Sunday, February 4, 2018

Against whom have I sinned? Part 2.

In my last post I presented the problem of how a particular Christian understanding of “sin” can be used to overlook victims. The specific sins I am considering here are those with human victims; murder, assault, unjust incarceration. I claim that it is necessary within Christianity to rationalize God as the sole or primary offended party when people commit such sin, in order to give God, through Jesus, the prerogative to forgive such sin completely. I concluded however with the recognition that many passionate Christians do acknowledge human victims indicating that they have an understanding of sin and of God’s offence that overcomes the problem I outlined.

A recent news event and its discussion is worth mentioning here. Rachael Denhollander was a victim of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse while a young girl. She was also the first to publicly accuse him. At Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing Denhollander gave a powerful impact statement which “went viral” in Christian media circles. Rachael expressed in a follow up interview how she knows first hand the glibness that the Christian doctrine of forgiveness can express towards victims and even how it can be used as a weapon to minimize their abuse. Rachel Denhollander is clear that her own understanding of forgiveness “means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously.”

When I read Denhollander's words and when I learn of her actions in bringing Nassar to justice as well as exposing other abuses and supporting other victims, I feel like its better for anyone to read her words over mine on this matter.

I’ll go on though, because I want to outline very clearly an alternative understanding of the mechanism of sin and forgivenenss that Christians can take up. Denhollander has reinforced for me how relevant this is to changing how churches respond to institutional abuse. Firstly it is not necessary to consider God’s forgiveness as sufficient for all matters. A person who kills another person may be forgiven by God for the pertinent offence to God (harming their creation or disobeying God’s laws), but this does not remove their obligations to the victim, the victim's family or their community. To express this it is important to avoid language suggesting that, through contrition before God, a person “wipes their slate clean” or in any similar metaphor renders their situation as if the sin had not happened. This is not the situation for victims. It could even be stated that a consequence of being right with God would be a desire of a perpetrator to meet their obligations to any victims.

Some objectors to this might raise passages such as Psalm 41 which led me to this topic in my last post, as if they “proved” God is the only offended party to sin. A careful reading however reminds us that Psalm 41 is simply a prayer made by King David. King David’s self-serving belief that God is the only one he has sinned against should come as no surprise from such a flawed character. It is an example of an appeal to cheap grace from someone who consistently tries to play God like a slot machine. In 2 Samuel:12 we see David employing contrition towards God in a frankly cynical way (while sadly God in patriarchal fashion punishes David through his child). David is supposed to be read as a dick and there’s no reason even a biblical fundamentalist has to assume he gets God perfectly. 

No biblical Christian is justified using Psalm 41 as instruction over the more relevant Matthew 5:23-24. Here Jesus separates out making oneself right with God, through temple sacrifices, and making oneself right with another person. Jesus puts the latter first as a requirement of the former, reversing the normal hierarchy of importance. It is presented as if approaching God for forgiveness of sin makes no sense while in conflict with one’s “brother or sister.” This is a position that is radically at odds with David’s God-alone strategy of seeking forgiveness.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

What does this say about the nature of God and sin? I find the idea of a God who refuses to be used to clear someone’s slate while they continue to offend others a powerful one. It is certainly an empowering one for victims.

One of the recommendations of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse is that the Catholic church removes the promise of secrecy from the rite of confession in matters involving child victims. This has been initially rejected by the Church hierarchy in Australia. If we accept that genuine forgiveness of sins requires the victims engagement and in cases of child abuse the community is also the victim, then the position of the Catholic church should be that absolution is always withheld unless a confession of sexual abuse is also made to the police. It follows then that, even if the secrecy of the confession is held to by the church, priests can be prevented from practicing as priests after confessing to sexual abuse. They either accept criminal prosecution or they must be considered unrepentant of a mortal sin by their peers and cannot officiate mass.

This may seem like an unnecessarily convoluted thought process to reach a simple conclusion; You can’t just go to God (or God’s representative), obtain your forgiveness and then your victims must catch up to the new reality of your sinlessness. Any path to atonement with God is rather through a genuine encounter with the reality of your victims and all the resulting consequences of that. Anything else is cheap grace at their expense. At times I have felt that discussing the theology of how this works is more words than needed but I have had the words of Denhollander in mind:

“But often, if not always, people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that (sic) a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades. When you see a theological commitment to handling sexual assault inappropriately, you have the least hope of ever changing it.”

