Messages of Hope

Month: September 2014

Living Stones

Published / by Sandy

President of the Uniting Church, Prof Rev Andrew Dutney, is leading his third and final National Ministers Conference, this one in Jerusalem. On the way, he’s spent time in Turkey. He writes on his blog:

I’ve spent the last week in Turkey, mostly in the region the ancients knew as Asia Minor. It’s been a real privilege to visit the sites of key cities and towns, especially those we remember for the little churches that sprang up within them in New Testament times: Colossae, Ephesus, Laodicea, Pergamum, etc.

Today you can visit archaeological remains from the period of those churches, but they’re not from the churches themselves. The archaeological evidence is of the great powers of the pagan civilisation within which the earliest churches found ways to be faithful and thrive, despite their suffering. Unlike the dominant powers they built no buildings. They erected no monuments. Instead they were buildings made of “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5). They were gathered by the Holy Spirit and held together by love for one another.

Their “monument” – if that’s the right word – is the church that spread throughout the world, springing up within every culture, speaking and thinking in every language, witnessing and serving in every kind of circumstance. Their “monument” is as different as could be from those twelve believers in Ephesus (Acts 19:7). But they were gathered together as “living stones” by the same Holy Spirit.

Of course there is an archaeological record of an ancient church in modern Turkey, but that’s from the later Byzantine period. For 1000 years Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was the centre of world Christianity. But again, there’s very little trace of Christianity in Turkey today – except for the Byzantine archaeological sites and re-purposed masterpieces like Aya Sofya. The ancient dominant civilisation is gone, and so are the living churches that grew up within it.

It occurs to me that the civilisation into which I was born – 1950s Australia – has also passed away. It has been replaced by the multicultural, multi-faith, hyper-capitalist, globalised, digital civilisation that is dominant in Australia today. It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that the churches that grew up within that former Australian civilisation have also passed away. There is evidence of their passing through this place in all those re-purposed buildings from the period, and the now impractical, difficult buildings, practices and institutions that many congregations and denominations still use today.

However the church of “living stones” is emerging afresh in the new Australia…and so I’m on my way to Jerusalem. I’ll be gathering there with colleagues to wrestle with that commitment made in our Basis of Union with such prescience:

The Uniting Church prays that she may be ready when occasion demands to confess her Lord in fresh words and deeds (Basis of Union paragraph 11).

posted 22 Sep 2014 by Sandy

Love and Reconciliation

Published / by Sandy

Psalm 149 has been my wrestling point this week. Something in this passage sent a chill up my spine. It starts off well – singing, dancing, celebrating and worshipping God. It is a call to hope and trust, acknowledging the goodness and grace of God. It is a song of joy, possibly as the people of God remembered God’s saving acts of being freed from Egypt’s cruel slavery; their long journey to the new homeland; and the way they laid claim to the “Promised Land” of Canaan (even though that meant that some other people lost their own homeland). 1

The section from verse 6 takes a tangent with blood-thirsty imagery. According to renowned OT scholar Walter Brueggeman, the Psalm is unique in the way it calls the faithful to a dual duty, to ‘let the high praises of God be in their throats’ on the one hand, and on the other to take, ‘two edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kinds with fetters, and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgement decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones’.

Here is a psalm that is at once about praise AND vengeance, joy AND punishment, tambourines AND fetters.2 As Brueggeman says, Praise the Lord” and “pass the ammunition…” 3

The Psalm is thought to be 3000 years old, and it has been used to justify wars over the centuries when it has been taken literally as a call to arms, and a call to holy war. Caspar Scloppius used this Psalm to provoke the Roman Catholic princes to the Thirty Years’ religious war, and Thomas Müntzer used it to rouse the War of Peasants.

Eckhart Tolle writes: Religions, to a large extent, became divisive rather than a unifying forces. Instead of bringing about an ending of violence and hatred through a realization of the fundamental oneness of all life, they brought more violence and hatred, more divisions between people as well as between different religions and even within the same religion. They became ideologies, belief systems people could identify with and so use them to enhance their false sense of self. Through them, they could make themselves “right” and others “wrong” and thus define their identity through their enemies, the “others,” the “nonbelievers” or “wrong believers”. Not infrequently they saw themselves justified in killing the ‘others’. The eternal, the infinite, and unnameable was reduced to a mental idol that you had to believe in and worship as “my god” or “our god.” 4

