Reclaiming What, For Whom?

Reclaim Australia proponents scare me. They tell us that Muslims are taking over our country, they exhort us to wake up, tell us that the Koran promotes terrorism and that halal is Sharia Law. They want to reclaim Australia for all those who hold to ‘Aussie values.’ At the same time they stand for equality at law, claim women are equal to men (which if push came to shove I bet they don’t hold to) and they tell us they want to reclaim free speech… I suspect this is a veiled way of saying let us sling off at Muslims and whoever else we want to freely. Underneath all of this for many there seems to be a fundamental faith, and so all their views get couched in absolutes (http://goo.gl/lf0rY9).

These absolutes make it very difficult to enter into a reasoned debate with people of the Reclaim Australia ilk. I realise I am being uncharacteristically uncharitable and my feelings towards those who align with Reclaim Australia are potentially shrouded by the part of me that is still becoming. However my frustration continues, if you peruse their website most of it is couched in very religious language and information tends to get lost in this language and leaves the average person scratching their head as to what they are actually about. This suggests to me that they are not interested in a civil debate and are more about raising a fanatical flag of fear. They scare me!

The reclaim marches over last weekend appear to have been poorly patronised only boosted by the involvement of The United Patriot’s Front, a nationwide movement opposing the spread of left wing treason and the spread of Islamism (http://goo.gl/7Qxm6Y). (WTF!!) The Melbourne rally saw the most unrest with police firing capsicum spray into the crowd in an effort to subdue protestors. 5 protestors were arrested in Sydney and there was a punch thrown in Canberra.

But in essence what message comes across and what is the counter message from the anti-racism side, are there any elements in either side that can helpfully lead to a better Australia, that can reclaim or recreate Australia to be a place that we can all call home?

In an article in the Conversation Irfan Ahmad from Australian Catholic University connects Liberalism with the Islamaphobia showed by reclaim Australia (http://goo.gl/j7kPuX). Liberalism put simply is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality (Google). This concept according to Harvard’s John Trumpbour is a child of the enlightenment and as such is shot through with Islamaphobia. Ahmad points out that a key premise of Liberalism is the individual and the rights of the individual. So why are people so antagonistic towards Muslims, aren’t they people, don’t they have rights too? Ahmad rightly sees that much of contemporary liberal thought, backed by the media treats Muslims as a collective.

An example of this, Anders Breivik kills 71 people in Norway, initially it was blamed on Muslims, later it was found out that Breivik identified as a Christian, immediately he was seen as a psychopath, just an individual. Contrast Brevik with Man Haron Monis who was responsible for the Lindt Café siege towards the end of last year. It took a long time for the media to recognise him as an individual. It may still be labelled an act of terror, where in fact again it was a lone gunman with a history of mental instability. So when there is extreme behaviour by a section of the Islamic community, the whole community is tarred with the same brush. Ahmad is right that the media has not really helped us understand the actors on either side of the police blockade. The focus has been on the clashes with the public left in the hands of the radio talk back community to draw their conclusions.

A case in point is included in Reclaim Australia’s 9 demands, demand 8 is to ban female genital mutilation (FGM). They are claiming it to be a Muslim act against women. However religious scholars such as Tariq Ramadan and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad make it clear that FGM is a local custom and in some places is practiced by Christians as well as Muslims, this is not a particularly religious issue. While I am certainly not in favour of FGM, its causes need to be properly understood, not assumed.

Like Reclaim Australia, the anti-racism protestors have also for the most part come from a negative base, knowing what they are against, but not helping us understand what could be. One of the organisers of the anti-racist demonstration, Mel Gregson, lamented both major political parties are using Islamophobic rhetoric in order to demonise refugees and justify the invasion of countries in the Middle East (http://goo.gl/EjLATJ). Whether this is true or not, it doesn’t really lead us anywhere.

The president of the Australian Islamic Research and Education Academy, Waseem Razvi talking with RT (http://goo.gl/EjLATJ) refutes the claim that Islam is taking over Australia, stating that Muslims represent a 2% minority in Australia. Helpfully he sets a new tone for a patriot, seeing them as someone who would walk with minorities and respect the multicultural spirit of Australia. However he sees Muslims as scapegoats.

The sides are definitely set, the teams chosen and the game of culture clash is in full play. As you would have picked up by my opening comments I have a leaning towards the left and would more readily support the anti-racism position. However with the sides locked in conflict, I’m not sure that either can lead us anywhere. I’m challenged by a Facebook post from Jarrod McKenna, who very clearly states that he believes in transformation and is empathetic with people from both extremes, believing that if their story was his story he may very well react in the same way.

