaging in dialogue with Seoul. This thawing of tension has been a welcome relief after months of sabre rattling between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, though, the nuclear one upmanship has not ended – only shifted stage. Recent announcements between Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin have been terribly worrying.

On the 2nd of February, this year, the BBC reported on the US military proposal to diversify its nuclear arsenal and develop new, smaller atomic bombs, largely to counter Russia. The US military’s ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ (NPR) shows their concern that Moscow no longer sees US nuclear weapons as a deterrent to its expansionist ambitions, as they are too big to ever be used. Whereas developing smaller nukes would challenge that assumption. These low-yield weapons are smaller, less powerful bombs with strength below 20 kilotons.

This short-sighted mentality is alarming as these weapons would still be devastating. They would have the same explosive power as the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, which killed more than 70,000 people. And once one is used, it doesn’t matter how small it is, a domino effect would result and for the world it will be game over. This is a clear challenge of the non-proliferation agreements by the Trump administration. This doesn’t sound like good insurance but rather a step closer towards nuclear war.

To be fair, this program to modernise America’s nuclear forces actually began under the Obama Administration. However, what is new is the perceived need for a “more flexible capability to give tailored deterrence.” Such weapons could blur the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear systems and actually make a nuclear war more likely.

To add to the tension, on the 3rd of March, this year, Vladimir Putin stated, at the annual state of the nation address, that Russia has tested an array of new strategic nuclear weapons that cannot be intercepted. Mr. Putin said the weapons included a nuclear powered cruise missile, a nuclear-powered underwater drone and a new hypersonic missile.

This is clearly a reply to the US military’s attempt at deterrence. A statement to the US that they have failed to contain Russia’s ambitions. Mr. Putin’s speech obviously has the March 18 re-election in its sights.

The nuclear-powered cruise missile tested last autumn was said to have high-speed manoeuvrability, allowing it to pierce any missile defence. The high-speed underwater drone had, according to Mr. Putin, an intercontinental range and was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could target both aircraft carriers and coastal facilities, and its operational depth and high speed would make it immune to enemy interception.

Mr. Putin said that the new weapons have made NATO’s US-led missile defence ‘useless,’ and meant an effective end to what he described as Western efforts to stymie Russia’s development. He also said that Moscow would be ready to use the new weapons not only in response to an attack on Russia, but also in defence of its allies.

Dana White, the Pentagon’s spokeswoman, said the weapons had been in development for ‘a very long time,’ and that the American people should rest assured that the US military was fully prepared.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, accused Moscow of violating a Cold War-era treaty which banned nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 km. “President Putin has confirmed what the United States Government has known all along, which Russia has denied: Russia has been developing destabilising weapons systems for over a decade in direct violations of its treaty obligations,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

I ask myself if these leaders in government today are too far removed from the horrors of the Second World War, that they flippantly play with the lives of millions of people and the future of the planet. It is worth reviewing the words of Douglas MacArthur’s speech to the world on the occasion of the Japanese surrender, ‘Today the guns are silent,’ given aboard the USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945:

“Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — the seas bear only commerce men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed. And in reporting this to you, the people, I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way. I speak for the unnamed brave millions homeward bound to take up the challenge of that future which they did so much to salvage from the brink of disaster.

As I look back on the long, tortuous trail from those grim days of Bataan and Corregidor, when an entire world lived in fear, when democracy was on the defensive everywhere, when modern civilization trembled in the balance, I tank a merciful God that He has given us the faith, the courage and the power from which to mold victory. We have known the bitterness of defeat and the exultation of triumph, and from both we have learned there can be no turning back. We must go forward to preserve in peace what we won in war.

A new era is upon us. Even the lesson of victory itself brings with it profound concern, both for our future security and the survival of civilization. The destructiveness of the war potential, through progressive advances in scientific discovery, has in fact now reached a point which revises the traditional concepts of war.

Men since the beginning of time have sought peace. Various methods through the ages have attempted to devise an international process to prevent or settle disputes between nations. From the very start workable methods were found insofar as individual citizens were concerned, but the mechanics of an instrumentality of larger international scope have never been successful. Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. We have had our last chance. If we do not now devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature and all material and cultural developments of the past two thousand years, It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.