Today, we are witness to the ways that people offer the praise of their God in their mouth and hold that double-edged sword in their hands. We have witnessed the most barbaric acts by the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq, doing it all in the name of their God. Thousands of people, among them many Christians, have been banished brutally from their houses, children are dying of hunger and thirst as they flee, women have been kidnapped, people massacred, violence of all kinds has been perpetrated, and there is destruction everywhere. The worst of ISIS has been unleashed on Shi‘ite Muslims, Christians and the Yazidis. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared himself as the new “Caliph” of Muslims worldwide. But, the Quran warns its readers to not be swayed by charismatic figures who, in reality, only spread evil in the world: “Now, there is a kind of man whose views on the life of this world may please thee greatly, and [the more so as] he cites God as witness to what is in his heart and is, moreover, exceedingly skillful in argument. But whenever he prevails, he goes about the earth spreading corruption and destroying property and progeny [even though] God does not like corruption. And whenever he is told, ‘Be conscious of God,’ his false pride drives him into [even greater] sin …” (2:204–2:206).

I thought of omitting the last verses of Psalm 149, or striking them from the Book of Psalms. It was momentarily attractive, or at least would give permission to ignore the verses. After all, they are from so long ago, and we are so much more ‘civilized’ now. But this Psalm reveals truth about our own humanity – our human propensity to expel that which is different, to banish the other, to diminish the other. And to justify we are on the side of right, or right thinking. 

We need to acknowledge the times when we feel we are on the side of ‘right’ against those who hold different views, and the times we seek a victory. Maybe not with a sword, and maybe not even with the praise of God in our throats, but definitely seeking to have the upper hand over those who think differently. The sobering thing is that anything that you resent and strongly react to in another may also be in you.

We have a human propensity to cultivate dualities, to divide and separate. And when we categorise people and situations into simple dualities, it is then possible to ‘execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples’.

It is interesting to reflect on the rhetoric of George W Bush following the 9/11 attack, and the repeated phrase that has become distinctively associated with him: ”evildoers.” Its use was deliberate and intended to provoke a particular view of the world. And it was drawn from the Psalms. David Frum, one of the speechwriters for George W. Bush and who was responsible for the phrase “axis of evil” (used in Bush’s State on the Union Address, 2002), says:

The language of good and evil — central to the war on terrorism — came about naturally . . . from the first, the president used the term “evildoers” to describe the terrorists because some commentators were wondering aloud whether the United States in some way deserved the attack visited upon it on September 11, 2001. He wanted to cut that off right away and make it clear that he saw absolutely no moral equivalence. So he reached right into the Psalms for that word.

The terminology of ‘evildoers’ was intended to demarcate the United States from her enemies. When victors in wars tell their stories, it is ‘us’ against ‘them’. Dualities and polarities. Defined by difference. 

We hear it often in the political rhetoric in Australia.

And we do it in every realm of human relationships, including our interpersonal relationships.

Over these last few weeks, the Pilgrim newsletter has contained excerpts from Parker J. Palmer. Speaking about his new book (6), ‘Healing the Heart of Democracy’, he says: “We have succumbed to divide-and-conquer politics, so we find it difficult or impossible to talk with each other across our lines of difference. When asked about how we might talk across lines of difference more successfully, he responded: Well, here’s a clue from a poem, “The Place Where We Are Right”, by the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

“From the place where we are right/flowers will never grow/in the spring/
The place where we are right/is hard and trampled/like a yard/
But doubts and loves/dig up the world/like a mole, a plough/
And a whisper will be heard in the place/where the ruined/house once stood.”

Parker Palmer continues: We can talk across lines by talking about what we love, because a lot of us love the same things: our kids and grandkids, our country, the natural world, the idea that people should be able to get ahead in life. Then we can talk about our doubts, because we all doubt that what we love is being served well. Beginning a conversation with loves and doubts rather than political ideologies opens a new door to dialogue, driven by story-telling rather than political point scoring. People have a harder time dismissing or demonizing each other when they know a bit of each other’s personal stories. We need lots of safe spaces where people can talk across lines of division. We need to learn that, in the long run, it’s more important to be in “right relationship” than to be right.

Palmer concluded: When I emphasize the importance of things like storytelling and being in right relationship, I’m not giving up on sorting out issues of right and wrong, good and bad. But if you’re not humanly connected, you have no chance to pursue these complex issues communally in a way that might be transformative.

Paul’s letter to the Romans invites us to look at the simplest but most transformative of behaviours – “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9-10). Not the love that is just about being a nice person, a good person. But the robust nature of love that can enable us to love those who are different to us. And today’s gospel passage from Matthew points us simply and firmly in the direction of reconciliation.

Love, and reconciliation. Fundamentally relational, enabling understanding and trust to grow, in a way that counters division, demonisation, and discounting of others.

