Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The paradox of weakness

“Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears.  And whether we look backward or forward in history, we can see that time and again, Christianity demonstrates a breathtaking ability to transform weakness into strength.”

These are the final words of the second edition of the book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What influenced me the most in 2013?

Here is my Best of list for the year.
It is not so much what I liked, enjoyed, or was impresed by. But rather what had the greatest influence on me.

Vinoth Ramachandra

Engaging the University by Terry Halliday

Poor Economics
Helping without Hurting: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and yourself

Les Miserable's

Personal experience
Visiting a Compassion Child Development Centre in India

The Economist

Political events
USA drone attacks
Massive spying by intelligence agencies 

Bible passage
Matthew 25:31-46

Friday, December 27, 2013

Unexpected challenges to atheism

Chris Arnade has a Ph.D in physics and spent 20 years working as a trader on Wall Street [not an unusual career transition]. He lost faith in Wall Street and now photographs drug addicts in the poorest neighbourhood of Wall Street. He is an atheist and has an interesting article in the Guardian The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes. Here is the conclusion:

I want to go back to [my] 16-year-old self and tell him to shut up with the "see how clever I am attitude". I want to tell him to appreciate how easy he had it, with a path out. A path to riches.
I also see Richard Dawkins differently. I see him as a grown up version of that 16-year-old kid, proud of being smart, unable to understand why anyone would believe or think differently from himself. I see a person so removed from humanity and so removed from the ambiguity of life that he finds himself judging those who think differently.
I see someone doing what he claims to hate in others. Preaching from a selfish vantage point.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The give and take of the Old Testament

Reading through the Old Testament there is one word that keeps getting repeated "give".
The LORD gave Israel the land. A search reveals 170 times that "give" and "land" appears in the same verse in the Old Testament. Israel never earned the promised land.

Yet, today I noted a striking contrast in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. Israel demands a king to rule over them, just like the other nations. Samuel warns them:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots.... 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves...
God is so different from earthly human rulers. The natural tendency of the latter is to use power and office to take from the people rather give to them. This is in contrast to the ultimate Servant King.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Australia: still lucky after 50 years?

"Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck."

These famous words were the origin of the title of an influential book, "The Lucky Country", by Donald Horne, published in 1964.

The AFR [Australian Financial Review] Weekend has a special series of articles marking the (almost) 50th anniversary of the publication of the book, including an Editorial, and a lead article by Tony Walker.

The main issue for today is whether Australia is continuing to repeat the same mistakes, relying on the good luck of the wealth it generates from its natural resources. Most recently this has been from the China boom boosting prices and volume of our mineral exports. Maybe my pessimist temperament is too strong but I fear the analysis and warnings of Ross Garnaut may be apt.

I bought the AFR Weekend for the first time and was impressed. I have got sick on reading The Australian [too much mindless pro-business anti-Labor propaganda] and the Sydney Morning Herald [too many juicy scandals and crimes]. The AFR actually has some thoughtful analysis. I may buy it again. You can subscribe free online for January. But for me there is still no substitute for a hard copy...

The Nativity according to the Internet

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Mercy and Grace in the midst of colonial injustice

Last night my wife and I watched The Mission. Although it was made almost thirty years ago and has a very famous musical score I had never seen it before.

It is based partly on true events: in the mid 1700's Jesuit missions to Guarani, indigenous people  in South America, became pawns in a political battle between Portugal and Spain. The Catholic church hierarchy is more concerned with preserving their power and influence than siding with the weak. Unfortunately, this leads to massive slaughter of the Guarani, including un-armed women, children, and Jesuits. It is tragic and depressing.

The movie highlights the convoluted and perverse relationships between Western churches and colonial expansion and ruthless business interests. Money, power  and violence trump humanity, community, and peace.
Questions are raised about whether Christians should use violence to stop oppression and injustice.

But there are a few redeeming moments in the movie.
There is one particularly powerful scene is featured in the Youtube video below.
Mendoza [Robert de Niro] was a slave trader who is trying to do penance for the guilt of killing his half-brother. He carries a burden of all his weapons up the falls to the Guarani who he previously killed and enslaved. He is then confronted by them. How will they react?

