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