We stand in Tokyo today reminiscent of our countryman, Commodore Perry, ninety-two years ago. His purpose was to bring to Japan an era of enlightenment and progress, by lifting the veil of isolation to the friendship, trade, and commerce of the world. But alas the knowledge thereby gained of western science was forged into an instrument of oppression and human enslavement. Freedom of expression, freedom of action, even freedom of thought were denied through appeal to superstition, and through the application of force. We are committed by the Potsdam Declaration of principles to see that the Japanese people are liberated from this condition of slavery. It is my purpose to implement this commitment just as rapidly as the armed forces are demobilized and other essential steps taken to neutralize the war potential.

The energy of the Japanese race, if properly directed, will enable expansion vertically rather than horizontally. If the talents of the race are turned into constructive channels, the county can lift itself from its present deplorable state into a position of dignity.

To the Pacific basin has come the vista of a new emancipated world. Today, freedom is on the offensive, democracy is on the march. Today, in Asia as well as in Europe, unshackled peoples are tasting the full sweetness of liberty, the relief from fear.

In the Philippines, America has evolved a model for this new free world of Asia. In the Philippines, America has demonstrated that peoples of the East and peoples of the West may walk side by side in mutual respect and with mutual benefit. The history of our sovereignty there has now the full confidence of the East.

And so, my fellow countrymen, today I report to you that your sons and daughters have served you well and faithfully with the calm, deliberated determined fighting spirit of the American soldier, based upon a tradition of historical truth as against the fanaticism of an enemy supported only by mythological fiction. Their spiritual strength and power has brought us through to victory. They are homeward bound—take care of them.”

Lest we forget!!!

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The Un-winnable Afghan War

The American-led war in Afghanistan, in the period from 2001 to 2014, has cost countless lives, billions of dollars and destroyed much infrastructure in an already impoverished country. Included in the losses are 41 Australian soldiers killed and 261 wounded. More than 450 British troops died in Helmand between 2001 and 2014. To what end? Is the country more stable now than it was in 2001? Are we more secure from terrorist attacks now? Were there any winners?

Theo Farrell appropriately entitled his recent book on Britain’s war in Afghanistan “Unwinnable.” US president, Donald Trump, appears to agree, given that last year he announced the US military would stay in the country indefinitely. This is worrying for us, given that the Australian government is considering a request from the US government to recommit Australian troops to Afghanistan.

Before our government agrees to such a request, let’s hope that they review the history of Afghanistan and the Taliban. After all, it was an invasion by a Western superpower that created the Taliban in the first place.

The origins of the Taliban can be traced back to the Fall of Delhi in 1857. Delhi was the seat of the Mughal Empire, which was in decline by the time that Bahadur Shah II, commonly known as Zafar, a direct descendent of Genghis Khan, became its last emperor. The Moghuls were Moslems who, at that time lived in a peaceful and harmonious state with Hindus in India. Delhi was a jewel in their crown, a centre of culture and learning. However, British Colonialism, under the driving force of the British East India Company, took more and more of the emperor’s power, finally laying plans to remove the Mughals all together.

Then one May morning in 1857, 300 Indian infantry privates and cavalrymen, in the employ of the British East India Company, mutinied and rode into Delhi… “and massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar to be their leader and emperor. Now Zafar was no friend of the British, who had shorn him of his patrimony, and subjected him to almost daily humiliation. Yet, Zafar was not a natural insurgent either. It was with severe misgivings and little choice that he found himself made the nominal leader of an uprising that he strongly suspected from the start was doomed.” (From: “The Last Mughal,” by William Dalrymple)

Neither side could back down, and Delhi was placed under siege by the British. Finally, on the 14th of September, 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees, assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital, and massacring a large proportion of the population.

Though the royal family surrendered peacefully, most of the emperor’s 16 sons were tried and hung, while 3 were shot in cold blood. Zafar himself was put on trial in the ruins of his old palace, and was exiled to Rangoon, where he died in 1862. With the loss of the Mughal court went much of the city’s reputation as a centre of culture and learning. All this exacerbated the sudden shift of power from the Muslim elite, who had dominated the city before the uprising, to the Hindu bankers, who were its most wealthy citizens afterwards.

For the British after 1857, the Indian Muslim became an almost subhuman creature, to be classified in unembarrassedly racist imperial literature alongside such other despised and subject specimens, such as Irish Catholics or ‘the Wandering Jew’.” (Dalrymple) The profound contempt that the British so openly expressed for Indian Muslim and Mughal culture proved contagious, particularly to the ascendant Hindus, who quickly hardened their attitudes to all things Islamic.