We have "killed" and offended God who has the right to judge and condemn. We are burdened by guilt. We sometimes try to redeem ourselves by doing good works. How will God react?
With mercy and grace, forgetting our offenses, and taking away our burden.
Not because we deserve it but because what Jesus did on the cross.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Music in hell

War is hell: hate, broken relationships, violence, death, suffering, humiliation, evil, injustice, ....

I felt this again watching Paradise Road. It is based on the true story of women in a prisoner of war camp during WWII. To cope they form a vocal orchestra, that unites them, gives them dignity, and makes some emotional connection with their Japanese captors.

One noteable line concerns different attitudes towards the guards who often humiliated the women. One woman asks another [a missionary], "Why don't you hate them?".
"I can only feel sorry for them."

It raised many of the issues discussed by Miroslav Wolf, in "Exclusion and Embrace." How do the abused respond to their abusers?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Newspapers show just how much personal integrity matters

Apparently Karl Barth would begin each day by reading the newspaper and listening to Mozart. Various statements he made about the importance of reading the Bible and the newspaper together can be read here, including
"Reading of all forms outspokenly secular literature - the newspaper above all - is urgently recommended for understanding the Epistle to the Romans".
I grew up in a family that spent a lot of time reading newspapers. We received two each day, The Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald. Often my father would buy the New York Times "Week in Review." But, now I struggle to keep up. I don't like reading stuff online. Hard copies seem expensive, waste a lot of paper, and can consume a lot of time.

During my recent visit to India we received a copy of The Times of India each day, for a month. In hindsight, we should have got The Hindu, since it seems to be of higher quality. I made sure I spend some time reading it each day. I really enjoyed this, but was motivated by the hope of better understanding India through this exercise. I feel I got a much better sense of just how India is both changing rapidly and struggling to adapt to that change. Unfortunately, it was also depressing because there was so much crime, corruption, suicides, silly advertising for luxury goods, political intrigue, .... It was just like a newspaper in Australia or the USA!

There was also one strong conviction I often come away with from reading all these human failings that enter the public domain. Personal integrity matters! A lot. The negative consequences of moral failures multiply "exponentially". Suppose I do something wrong [e.g. embezzle some funds at work], it becomes known, and enters the public domain. I contest my "innocence". This may lead to a work inquiry, debate within the institution, new policies, newspaper articles, statements by politicians, law suits, new laws, more public debate, more accusations, ... more newspaper articles, a broader government inquiry, .... This all costs money [perhaps far beyond the money I embezzled], takes up lots of time, and particularly distracts a whole range of people [my employers, journalists, politicians, my colleagues, lawyers, judges, ....] from focussing on weightier and more important issues they should be concerned with.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Disabled students or teachers?

I really enjoyed watching the movie Like Stars on Earth, about an Indian boy who suffers from dyslexia. It is a real tear jerker!
It is produced by and stars Aamir Kahn, who is also the iconoclastic hero of 3 Idiots.

I thought the following, taken from Wikipedia, was quite perceptive.
...in their article "Wake up call from 'Stars on the Ground'" for the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, T. S. Sathyanarayana Rao and V. S. T. Krishna wrote that the film "deserves to be vastly appreciated as an earnest endeavor to portray with sensitivity and empathetically diagnose a malady in human life". They also felt it blended "modern professional knowledge" with a "humane approach" in working with a dyslexic child. However, the authors believed the film expands beyond disabilities and explores the "present age where everyone is in a restless hurry". The pair wrote, "This film raises serious questions on mental health perspectives. We seem to be heading to a state of mass scale mindlessness even as children are being pushed to 'perform'. Are we seriously getting engrossed in the race of 'achievement' and blissfully becoming numb to the crux of life i.e., experiencing meaningful living in a broader frame rather than merely existing?" The film depicts how "threats and coercion are not capable of unearthing rich human potentialities deeply embedded in children", and that teachers should instead map their strengths and weakness....

Monday, December 2, 2013

When is immigration wrong?

The New York Times has an excellent Op-Ed piece Migration hurts the Homeland by Paul Collier a Professor of Economics at Oxford. He points out how immigration from poor countries to rich countries by the elite damages the former. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has recently been arguing on liberal political grounds for increased immigration to the USA. But, actually his arguments are just self serving, since companies such as his, benefit from the brain drain to the USA. The rich and powerful are insatiable.

On related issues, Vinoth Ramachandra has a provocative blog post Robbing the Poor, that points out Australia's double standards.