I believe the key to the future resolution of these clashes could be in his sentiments. I am a fallen creature, evidenced by my opening lines in this blog, I too believe in the possibility of transformation. I am transformed and continue to be transformed. Part of this transformation is beginning to see with new eyes, when I can look at a Reclaim Australia proponent through the eyes of love or an extreme Muslim and recognise them as the same as me, then and only then can I begin to act as a peace maker and begin with them the long and arduous journey of reclaiming or perhaps recreating Australia into the place that we can all call home.

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Young Person Overboard

If you are a church goer, how would you describe the state of faith of young people in your church. For the purpose of this exercise think about people aged 12-25. How many are there in your fellowship? Over the past 5-10 years has the number of young people actively involved in your church declined? For those who remain how would you rate the vibrancy of their faith, 1 being alive, active, relevant; 10 being almost dead, going through the motions?

One of the metaphors to the describe the church is that of a boat, for many young people it seems the boat no longer provides safe navigation or is not heading where they want to go.

Rowan Lewis in his recent article in Equip, The State of Faith in Australian Youth: Haemorrhaging, Exodus or Exile, again sounds a warning gong that has been struck on and off for the last 40 years. Starting in the 70’s, research by Bodycomb commissioned by the Joint Council of South Australia showed marked decline in church involvement started from age 19. In many cases the report showed that the decline was due to a subconscious drift rather than conscious choice. Without seeing the report I’m presuming this means as work and family pressures increased keeping up attendance at church became a lower priority. In the 80’s and 90’s similar results were seen and analysed. In the 90’s there was a presumption that this was again due to life stage however the data showed this to be a mistake and in fact young people were leaving the church and not returning. It has become clear that over the decades there has been a progressive increase in the decline of young people from the church.

Cited in Lewis, researchers (Hughes and Mason, in separate works) in 2007 noted that there were dramatic losses of young members from various churches, at the same time there was an increase in ‘no-religious identification.’ They concluded that there was little doubt about the main destination of this exodus from the church. The bad news continues with Hughes noting that young Australians who in 2001 connected with a church, 500,000 of them decided that in the 2011 census they had no religion. For many the 2011 census was the first time they could assert their independence and show where their sense of connection lied or where it didn’t as the case may be. Goodwin in 2013 demonstrated that it was not only young adults who were leaving the church but in fact younger teens were leaving as they transitioned from childhood to youth.

Lewis concedes that young people are leaving the church in droves but they may not be leaving the faith, at least not in the first instance. He believes they are in an exile state caused by a church that is not engaged in the current cultural landscapes and portrays a black and white faith that doesn’t allow room for mystery, lament and doubt. Added to this I see a church that largely doesn’t know how to constructively raise its voice in the public debate around inequality, justice, poverty, public space and a plethora of other nuanced issues. Related to this inability and connected to an impoverished spirituality is an inadequate discipleship model that in many cases disciples people to an institution rather than the person of Christ.

I grew up in traditional Baptist churches and it was only as I moved from Sydney to Adelaide did I begin to see the inadequacy of our discipleship. I couldn’t have articulated it then, however there seemed to be a massive dichotomy between ‘Sunday’and ‘Monday.’ It seemed to me that we didn’t look any different to those outside the church. Young adults of my vintage were concerned with the cultural norms of education, earning money, buying a car, a house etc. For the most part I didn’t witness a grappling with faith, an asking the serious questions of what does my faith say to my everyday? How am I to be salt and light in the places and spaces that I occupy? Sure there were bible studies, but quite often serious questions would be skirted around and not addressed. The question of formation was one left to the colleges, which only a fraction of people attended.

So then as the research shows many people of my vintage left the church, now I haven’t tracked with them, but I suspect they have never returned and are perhaps now inoculated against faith. For the most part I suspect they don’t enjoy the benefits of an intimate walk with Jesus and receive his peace in the most surprising ways, despite the complexity of the situations faced. Perhaps they don’t get to experience the sense of walking into who they were created to be and seeing the joy in our Father’s eyes as he welcomes them home. I’m not going to speculate on whether they are saved or where they will spend eternity, that is up to God, however in the here and now the church of my generation has not served them well. They and the Church are the poorer for it.