In the years that followed, as Muslim prestige and learning declined, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims grew gradually apart, as British policies of divide and conquer found willing collaborators on both sides. The rip in the fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, caused by the 1857 uprising, widened slowly into a great gash, and ultimately the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947.

Following the crushing of the Uprising and the slaughter of the Delhi court, Indian Muslims themselves also divided down two paths. One group, under the Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to the West. The other group took the approach to reject the West completely and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots. This second approach founded an influential but narrow-minded madrasa at Deoband, 100 miles north of the former Mughal capital.

One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged, “to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.” (Dalrymple)

The hardline Islamic Taliban movement swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996 after the civil war that followed the Soviet-Afghan war, and were ousted by the US-led invasion five years later. In power, they imposed a brutal version of Sharia law, such as public executions and amputations, and banned women from public life. Men had to grow beards and women to wear the all-covering burka; television, music and cinema were banned. They sheltered al-Qaeda leaders before and after being ousted – since then they have fought a bloody insurgency that continues today.

The combination of the Taliban and the country’s geography make the war in Afghanistan unwinnable. Indeed, Afghanistan has a fearful historical reputation as ‘the graveyard of empires.’ (Theo Farrell) The British invaded the country 3 times before and were kicked out 3 times. The first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42) was the result of ill-informed scheming by the British East India Company. The British invaded the country under the guise of returning the deposed Afghan King (Shah Shuja ul-Mulk) to the throne. The crass insensitivity the British forces showed to the local customs fuelled a growing Afghan hostility to the British occupiers, and a revolt that drove the British forces to a retreat, where their army was completely destroyed by the Afghani tribesmen with only a handful of British troops making it back to their base in India. It was the greatest military humiliation of a world power in the 19th century.

The second Anglo-Afghan war took place from 1879-82. It too was caused by the incompetence of British diplomacy, which gave Russia an opening to interfere in Afghanistan and triggered a British invasion to prevent further Russian encroachment. As before, the British installed a new ruler and left behind a diplomatic mission that was duly massacred by the locals. Britain suffered further humiliation when its army was thoroughly defeated by a larger Pashtun force at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880.

The third war began when Afghan forces seized a number of border posts and towns along the North-West Frontier in May 1919, due to growing Afghan agitation for full independence from Britain. British forces mobilised and drove the Afghans back across the border. By August, both sides had reached an equitable agreement: the British recognised Afghanistan as having full sovereign rights, and the Afghans recognised the (till then disputed) border between Afghanistan and British India.

It is important to note, however, that throughout the centuries and into the present time, Afghanistan was not a unified people, but rather has been a volatile and deeply divided tribal country. The only time the people put aside their differences is when a foreign power attempts to interfere. The Afghans then unite to fight the common enemy. Each time the invading force has been defeated.

The Russian defeat that ended the 1979-89 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan contained the same lesson. The Russians were determined to control the country and threw everything they had at the Afghanis. However, it ended in humiliation for the Russians and the defeat is likely to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Is the country more stable now than it was in 2001? Months of research across the country by the BBC has found that Taliban fighters, whom the US-led forces spent billions of dollars trying to defeat, are now openly active in 70% of Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban now control or threaten much more territory than when foreign combat troops left in 2014. The BBC research also suggests that IS has become more active in Afghanistan than ever before, although it remains far less powerful than the Taliban.

The BBC study shows the Taliban are now in full control of 14 districts (that’s 4% of the country) and have an active and open physical presence in a further 263 (66%), significantly higher than previous estimates of Taliban strength. About 15 million people – half the population – are living in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks.

In the areas defined as having an active and open Taliban presence, the militants conduct frequent attacks against Afghan government positions. These range from large organised group strikes on military bases to sporadic single attacks and ambushes against military convoys and police checkpoints. Violence has soared since international combat troops left Afghanistan four years ago. More than 8,500 civilians were killed or injured in the first three-quarters of 2017, according to the UN. The vast majority of Afghans die in insurgent violence but civilians often suffer as the military, with US backing, fights back, both on the ground and from the air.

Although much of the violence goes unreported, big attacks in the cities tend to make the headlines. Such attacks are occurring with greater frequency and the Afghan security forces appear unable to stop them. During the period during which the BBC did its research, gunmen stormed the headquarters of Kabul’s Shamshad TV, leaving one staff member dead and 20 wounded. IS said it carried out the attack. There were other attacks in Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad. In the last 10 days of January three attacks left the capital reeling, with more than 130 people dead. Last May, Kabul experienced the deadliest single militant attack since 2001. At least 150 people were killed and more than 300 injured when a massive truck bomb was detonated in what was supposed to be the safest part of the city. No group has said it carried out the attack. The rising toll of violence has left the capital’s residents feeling increasingly vulnerable.