And so we must first change the theologies of sin and forgiveness that don't put victims first.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Against whom have I sinned?

Psalm 51 is a prayer of the Jewish King David. His rule, if such a person existed, would have been about 1000 BCE and is considered a Golden Age of ancient Jewish civilization. This is the same David who, in his most famous legend, slays Goliath with a sling. In Psalm 51 (included below) he prays to God for mercy. As he does so David expresses particular views about sin which I heard quoted by the contemporary theologian D.A. Carson, causing me to revisit this psalm.

D.A. Carson stated that in every occasion of sin, God is the primary (David says only) offended party. As the primary or only offended party (and this distinction in effect isn’t clear)  God has the moral right to punish sinners and the capacity to pardon them independently of any human victims. King David in Psalm 51 asks God to be cleansed of his sin like contemporary Christians are invited to do, with the full confidence that this is God’s prerogative. God could not do this unless they were functionally the only offended party; another could still righteously pass their own judgment.

The first point I want to make about this theology is that much depends on what is meant by “offended” when we say God is an offended party to sin. One way this has been understood is that sin is a breaking of God’s rules and that this offence of disobedience is the way in which God is offended. If this is the way God’s offence is understood then it should raise some questions. How could the person of God be more offended for having their commands disobeyed over the direct victim of an assault for example? If sexual harassment occurred in a workplace would we say that the boss, whose rules for workplace conduct have been transgressed, is the most offended party? Imagine such a boss informing the victim that they have forgiven the perpetrator so everything is good now. We would understandably balk at this. Even though we should recognise that the boss has independently been betrayed by the harassing employee and could independently insist on punishment they are certainly not the only offended party. The victim of the harassment has an independent claim for restitution or punishment.

Another way of understanding God as the offended party is to state that we, along with all creation, are God’s property. Thus any transgression against us is against our author/owner rather than ourselves. If I enter your house and destroy your couch there can be no sense that the couch is an offended party. Only you are. Consistently if a person decides to destroy their own couch then there is no offence at all. To accept this paradigm, where God is the functionally only offended party by virtue of our possession by God, is to deny our personhood. (Moral personhood is a term for how  a person is delineated from a thing in morality.)  I condemn as barbaric when harm to children or wives counts only as harm to their patriarch (and owner) in some cultural circumstances. I insist upon the moral personhood of all. Are we supposed to accept via an analagous patriarchal logic that as children of God we have no independent personhood?

It should be acknowledged that to say we are not people in relation to another human person, is not the same thing as saying we are not a person in relation to God. God is not a citizen and can only symbolically inhabit a human throne. There is a kind of political equality in declaring that all, rather than just some, human beings are not moral persons. It is however a political equality of tenuous security. The offence of killing us is only dependant on God being offended by that killing. Large sections of the human population believe in a Bible that proclaims men who have sex with men, practitioners of witchcraft and children who disrespect their parents as right to be killed according to God. If we accept the paradigm of sin in which we are God’s property then any argument against such murder (even that it should be called murder) can only be an argument over whether that is actually what God wants. Which of us wants to go toe to toe with a fundamentalist to assert our humanity with no avenue to our inalienable personhood?

God as the functionally only offended party to sin is not peripheral to Christianity. The complete forgiveness of sins by the cross depends upon it. We have seen two ways Gods' position can be understood that should disturb us. Neither honours the victim with their full self-worth. It is reasonable to wonder whether these understandings of sin and God contributed to the catastrophic failure in some church institutions of their responsibility to young people in their care. Did they simply forget the victim was an offended party? Did they seek forgiveness from the boss only? It is also pertinent to ask, as a society with largely Christian roots, whether these understandings have expressions in our broader politic. The violence of colonization is sometimes excused by the greater glory of the nation. The cruelty of offshore detention is unseen because its victims are nobody’s property. How do we all under represent the victim in our understanding of wrong doing?

When we look at Christians practicing their faith we find many who recently exposed their churches corruption and have stood up for victims of abuse. We find a great number of the people who condemned and punished the violence of Australia’s colonization in our history were driven by their Christian faith. We find many Christians today at the forefront of trying to inject some compassion into Australia’s immigration debates. This leaves us with our last question, worthy of its own separate discussion; Are these Christians simply avoiding the logic of their own faith or do they have a different understanding of God as the only offended party of sin which doesn’t diminish the human victims? Is it possible that through an understanding of incarnation perhaps, these Christians avoid treating human people and God as separate persons who compete for our attention when addressing sin. Do they conceptually combine God and victim into one? I suspect this is so and I hope to find the opportunity to present this possibility to my Christian friends. I’ll tell you what they say. Hopefully they can give me the language to express their understanding to you.


