A New Economy

At the conclusion of an insightful and thought-provoking review, Jon Piccini writes:
“If contemporary debates in Britain on the place of the empire in national memory are anything to go by, the accumulation of evidence for colonialism’s dark past – from mass violence in Kenya to concocted constitutional crises in Australia – only cements entrenched views, driving partisans and apologists to new heights of fantasy and self-soothing. Critics, then, cannot rely on history itself to change well-established patterns of thought, prejudice, and privilege. Only the hard slog of politics can do that.”[1]

Piccini’s review is of two new books about the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Martin Charteris, the private secretary of Queen Elizabeth II, at the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975.

This piece is not about these books, apart from in passing. Piccini notes that the two works he is reviewing approach the event from starkly contrasting perspectives and argues, convincingly, that almost everyone who reads the books will do so in order to have their points of view reinforced, rather than challenged, or subverted.

My questions arise from this ultimate paragraph and, in particular, the final two sentences.

Do these sentences have any bearing as we consider the great issues of our time: the effects of human activity upon our climate, both in punishment and remediation; the place of privacy and the individual in a world connected, through technology, beyond the control of most citizens; the nature of identity when gender and sexuality are suddenly not what we have been historically and erroneously told they are; our changing world – individual, communal and political – in the face of pandemics?

We know that, amongst other things, when we read literature, history and theology, where we stand determines what we see and what we do not see.[2] The illusion of objectivity has proved to be precisely that; we know that the dominant cultural group in any community usually has pre-eminence over the telling of history and the interpretation of events which occur. We are also aware that when less dominant groups seek to identify – and proclaim – their own stories, the dominant grouping often feels significant discomfort.

As an ordained Minister in the Protestant Christian tradition, and as an educated, middle-aged, Anglo-Celtic male, I am conscious that I am a member of what has traditionally been a dominant group in the life of the Church and, indeed, the community in the Global North.

My initial reading of any text (or, indeed, any event) will, almost reflexively, be courtesy of the lens through which I have been trained to look. How will I pay proper attention to those who were not educated in the way I have been? How will I attend, respectfully, to women, people of colour, people of other language, culture, sexuality and identity than my own?

How will my opinions be subverted, change and grow?

When we were taught at school that something is “historical”, it usually implied that there was consensus about an event, its causes and consequences. The intellectual and historical paucity of this argument is revealed in debates as diverse as the causes of the First World War, the arrival of Europeans in Australia, the Shoah, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Many of my culture and background, as inheritors of the Enlightenment, believe that reason will, finally, win out. Is this still true? There is clear evidence that, for a significant part of our community, anecdote and personal experience are at least as valid as historical events.

Moreover, if, just for a moment, we substitute “science” for “history” in the review’s penultimate sentence, we wade into even deeper difficulty. Those who argue for the objective nature of peer-reviewed results and evidence, for statistical precision, have experienced a difficult decade or two, as the decline of trust in institutions has leeched into the faculties of the sciences. Many leading scientists have said they were poorly equipped to respond to such a transformation.

Even worse, the debates have become polarised, with polemic in many forms taking the place of reasoned, passionate debate. This is not about education, although that does play a role. This is about demonising those who think differently, believing that a difference of opinion is worthy of – even demands – condemnation. Watching the political and social chaos in the United Kingdom and the United States in the response to the COVID 19 pandemic is evidence enough that even a crisis common to humanity does not guarantee an appropriate response.

Piccini argues that intent, political intent, is necessary. We must decide to engage, then to create and to drive change.   

Critics, then, cannot rely on history itself to change well-established patterns of thought, prejudice, and privilege. Only the hard slog of politics can do that.

So, what does this mean for the witness of those who follow Christ? We know, despite our pious protestations, that the Church is always influenced – for good and, for ill – by the community in which it worships, witnesses and serves.

Much of traditional apologetics in the Church argues from the historical event of Jesus’ existence, and thus his birth, death and the wonderful improbability of his resurrection.

If Piccini is correct, an argument on its own is insufficient. To present from the scriptural text, and to argue from history will not be enough.

What, then, are the politics of God’s economy?

We must tell the stories of what faith means – to me, to us. We need to engage in the consequences of our discipleship and talk about them; not the great worship team of which we are a part, but the simple faith-in-action which has changed lives, or discovered hopes, or salved wounds.

We need to be able to seek forgiveness from people when they have been told that because of who they are, they have no welcome in the hope of God for the world. People throughout history have been condemned because of wounds they carry, or the lives they lead, or because of their gender, culture, race, sexuality or position in the world to which they have been assigned, to believe that they have no place in the promise of God.

We also need to be able to offer forgiveness, and to mean it. Some will come, so broken by their circumstance, or their choice, that they believe themselves beyond the reach of mercy, even God’s mercy. We must embody the hospitality of God.