So are there any winners? Well, yes, the American armaments industry has done very well financially from the conflict.

 

(Thanks go to my friend, Tony Swords, who explained all this in detail to me and passed on to me his research into the history and current situation in Afghanistan, a country he himself has visited where he feels a great affinity for the people and the culture, along with his concern of their future given this unwinnable war.)

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Volunteering

I have spoken to you all about Peter Gardiner CP before. He is a Passionist Priest and member of our JPIC Committee, and the organizer of our immersion experiences to Vietnam and Cambodia. In these immersions, he has taken groups of up to 30 people, usually connected with us in one of our parishes or communities, to do volunteer work over seas. In Cambodia the work is in conjunction with a building project where the group participate in building housing for poor families. In Vietnam we volunteer at an orphanage for disabled children; a Buddhist run soup kitchen; as well as visit at a hospice for people dying with AIDS run by the Camillian Fathers. I have been on two of these trips myself and found it to be a truly rewarding and challenging experience.

A new venture for Peter is that now he is extending this to doing volunteer work here in Australia, in Sydney, where Peter lives. He told me about the work that he was doing and I asked him if he would share something of his work with me so I could publish it in this blog, and he agreed. This is his story:

For the last eighteen months, for a variety of reasons, I decided to get myself involved in volunteering. Sometimes these might be one off events (e.g. The Spirit of Anzac which toured Australia these last two years, ending in Sydney this last Anzac Day), to more long term events.

One such experience has been volunteering with the Exodus Foundation, at Ashfield. They provide a significant number of services to the disenfranchised and demonized, and I have become involved two days a week in the Soup Kitchen (Loaves and Fishes). Most of my duties revolved around helping prepare the meals. We also get a significant number of corporate and school volunteers, so it usually falls to me to manage those for the day.

There have been some amazing benefits for me.

Firstly, it has been meeting and working with the fellow volunteers. You work with young people, older people, male, female, people from all nations, and you just get in and work, and laugh, together. Given that they are volunteers, they are invariably good, decent people, who want to do something for the community. And people like me, mature white Australians, are in the minority. It’s the United Nations. There are significant numbers of Asian volunteers, particularly from India and China. As one volunteer mentioned to me, all the barriers fade away. I could be, one minute, talking to a young Indian volunteer about anything, and then later I think, “if I crossed that person in the street, I would think I would have nothing in common with them.” It just breaks down barriers, and is a tremendous reminder of the goodness in all people.

Secondly, to me it is truly Gospel ministry. It is truly Passionist ministry. We no longer reach out to those on the margins, we are on the margins. It is no longer just a matter of spirituality but, as someone said, it’s a matter of geography. Where do I stand? It’s a lesson for me to stand in awe at the burdens people carry, rather than stand in judgement at the way they carry them.

One thing that has changed for me is that I no longer believe that “beggars can’t be choosers.” A young volunteer taught me that lesson one day. To explain, when you are poor and disenfranchised you lose the power of having options for the most part. In the soup kitchen the usual standard procedure is to give them the meal, and for them to have as little input as possible. They are not to get too picky about which piece of meat or whatever they want. But one day, a lady pointed out to me a particular pie she wanted, and I was annoyed, thinking that she should just be happy that she’s getting anything. This young volunteer said to me later, “You know, that’s probably the only choice she gets to make each day, the only time she can speak up for herself,” and I thought, ‘she’s right.’ They can now ask me for anything they want.

As I say, it’s Gospel ministry, its Passionist ministry. One of my fellow volunteers and friends, himself a Church attending Catholic, turned to me one day and said, “This is the real Eucharist.”

Most states will have a volunteering office, advertising all sorts of options, from short term to long term, seeking specific skills or just general help. Seek.com.au also has a section for volunteering opportunities.­­

And who knows, you might even end up on the back of a bus!