At times as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve not been able to walk away from the Church. I believe God is at work in the world outside of His own people, however the Scriptures tell us that God is especially present with His people and that there is a grace conveyed in that presence and so our faith is a unified and sacramental one. Lets be clear though, walking away from any particular local expression of Church is not necessarily kissing all of that goodbye, however if people have not been equipped for a faith journey outside of a local church, then I fear they are in real trouble.

Lewis points to the need for this type of equipping, but localises it to youth ministry. I would go further and say that the basic orientation of how we equip people needs to shift. The Church once again needs to fix its gaze universally and recognise that God is so much bigger than any local expression or denomination. With this as a framework we can begin to walk the unity we have as the body and then we can recommit to our purpose for existence, being salt and light in the places and spaces where we are called to be. Letting the mystery of our faith, our doubts and laments as well as our joys and celebrations be the flavour and the light which permeates the world. If we can swallow our fear, trust in a big God and be big hearted enough to embrace ourselves and others, we may just find that those looking to jump overboard might reconsider.

Neighbourliness: A Key to Mental Health

Despite not being a sports fan, it’s obvious the murder of Phil Walsh has had massive ramifications for the Adelaide Crows and the AFL more generally. Not to mention the devastation that has been played out on the Walsh family, as they come to terms with the murder and the alleged actions of one of their own. The word tragic doesn’t come close.

Of course as always there’s lots of speculation associated with events such as this. Initially it was thought that Walsh’s son, Cy was on Ice, this has been downplayed by investigators, with Cy being held at Nash House Mental Health Facility, in Adelaide (http://goo.gl/OF0vK3). With this tragic event most likely being perpetrated by someone with a mental illness, it got me thinking about mental health in our country. In many circles there still seems to be a stigma attached to acknowledging that you have a mental health issue. As many will know this has become a live one for me as I continue to suffer with anxiety.

I’ve recently been rekindling an old friendship, on our first meeting after a number of years he told me about his recent journey with Bi-Polar and some of the ups and downs that have ensued. Like my anxiety, for the most part his Bi-Polar is under control. For both of us this is partly because of medication, great support networks and partly because of deliberate choices to not let the illness take over our lives.

Sadly for many with a mental illness this is not the case and they are left to flounder in isolation and sometimes in quiet (or noisy) despair. Misunderstandings around mental health in Australia are surprising with one in five Aussies aged 16-85 experiencing a mental illness in any year. The most common forms of illness are depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorder. 8.5% of Australians have two or more disorders often referred to as complex. Almost half of our population will experience a mental illness in their lifetime… yet we continue to not talk openly about these issues.

I wonder if this plays a factor in the 65% of people with a mental illness not accessing any treatment. And for those who do seek help, it may not come in the form they expect due to serious problems in detection and accurate diagnosis (http://goo.gl/3Av2Si). The statistics roll on with women more likely than men to seek help, and the older you get the less likely you are to experience a mental illness (http://goo.gl/P38p5f). Surprisingly for many, the connection between mental illness and violence is not automatic, with 90% of people suffering mental illness having no history of violence.

Unfortunately for the Walsh family it seems Cy maybe in that 10% where mental illness and violence collide. However despite what can often be a disturbing exterior most people with mental illness are looking for connection and a sense that they can be understood and respected. Organisations like Beyond Blue seek to diminish the stereotype and even encourage us to ask RUOK. Perhaps that simple question with a little bit of knowledge might go someway to helping include people who quite often feel on the outer of society.

We live in an affordable housing complex and Amy asked an interesting question, do the people in the front office, who deal with all kinds of issues arising from an eclectic bunch of residents know mental health first aid? The concept is similar to physical first aid. It draws on the fact that many people do not get professional help or delay doing so. An informed person in their social circles could help them navigate the options available to get the appropriate assistance. They are also able to help in a mental health crisis. For example, if a person is feeling suicidal, harming themselves, having a panic attack or being acutely psychotic, the skilled helper can reduce the risk of the person coming to harm. Since 2001, 1% of the total adult population of Australia have received this training, but its not enough (https://goo.gl/dOWqnQ). I wonder if someone in Cy Walsh’s social circle had been in a position to apply mental health first aid, could the tragedy have been avoided?

Perhaps a well-informed neighbour can make all the difference? Urban Seed and Life Expedition (community development organisations in Melbourne’s CBD) are running Good Neighbour month during July. Their grand vision is to see neighbourhoods, cities and nations transformed through good neighbourliness, into spaces where everyone has a place to belong. They see the key to this being compassion (http://goo.gl/xNwauF). If compassion could be cultivated in the places and spaces that we occupy what difference would it make to how we experience work, home, our local community? Instead of seeing people as strangers to be feared or at least to be wary of would we instead be open and recognise them as neighbours we haven’t met yet?