To live with love as our central focus, and to orient our lives towards reconciliation, is constantly demanding. It is counter to the natural inclination to categorize, to demonize, to exclude. We would rather avoid pain and ambiguity, and to exclude the enemy or a threat. It takes courage to be on the side of love and reconciliation.

Suffering often goes hand in hand with the way of love and reconciliation. 

Parker J. Palmer highlights that ‘suffering’ has the same root meaning of the world patience. He says, “Suffering is what happens when you see the possibilities in others while they deny those same possibilities in themselves. Suffering is what happens when you hold in trust a space for community to emerge but others lack the trust to enter the space and receive the gift. Suffering is what happens while you wait out their resistance, believing that people have more resources than they themselves believe they have”.

The suffering, and patient waiting, is a positive response, offered by those who make space, who see the possibilities that things can be different.

In response to the ISIS killing of her journalist son James, his mother Diane Foley said: “We must stand together. Good and love and all that is free in the world must be together to fight the evil and the hatred.” These are not passive words. These are ‘fighting’ words, but not necessarily with weapons, but rather grounded in a fierce determination that good and love and all that is free in the world must prevail against evil.

So, maybe I’ll keep these troublesome verses in this Psalm, after all. Sure, it sticks in the throat with its war-mongering imagery. But it also speaks deeply to our humanity.

1. Joan Stott, The Timeless Psalms
2. Nadia Bolz-Weber, The Hardest Question, 2010
3. Walter Brueggeman, The Psalms and the life of faith’, p.124
4. Eckhart Tolle, A new earth: Awakening to your life’s purpose
5. Howard Fineman, “Bush and God,” Newsweek141/10 (March 10, 2003)
6. David Bornstein, ‘Reclaiming ‘We the People’, one person at a time’. New York Times, September 4, 2014


posted 09 Sep 2014 by Sandy

#Love Makes A Way

Published / by Sandy

On June 23rd, 2014, a group of nine religious leaders held a peaceful protest vigil in the office of MP Jamie Briggs in Mount Barker. At the end of the day, all 9 were arrested for trespass. Pilgrim Uniting Church ministers Rev Jana Norman and Rev Sandy Boyce were part of the group, and each prepared a statement when they appeared before the magistrate to give account of their motivations. The following statement was prepared by Sandy for her court appearance last week.

Your Honour, thank you for the opportunity to speak today, to give an account of myself in relation to the trespass charge. I was part of a group of 9 people who gathered for a peaceful, non-violent action focussed on a common concern for children in detention, and asking the simple question, when will the children be released from detention? The group included a Jewish rabbi, a Quaker (Society of Friends), and 7 Christians including 4 Uniting Church ministers. We prayed, we sang, we shared stories, and found ourselves in remarkable company as we discovered common journeys and commitment. We each took a soft toy, and we left them in the office at the end of the day. The soft toy has become a symbol for the children held in indefinite detention – a symbol of a child’s innocence, as well as their vulnerability and need for comfort and consolation. The rest of the group has already had the opportunity to address the courts, and I welcome the opportunity to share my own motivation.

Your Honour, the situation for children in Australian detention centres is of great concern, especially in offshore detention centres where hundreds of children are in mandatory detention, some without their families. United Nations guidelines clearly state that children should not be placed in detention for anything more than what is absolutely necessary for health checks and security checks. Instead, children are being held in indefinite detention, and the emotional, psychological and physical harm being reported should be of great concern to all people of good will. Some children are responding to their living conditions in ways that are pitiful – self-harm, insomnia, trying to poison themselves, illness and poor health, banging their heads against the wall, bed wetting long after toilet training, depression, even a young girl who tried to hang herself with her hijab. How heartbreaking to read the statement from a 15 year old on Nauru: ”This is a bad life. I fled from war in Iraq but got stuck in harsh jail in Nauru where is nothing but cruelty. We want justice. This is not fair. There is no standard in Nauru. This is a hell for children.” The former head of mental health services for detainees, Peter Young, has revealed the Immigration Department asked him not to report on the rates of mental distress and disorders among children and that the department was “concerned about what the figures are showing”. In the first 3 months of this year, the department’s own data shows 128 children self-harmed. It is unacceptable. Immigration detention is no life for a child. All children are precious, and we share responsibility to ensure the welfare of children, which should not be dismissed as mere sentiment.