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Heroes with Clay Feet

The first time I saw the film, Ghandi, staring Ben Kingsley, I felt truly inspired. Ghandi struck me as a truly Christ-like figure, especially through his commitment to non-violence. I thought that he lived a life equivalent to the lives of the saints I had grown up with, and yet he wasn’t a Catholic nor a Christian! But in my opinion, as depicted in the film, he had lived a more ‘Christian’ life than most Christians I knew, including myself. I idealised him and wanted to be like him – fearless in his resolve to non-violently stand for what was right. So it came as a shock when I learned some details of his life that weren’t presented in the film. I found out that to test himself in terms of his self-control over his sexuality, he would sleep with other women to see if he could resist the temptation to have sex with them, and at times failed to remain chaste and faithful to his wife. My hero had turned out to have clay feet.

This was the first time this disillusionment with a hero of mine had happened to me, but certainly not the last. In the last year my faith in heroes of social justice took two more hits. The first was when Aung San Suu Kyi failed to take a stand to defend the Rohingya people in the current ethnic cleansing taking place in Myanmar, and the second was the new revelations concerning Martin Luther King Jr. with the public release of US Federal Government documents from the 1960s.

The reason for Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to speak out in defence of the Rohingya people is not clear. It could be that she is tired after her long fight for justice and lacks the energy for a new fight that could put at risk all she has gained, particularly because the Rohingyas are unpopular amongst her own people. It could be she is playing politics, compromising ground so as to win the war. But what appears to be the motive to the world is that she shares her countrymen’s racism towards this minority group. Whatever the motive, her lack of prophetic response has certainly damaged her image.

As for Martin Luther King Jr., the release by the US National Archives of 767 formally classified documents dealing with the death of John F. Kennedy and the spill-over into the life of Martin Luther King Jr., has certainly called into question his image as a minister of religion and Christ-like figure. The revelations concerning King’s sexual activities and commitment to the Communist cause were not matters I ever expected to hear of this man.

It must be said, however, that although it’s uncertain if the information in the document was verified by its author, it is true that the apparent mission of the FBI at the time was to discredit King, who, as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s, called for nonviolent resistance to combat racial inequality. He received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, an honour that the FBI questioned.

As we go through life and transition from child to adult, the journey involves the painful discovery that the reality of life falls far short of the fantasies of childhood. Just like the disillusionment that came about when our parents told us that there was no Santa Clause, we feel let down by life because we want to believe in the magic of the myth. As we grow up and discover that reality can be harsh and people terribly disappointing, we search for heroes to enable us to believe that human beings can achieve great and good things. We want heroes to inspire us to strive on amidst our own weaknesses. When instead, reality reveals to us that our heroes are all too human, we lose hope and energy for the fight for justice in the world. If these heroic figures we admired couldn’t live up to our high ideals, what chance have the rest of us got?

Yet, painful as this confrontation with reality is, it is necessary. If our faith is going to be robust enough to deal with the harsh and unjust realities of life, it must be grounded in reality. This disillusionment is a necessary step in the growth of our faith.

There are in fact 3 stages or processes of faith that we must move through in order to truly grow into a mature and robust faith:

Compliance – is where we all begin in the faith journey. Here the major component is power. We comply because of the power we perceive that our elders have over us. The compliant person is motivated by the desire to gain a reward or avoid punishment. This describes the faith of most Catholics prior to Vatican II. I, for example, went to Mass every Sunday because I wanted to avoid committing a Mortal sin. I was looking for the reward of Heaven and to avoid the punishment of Hell. In the same vein, I kept the commandments, not because I wanted to avoid hurting others, but because I wanted the reward of heaven and to avoid the punishment of hell.

The problem with the Compliance level of faith is that this behaviour is only as long lived as is the promise of the reward or the threat of punishment. Once you remove these, the motivation to comply is lost. When, following Vatican II, we started speaking about a God of love, and no longer preached hellfire and brimstone, a number of those Catholics still at the compliance level of faith, dropped away. After all, why practice the faith if there won’t be any special reward for doing so. Why practice the faith if there is no punishment for not doing so. At this stage of faith, the person’s focus is purely on themselves and their own benefits. Such people usually don’t have a very strong Social Justice or environmental concern as part of the expression of their faith life.

Identification – To move to a deeper level of faith we need to graduate to the stage of Identification. Here the major component is attractiveness. In other words, here a person is inspired and attracted to a person who appears to hold and stand for values that we aspire to, such as Ghandi, Aung San Suu Kyi or Martin Luther King Jr. This person wants to hold the same opinions and values that the role model holds. As such, they tend to adopt the position of the person they admire. Another word for it is ‘hero worship.’ Because of your admiration for the role model, their opinions and values become yours.