In this way I wonder if we would uncover at least some of those around us who are suffering a mental illness exacerbated by loneliness and shame?

21 Today!!

Amy told me that today, our marriage is old enough to drink in the US. Not sure how significant that fact is, however the past 21 years have certainly been significant, wonderful, challenging, loved filled and an amazing adventure. I’m so grateful that I have gotten to share them with the love of my life, as we have supported each other through life’s ups and downs and have both grown and changed as people.

Of course in today’s climate where the definition of marriage is being questioned, I can’t help but feel the current debates are missing the point. Whether between people of the opposite or same sex, marriage is so much more than a state or church sanctioned right, symbolised by the signing of documents. Rather it is the union of two people in what each intentions to be a life long commitment. A commitment to grow together, to hold the other in the highest regard, to learn together, make mistakes together, laugh and cry, raise kids, explore, have adventures… simply shape and travel the journey together in the bonds of care and love. From a Christian perspective it is also and I dislike the cliché a union under God. Words fail me here as the sacrament of marriage (undeserved favour of God revealed) is conveyed from each partner to the other in a reflection of the way Jesus loves.

In the hustle and bustle of life, I’m not always as conscious as I’d like to be about what marriage means to me, but for the last 21 years I’ve been privileged enough to live in this bond. However, not everyone can believe that we have been married that long and shared so much. Twice in the last couple of weeks people have commented on how young we look, how fresh our relationship appears and have shared their amazement that we have a 16 year old son. So I guess there are some advantages to marrying young! Well many advantages from where I sit, however not everyone saw it that way. I remember talking with my Dad and receiving his view that 20 was too young to get married. In fact Amy was only 19 (we married 11 days before her 20th) and I love being able to say she was my teenage bride. However it appears those commenting on the age we got married were right, at least statistically speaking. In 1990 the average age of first marriage for a male was 26.5 and female 24.3. This has increased, with the 2010 averages being 29.6 and 27.9 respectively (http://goo.gl/LXssN1).

Other friends at the time also expressed their concern, encouraging us to wait until after we had finished study and had jobs. Even back then we had the sense that our path would be different and if we waited for the steady income, we could be waiting a long time. In fact truth be told we’d still be waiting. Reflecting back, to our detractors, it seemed that marriage was just another thing that you did in the long line of expected cultural norms, which included going to university, getting a well paid job, buying a reliable, preferably new car and a house. Joe Hockey would be pleased!

For me in 1994 marriage signalled the beginning of an adventure, a joint journey where together we would try and figure out what life was about and how to live our faith authentically in the changing world around us. Of course we are still trying to answer those questions in the face of having a teenage son, having experienced paradigm shifting burnout and both exploring new avenues that will hopefully better allow our true selves to be expressed and through that our faith. The journey continues and we continue to cling to each other.

Sadly for many married people in Australia this has not been the case. For a whole plethora of reasons from financial stress, domestic violence, falling out of love to communication difficulties, differing life goals and infidelity, couples end up separating and eventually divorcing. At the outset of a relationship, through to the decision to get married people generally don’t picture themselves in the family court working out custody issues or who gets the vinyl copy The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan. Yet this becomes the reality and acting out of pain and hurt, reasonable people go to extraordinary lengths to inflict more pain and suffering on each other.

It seems that even in relatively healthy marriages we have strayed from the original intent and believed the lie of our culture that it really is all about me. Perhaps its stems back to the reason why we enter relationships in the first place. If we start a relationship with someone in order to meet our need for company, fulfilment, sexual release, a sense of belonging or any other need we have, then we will bond with the other person as long as they continue to meet that need. If they stop, or if we perceive someone else will better meet our needs then we begin to stray. The alternative is to enter into a relationship desiring the best for the other. Putting the meeting of their needs above the meeting of ours. As we do this it opens the opportunity for the other to respond to us in similar ways.

I realise this is hopelessly simplistic and recognise there are times when it is not emotionally safe to offer ourselves in this way and that some relationships need to end. However the principle stands, that ultimately in one way or another marriage or any relationship for that matter will fail if we focus on the meeting of our own needs. In marriage if we can truly trust ourselves to the other and look for their best interest we might not only make a successful marriage, but thrive as two individuals.

So AmyNoel I give myself to you again, to love, to cherish, to esteem, to honour, to hold, to protect, to put your needs above mine… I love you!