Psalm 51

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is[b] a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Who voted no to marriage equality?

The Australian Federal parliament has removed the gender restrictions from the law regulating marriage, instantly recognizing the marriages of same sex couples married overseas and enabling others to marry here. This is something I am thrilled about and yet I find myself wanting to express sympathy for “no voters” (people who voted against marriage equality in the recent national postal survey). This isn’t my first attempt to do so. My piece titled So many points of no return tried to acknowledge the significant distress marriage equality would cause some no voters without conceding such distress is justified.  My most recent post tried to illustrate how even the view that nobody should have gay sex is not necessarily hateful, although I strongly disagree with this view. In this piece I want to specifically critique the othering of no voters. While still wishing they’d voted yes I don’t think of no voters as another type of person to me and my kind. This othering, when I witness it, indicates to me a deep mischaracterization of who no voters are. It’s also affecting how yes voters view themselves in a profoundly unhealthy way.

38.4% of eligible voters who participated in the postal survey to permit same sex couples to marry, voted no. For some people this was astonishing and while a majority yes vote felt great they couldn’t understand how so many people could see same sex relationships as so inferior they wouldn’t allow them to get married. This however is the harshest possible way to understand no votes – as a condemnation of same sex love. If the vote had of been a simple “Should the law reflect the opinion that gay relationships are wrong” such a position would have had very little support. The official No vote campaign knew this and made sure the discussion was about anything else other than a direct condemnation of gay people.

A more accurate understanding of no voters would acknowledge that some of those voters were simply cautious, inclined to vote  no for any change. Such voters are why it is always difficult to pass any referendum in this country regardless of the opinion polls. The presence of such voters was supposed to be a real asset to the no campaign and was why people like Abbott pushed for a plebiscite. The more like a referendum the vote seemed, the more momentous the change appeared, and the more cautious voters who would vote no regardless of the issue. These are the voters who are swayed by the non-argument that we can’t know what will happen. The no campaign reminded these voters that heterosexual marriage has been around for eons, that it is a fundamental element of society and changing it… well…. I’ll leave that to your imagination. You can think of these voters as voters with generally pessimistic imaginations. I don’t share that pessimism in this regard but I do understand it. I myself like to be a second generation adopter of technology – to let the guinea pigs go first . I feel vindicated by every health and environmental scare caused by a product like Teflon or  Polar fleece. Now that change has happened these cautious voters are increasingly going to exhale and accept the sky has not fallen. Most will wait and see but few will push for a reversal of marriage equality. Some will already be supporting it as the new status quo. Who can say what will happen if we change things back?

An even stronger support for marriage equality would be found, now, amongst the no voters who were only against change to the marriage act because it was a bother. These are the people who have zero interest in gay rights either to oppose them or support them. Although we can suspect that Bob Katter harbours some homophobia, by his own words he is happy for gay love to bloom but has bigger fish, or crocodiles to be precise, to fry. Some people sharing this sentiment would have voted yes in the postal survey, just to get the bloody thing over with, but some would have voted no as a punishment for the time they feel has been wasted on the matter of same sex marriage already. We can expect that now the issue has been voted on publicly and in parliament such no voters would have no interest at all in revisiting it. They would punish any politician who re-opens the issue whether conservative or not. They are not a base a conservative movement can build on.

A third group of no voters are those I call the “Because you asked” no voter. Many of these no voters wouldn’t normally make a big deal over homosexuality, in fact some might prefer never to mention it. Some would be happy to be friends with gay people, work for or with them and could support the claim that they “don’t have a problem with it” with multiple examples of not running around screaming “this one’s gay.” This group doesn’t think gay relationships are exactly equal to heterosexual ones. Some of them might think gay couples shouldn’t be raising kids but are otherwise equal. Some might have a lingering doubt that gayness is healthy and maybe they hope none of their kids turn out to be gay. Some might even have the view that homosexuality is like a mild mental illness, generally harmless but not to be encouraged, akin to a philia for vinyl records. I’m not trying to sugarcoat these views as decent ones. They are patronizing and ignorant and make life more of a drudge for all involved, especially queer kids. They warrant being labeled homophobic. But they don’t constitute the mentality of an army prepared to undo marriage equality or a group of people you could say “hate” gay people. Yes, if another public vote occurred they would probably vote no again but it would be “because you asked” and until such time the matter won’t be raised by them.