If children displayed these kind of behavioural responses arising from their living conditions in the wider community, it would be spoken of as neglect and child abuse. Yet this deplorable situation is allowed to continue in detention centres. Only last Friday, the Immigration Minister said that children in off shore detention centres would not be eligible for release because it was those conditions that were stopping ‘more children coming on the boats’. However one justifies children in indefinite detention, it is unacceptable. It goes without saying that the longer the children are held in detention, the more significant their mental suffering. Psychiatrist Peter Young has said, ”If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition.” We desperately need an alternative to provide better care for these vulnerable children, and Australia has the capacity to positively support their well-being.

The peaceful, non-violent action in which I participated simply asked the question, when will these children be released from detention? Our group sought to highlight their plight and their vulnerability, and to urge that they be released into community care while their applications for asylum are processed. Indeed, a coalition of church agencies and not for profit organisations has offered to work with the Government to arrange community accommodation and appropriate support for families and young children while their applications are processed, but that offer has not been acted upon.

Christians are called to follow the example of Jesus and my Christian faith seeks expression in the way I demonstrate compassion and care, build peace and seek justice, and contribute to the common welfare. Faith is personal, but never private. In my work as a Minister in the Uniting Church, I seek to link the biblical narrative with the practice of faith. I am glad to be part of Pilgrim Uniting Church which from its beginning has been involved in seeking justice and working for the community good. This congregation has for many years actively supported refugees and asylum seekers, with regular visitors to detention centres, sponsoring family reunions, providing practical support and care, and building ongoing relationships. I am proud to say that the Uniting Church nationally has been involved in speaking out for the welfare of asylum seekers, and for children in detention, and challenging government policies that are cruel and harsh towards vulnerable people.

My action to bring attention to the plight of children in detention, was, in part, motivated by frustration with the degree of secrecy maintained in relation to those in detention, and the apparent unwillingness of government to work with the community on alternatives to children in detention and the punitive policies in place. A peaceful action – to highlight the dire situation of children in detention – seems a reasonable thing to do. Not to speak, and not to act, is to collude with what I believe is fundamentally a cruel policy in relation to children and their families in detention.

Such an action was not out of the blue. I am not an accidental activist, but rather someone who has carefully considered ways to raise awareness about this important issue that affects the very character and soul of our nation. Who are we becoming as a nation if we simply turn a blind eye to the welfare of children in detention centres? How can this be allowed to continue? Not in my name.

I worked as a teacher in schools for 20 years, mainly with primary school aged children. We all know that these are critically formative years, when a child’s sense of worth and well-being is shaped, and when they are making sense of the world. For a child, these early years are the foundation which will inform their adult life, and when core values and attitudes are shaped. How can we expect children to develop into generous, kind, compassionate, and confident adults when they are struggling to survive in the midst of difficult living conditions? How can we expect children to be strong, joyful, robust, and resilient, when freedom has been denied, when they face indefinite detention through no fault of their own. How can we expect children to make sense of the world and grow into maturity when their education is spasmodic, when they are denied a stable home environment with emotional security, and when their sense of confidence for the future is compromised.

The actions undertaken by those who decided to sit in Jamie Briggs’ office was prompted by the one question, when will the children be released from detention? It is a reasonable question – with precedent. The Human Rights Commission report released in 2004 found mandatory immigration detention of children was inconsistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations and that detention for long periods created a high risk of serious mental harm. Subsequently, the then Prime Minister John Howard released all children and their families from detention.

I am grateful to the staff in Jamie Briggs’ office who allowed the group to sit together in the office foyer. They were respectful and did not at any time ask us to leave, until the office was due to be closed at which point we were asked if we planned to leave. When the police were called, they were also respectful in the way they related to the group, and did their job professionally. None of the group I was with had been in such a situation before, so it was a new experience to find myself in handcuffs, being driven to the police station in a police car, and going through a somewhat alien process of fingerprinting, DNA swabs, photos, frisking, questions, and so on. It seemed to me that I had a tiny glimpse into the world of asylum seekers who undergo a screening process determined by Australian authorities. With language difficulties and limited access to legal representation, it is much harder for asylum seekers and the policy of indefinite detention is breaking people’s spirits. The children in detention long for freedom, to be children who can enjoy life with unbridled joy.

I welcome the announcement this month that 150 children under 10 in detention in mainland detention centres will be released into the community over the next 5 months – but the 331 children living in camps on Nauru and Christmas Island, and more than 400 aged over 10 on the mainland, will remain in detention. It is my hope that change can and must happen, that decisions can be made based on compassion and justice.

It is not illegal for people to seek asylum, regardless of how they arrive.

Your Honour, thank you for the opportunity to share my story.

(photos and article on the DIAKONIA blog here)

posted 03 Sep 2014 by Sandy