The problem, if your faith goes no deeper than this level, comes when your hero turns out to have clay feet. The disillusionment suffered can lead the person to fall away from the faith. This is what we have observed with people leaving the practice of the faith in light of the revelations of the child sex abuse scandals and the clergy.

Internalization – So if our faith is going to be robust enough to survive the disillusionments of reality, we need to arrive at the level of internalization. Here the major component is credibility. In other words, the person we idealised may have turned out to be all too human, but this does not discredit the values they were fighting for. If these values, that influenced us, are perceived to be trustworthy and having good judgement, then we may be disillusioned in the ‘hero’ but we do not let go of the values they stood for as we now have internalized these. They have become our own and what we want to live by and stand for. We can accept these beliefs and we can integrate them into our own system of beliefs and values.

If we are going to have the stamina for the long, sustained and often thankless fight for justice, peace and the integrity of creation, we need to be at the level of internalization.

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Same-Sex Marriage Vote

This morning the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that there has been a huge turnout in the postal survey on the issue of same-sex marriage. The ABS estimates about a 50% voter turnout so far, and the survey returns do not conclude until mid-November.

While voting in this survey is not compulsory, Australia is one of the few democratic countries where voting for government, local or Federal, is compulsory for its citizens. Australians, then, are used to voting, and the convenience of a postal vote, as opposed to having to go to a voting booth, only makes things easier. The results of the vote don’t automatically mean that same sex marriage is either allowed or disallowed. It is a survey for the government to test the waters on where public opinion lies, or so it would seem.

In my opinion the government’s purpose has been, at best, an opportunistic distraction tactic to draw attention away from other contentious issues (such as the gas shortages for local power needs or failing opinion polls), or at worst a moral cowardice on the part of a government afraid of a voter backlash for backing the wrong horse. But the greater tragedy in our government’s avoidance of ensuring there are safeguards on religious freedom in place, prior to such a vote, is that this process is serving to make this issue much more divisive for Australian society than it needed to be.

Not that the issue is not already a divisive one. There are passionate lines of division because the ‘vote yes’ camp sees it as an issue of equality and justice, so that it sees itself defending the moral high ground. Likewise, those in the ‘vote no’ camp see it as a moral issue and a defence of moral values and principles thus giving it the sense that it is defending the moral high ground as well. But if the government had ensured religious freedom from the beginning it would have never come to the surface in such a polarising and antagonistic way. Given proper religious freedom safeguards, I am sure that many of those who have or will vote ‘no’ would have been happy to see same sex ‘civil’ marriage permitted.

The reason I say this is based on that the fact that marriage has been around a lot longer than Christianity, and has always been a civil law matter because of the change of legal status for people entering a marriage contract. Things changed historically because with the dawn of Christianity, Christian couples who married, given that God was already a part of every other aspect of their lives, wanted God to also be part of their marriage union and so sought a blessing from the Church. When Christianity became the national religion of the Roman Empire around the end of the 4th century, bishops were given the responsibilities and status for civil authorities. They became responsible for the civil as well as religious dimensions of a marriage. It is important to note, however, that it was not until the council of Trent, in 1565, that marriage was defined as a sacrament, requiring a priest and 2 witnesses to be valid. It was just that in ‘Christian countries,’ the norm was that the minister for religion performed the majority of the marriages and handled the civil paperwork in the process.

Thus, in a country like Australia, with Christian foundations due to colonization from Christian England, priests and other ministers of religion, perform the religious ceremony of marriage, but have the responsibility for filling in the civil paperwork and filing it with the Government. In other words, the government has given ministers of religion the authority for the civil legalities of a marriage. There are other countries, however, where these 2 aspects are still separate such that a couple would go to the government office for births, deaths and marriage to apply for a marriage contract, but would go to the Church for the religious ceremony. Of course, in the case of the Catholic Church, the religious ceremony involves a ‘sacramental’ marriage.

The current survey, then, is about same-sex couples seeking the right to have a civil marriage, not a sacramental marriage. As a secular and democratic country, Australia’s citizens have every right to expect equality in this matter. This is quite a separate matter to a sacramental marriage.

A concern for some within our Church, however, might be that if same-sex marriage became legal, and a Church official refused to perform the marriage on grounds of conscience, there would be a case of discrimination to answer for. The fear might be that the Church would be forced to perform same-sex marriages or lose its licence to perform marriages at all. But the reality is that if the Church were put in this position it could simply relinquished its licence to perform the civil marriage. It could not be held liable for refusing same-sex couples a sacramental marriage, which in such a situation would have no legal or civil status in society.