How willing am I to be transformed by each encounter and not to believe myself the sole dispenser of mercy and hope?

The witness we bear is not solely historical, it is for the present and for the future. We must take account of the world in which we live. Our faith is never anonymous; it bears our likeness, but first it bears the image of Jesus.

We must be able to welcome people into a community, even a small one, in which the integrity of this faith is borne out.

Let us not forget the Spirit of the risen, crucified One. The winsome, whimsical presence of the Holy Spirit is present in the world, before us, opening ears and hearts (inescapably my own) to the wonder of Jesus Christ.

Am I willing to live like this?

Am I willing to be a citizen, active in the politics of the economy of the living God?

[1] Jon Piccini; ‘An Endless Struggle with the Past’ Australian Book Review #428, pp.9-10

[2] Steve de Shazer; “Where you stand determines what you see and what you do not see; it determines also the angle you see it from; a change in where you stand changes everything.”

Loving God. & Neighbour.

It’s a long way from Dubbo to Sydney, especially when you’re in need of medical help.

I have worked for almost thirty years in rural and regional communities across New South Wales, and the resources we expect at our fingertips in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong are beyond the reach of many people in other places.

If the medical help you need is linked to drug dependency, then rural people are consistently told that the nearest support is more than four hundred kilometres and a long waiting list away. I have heard countless stories from parents and families, about their despair at our current approach to drugs and the lack of services for the people they love, who are asking for help – now.

It is why the Uniting Church (NSW and ACT) is such a strong advocate for changing our drug laws. It’s why so many groups across our community are echoing our call.

Drug dependence is often misunderstood as a predominately urban issue. The reality is regional and rural areas of our country suffer a double blow on this issue.

Families, wherever they are, suffer the same loss and devastation if their loved ones develop drug dependence. However, country areas frequently lack the necessary services for drug treatment that are predominately situated in our cities.

This was the case with Dubbo and the story of Shantell – a Dubbo resident who wanted to receive treatment for her drug use, but the closest, suitable treatment was four hundred kilometres away in Sydney.

It’s not just the distance. Relocating for treatment can be really difficult, especially if you have children. There is also the chronic lack of places to access treatment – the wait can be over eighteen months.

It is a long way away from Dubbo to Sydney. In 2018 I walked part of the way, alongside many others, joining our Long Walk to Treatment as we sought to draw attention to the issue of fairer treatment for those people in regional areas who live with drug dependency.

Last month, the NSW Government announced it would allocate $7.5m to set up a new treatment centre in Dubbo. It was a very welcome move. But we need to do more.

I welcome news that the NSW Government is considering changing the law regarding small quantities of drugs and instead introduce a three-strike warning system.

These sensible measures are the sign of a Government that is listening to the medical and legal experts and making laws based on the evidence.

Too many people who use drugs are made to live in the shadows, looked down upon with shame and stigma and therefore don’t seek help because of our current drug laws.

We all want a society in which all people are valued, and their dignity as human beings recognised.

Parents want to know that their kids will come home safe from a night out. They also want to know that if their children develop drug dependency, our community will help keep them safe until they can get treatment. This move by the NSW government is to be applauded.

This long-awaited change is, currently, a flicker of hope. It has yet to be passed by Cabinet. No doubt there will be those critics in our community who will argue against doing anything which is not punitive.

But if you listen to the experts, as I have during my years in ministry and as Moderator, you will hear former police commissioners like Mick Palmer, you will hear doctors and other health experts, policy wonks, lawyers and community workers all speak about the importance of treating drug dependency as a health and social issue.

It may surprise many people to find a church on the frontline of such a campaign. It should be expected – Jesus’s essential command is “Love God and Love Your Neighbour”. We are here in this debate, because our faith places us here; caring for people and their families especially when we know the harm drug dependency is causing in our community.

The impact of drug dependency is being exacerbated by our approach to policing drug laws and punishing those who use even small amounts of drugs. It means those who might otherwise seek help for drug dependency, hide in the shadows of society, shamed.

When we treat drug use as a health and social issue – and this government proposal is an initial step in that direction – police will have greater resources to be tough on large-scale drug trafficking and violent crime.

In this we have the support of over sixty organisations as part of the Fair Treatment Coalition that we established and now counts amongst its members organisations representing legal, medical, health, community and church groups.

And of course, the Uniting Church, through its service arm Uniting, runs the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre at King Cross which has also taught us much about how to respond with compassion to those people who use drugs.

This proposal by the NSW Government is a step in the right direction. It should be encouraged and applauded; I hope people in NSW will give it their support and let their local MP know they are behind such a change.

Put simply, it will bring people nearer to help and hope. It will save lives.

This piece appeared in Guardian Australia on 7th December 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/07/we-will-save-lives-in-regional-australia-by-treating-drug-use-as-a-health-issue-not-a-criminal-one