This is where freedom of religion comes into play. The government could either ensure that ministers of religion can continue to perform the civil legalities of a marriage within a religious ceremony and be exempt from having to perform same-sex marriages out of religious freedom of conscience, or, if push came to shove, and the Church relinquished its licence to perform the civil marriage, that religious freedom is retained with the right to perform the sacramental marriage before or after the couple go to a government registry office to obtain the civil marriage contract.

The ‘Safe Schools Program,’ which the ‘no vote’ camp has been using as a scare tactic in its advertising against the yes vote, is a separate issue, but certainly also is a concern in terms of freedom of religion. Unfortunately, the government’s failure to ensure prior safeguards in terms of freedom of religion mean that members of Churches are fearful of losing their rights to practice their faith or bring up their children in the faith as they believe called to do.

This, then, is how the divisiveness of what the government has done plays out: Many who are fighting for the ‘yes’ vote feel persecuted. They feel that for so long they have been in the minority and discriminated against. When they see the advertising by the Coalition for Marriage expressing its fear regarding loss of freedom of religion with the safe schools program, it sounds to them like diverting attention from the main issue. It sounds to them like some tactic to create fear amongst voters over something that is not the main issue. This only ferments further anger, resentment and the feeling of victimization amongst them, eliciting cries of bigotry and injustice.

What they fail to realize is that those who vote ‘no’ for the most part feel that they are, in fact, the minority, not the majority. Following the Royal Commission and the child sex abuse scandal with the clergy, combined with the recent ABS survey results showing Australia becoming more and more a secular country, people of the Christian Churches feel under siege. They fear a further eroding away of their rights and freedom and by no means feel they have power in this situation. When they see the vitriol levelled against them from the ‘yes’ camp and hear the cries of ‘bigot,’ they fear that what they are hearing is that they will be more and more persecuted for desiring to practice their faith. It increases their fear of those promoting the ‘yes’ vote. Sadly those promoting the ‘yes’ vote can’t see that as, stated above, they feel they are the victims in this.

The fear, hate and mistrust this all creates all could have been avoided if the government had done the right thing in the first place and not avoided their responsibility and used this issue as a political football to score points.

For me this is a sad day for our country that, in these uncertain times, needs to be united rather than divided.

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Internet Pornography

I have just returned from a 3 month sabbatical where I took time to study the area of male sexuality to prepare retreat material for the men of the Spanish speaking community. They specifically asked me if I could do a retreat for them focusing on this topic because, among other concerns, there was the issue of getting caught up in internet pornography. It is an area that impacts on JPIC in a number of ways, and is at epidemic proportions at present, as I can attest to the number of men who have come to speak to me personally or in the confessional, struggling with this area.

Pornography of any kind does grave injury to the dignity of its participants, be they the actors, vendors or the public. Often the actors who appear in pornographic material or videos have been trafficked or have resorted to such demeaning employment to feed addictions to drugs or to pay a financial debt. Thus, viewing and paying for pornography is a justice issue in that we contribute to the harm perpetrated on the actors involved.

What is particularly insidious is that it is easy to become addicted to pornography which worsens the damage done to all parties involved. Addiction to Porn involves both a physical addiction and emotional addiction, and both these areas have to be treated for healing.

Addiction to Porn is like any physical addiction to drugs or alcohol. In order to understand the physical addictiveness of pornography it is helpful to consider a man’s brain. While both men and women can become addicted to pornography, men in particular are wired to be visually stimulated. When a man sees an erotic image, he will automatically look at it and his eyes will lock on that image. While this is happening, chemical reactions are occurring in the brain. Dopamine is released, and this mixes with testosterone and results in an adrenaline rush. The man literally experiences a strong sense of excitement and even a high.

Along with the heightened sense of excitement, norepinephrine sends a message to the autonomic nervous system that causes the heart rate and respiration to increase. This accounts for the fast heart beat and heavy breathing. A message is also sent down to the spinal chord to the genitals for sexual arousal.

All of this physical and emotional excitement leads to an anxiety that can only be relieved in an orgasm. Thus a person will masturbate. When orgasm is achieved, opiate chemicals are released into the brain resulting first in a strong feeling of euphoria and then relaxation.

This process of extreme emotional and physical excitement, anxiety, orgasm, euphoria and finally relaxation, is extremely pleasing, both physically and emotionally. The brain likes it and wants more. Thus it will lead the person to go back to pornography and masturbation over and over again for the same result. So, whenever the porn addict is happy, sad, excited, lonely, angry, etc., he or she will return to pornography and masturbation.

As with any drug, after a while a tolerance develops. More of the substance is needed to achieve the same effect. Soft porn no longer is exciting. The addict will need to move on to more extreme forms of pornography such as hard core, fetish, violent or child pornography to get the same effect. These areas are much more damaging to the victims used as actors in this material.

Further, along with tolerance to pornography, dependence develops. The addict’s body actually craves pornography and orgasm. If he or she doesn’t get a ‘fix’ they can experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, difficulty concentrating, head aches, etc.

For some, the tolerance they develop eventually leads to the point where looking at any pornography is not stimulating enough. At this point, they might be tempted to act out what they have seen in pornographic material, which leads to extramarital affairs, the use of prostitutes, and even anonymous sex.

Ultimately, the porn addict will find his or her life out of control. The addiction has left their life totally unmanageable. Many such people will spend thousands of dollars on pornography and prostitutes to support their addiction, thus feeding an industry that exploits other, often vulnerable, human beings. The addiction can also lead to the loss of marriage, family, friends, career, and reputation.

As human beings we have evolved a powerful sex drive, and it is meant to be that way so that we procreate. If it were not that strong, we would have died out as a species a long time ago. However, the evolution of human sexuality never developed with internet pornography in mind. In other words, our technology has evolved faster that we have evolved to deal with it responsibly.

It is particularly a problem for men because they are formed in a ‘Culture of Cruelty’ where any weakness is ruthlessly made fun of or bullied. Boys not only feel the pressure to appear masculine, but they feel that, in doing so, they must clearly not be feminine. So they consciously or deliberately attack in others and in themselves traits that might possible be defined as feminine. Instead of tenderness, empathy, compassion in relationships, they learn emotional guardedness and wariness with which so many men approach relationships for the rest of their lives.

Masturbation and internet porn allow for sexual experiences where their masculinity will not be questioned or ridiculed. I mean that, from a performance standpoint, it is almost impossible to fail at masturbation. But with a girl, what was simple becomes infinitely more complicated physically and emotionally. Men can feel out of their depth with relationships. The desire for control of what happens in a sexual encounter or avoid the embarrassment of failure or looking awkward is what motivates some men to pay for sex with a prostitute or use internet porn.

Another JPIC issue this touches on has to do with censorship of the internet. Recently there have been a number of online petitions fighting against US government attempts to control search engines, such as Google, or online sites that the current US government want to control access to. Given that our technology has evolved much faster than we have evolved to deal with it in a mature and responsible way, it could be argued that freedom of the web, in terms of access to pornographic material, is seriously harmful to vulnerable human being who are regularly exploited for sexual servitude and gratification. Censorship of such sites acknowledges the fact that many of us are vulnerable to the addictive nature of such sites and unable to deal responsibly with the easy access to such material. The problem is, where do we draw the line in terms of censorship?

What is important to present to you all, in drawing this blog article to a close, is that for people addicted to internet porn, there are resources they can use to help them liberate themselves from this trap that harms them and others:

  1. Honesty – develop your self-awareness and commitment to face the truth about yourself, without a debilitating sense of guilt and self-recrimination that only serves to weaken your resolve.
  2. Spiritual Plan – seek God’s grace and know that God is on your side and wants your good. Also there are faith based recovery programs that you can utilize.
  3. Education – get the truth about addiction to pornography and recovery. Lots of information can be obtained from websites and Church groups such as “Integrity Restored.”
  4. Counselling – seeing a counsellor for therapy can unmask the underlying issues of self-loathing and help the person work at self-acceptance and healing.
  5. Support – support groups with a 12-step program exist (an adaptation of Alcoholics Anonymous). Having a group that you can share with helps you to feel less isolated, relieving this pressure. Such groups can also help you to be accountable.
  6. Purifying you life – rid your life of porn and the access to it such as getting blocking software to block access to pornographic sites.

Many good men can get trapped in this area. I am convinced that they genuinely do not wish to harm anyone. The insidiousness of internet pornography is the incredibly easy access to such material, and the perceived anonymity involved. My hope is that by publishing this article that it may serve as a help for those who wish to be liberated from this addiction and the self-loathing that it brings.

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