If you are dismayed that a portion of people have this sort of soft distrust of gayness then I have to wonder what kind of a charmed life you have lived. Thirty years ago this attitude was the most many gay people felt they could hope for from their friends and families, let alone their churches. This was the world in which in 1984 Elton John got married to Renate Blauel. Remember that when Ellen Page, an actress whose fans are predominantly young and hip, came out as lesbian in 2014 there was still the fear she was trashing her career. The mood had changed though. The cognitive distance between the don’t ask, don’t tell philosophy of the 80’s and marriage equality is huge. What’s remarkable to me is how many people have crossed this distance over three decades. This group was never a bedrock of support for the no camp and I believe the no campaigns’ loss in the postal survey was largely due to crumbling historical support from this group. You could call that the Magda effect.

Then there are the hard no’s. These people may punish their representative at the next election for voting for marriage equality. These voters are going to push for ways to constrain and contain this social change. As private citizens, they don’t recognize same-sex marriages, and many want to ensure as much as possible that they don’t have to when acting professionally either. Even this group can’t be considered to be an homogeneous group. Some of this group would be adamant that protections for gay people in employment or in receipt of services should be maintained – outside of wedding services. Some would be those who advocated for civil unions instead of marriage equality. They would include those who wanted to find any solution to the difficulties gay people face in being treated equally short of permitting them to marry. Under scrutiny almost all of this group are not inclined to see same sex attraction as healthy or “of god” in the same way as heterosexual relationships, but not all of this group should be tarred with the same brush as the next and final category of no voter.

Lastly we come to the true haters. These include the ones whose self-hate has been cultivated in the dark of their own closet. They want others to know how disgusting they find gay sex is by describing all their extensive research into it, especially the bottoms. They think gay people are an invention of Communism through Hollywood and that you are the idiot for not seeing it. With a cavalier attitude to mixing historical analogies these people also refer to the Gay Gestapo and Rainbow Nazis as the vanguard of Cultural Marxism. Such people exist. They are real. They vote. They will be the continued core of an extreme-right conservative movement. But they are not 40% of the Australian population. I suspect they are less than 10%. Maybe less than 5%

5% is still enough to win Senate seats after preferences. 5% hatred in a population is hardly something to stick on a tourism brochure. It’s just not a group the major parties can court openly. When we imagine that all the 38.4% who voted no belong to this group of haters we massively inflate the power of this group. We support the narrative that Cory Bernardi wants to sell – that there are a large number of disaffected conservatives who will rally to him to create a viable third force in Australian politics. We create for ourselves, as activists wanting to support a post-heteronormative world, an overwhelming enemy. We depress our confidence in our communities and for no good reason.

The flip side of imagining all no voters as part of this hater group is that yes voters can see themselves as an equally homogenous but holy group. Yes voters can be broken up into as many categories as no voters. Some of them will be people who have worked for a long time to break down prejudice against same sex relationships. Some will have ticked this box as a continuation of standing up for their own relationships or the relationships of others close to them. But some yes voters will have barely thought about heterosexual privilege and their yes vote will be the first and last act they expect to make to dismantle it. Some yes voters will have voted so that they can stop hearing about homosexuality. For people confronting  the condemnation of same sex attraction and those who experience it, it is a nice fantasy to imagine that 61.6% of Australian voters have our back. It’s not necessarily true. Reality is a lot more complex. In two years time people who voted either yes or no may even have changed their minds.

Recognising this changeable and complex reality is especially important when understanding the way in which country of origin impacted on people’s votes in the postal survey. Individuals who having voted yes feel entitled to make sweeping generalizations about areas with high no votes are indulging a fantasy in which they get to be white knights rescuing queer people from their oppressors. Yet the only rescuing act that was made was a tick in a box and a walk to the post office. The thin veil of righteousness over racist and classist remarks is undeserved self-congratulation. Magda Szubanski by contrast has already indicated that after a long justified rest she wants to take the time to listen and build relationships with people in the communities which overwhelmingly voted no. Those who want to create change with her will likewise need to embrace a layered understanding of who voted no and yes for marriage equality.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Is it hateful to believe that having sex with someone of the same sex is always wrong?

Consider the belief that people should only have sex if they are wearing a hat. This belief holds that sex where any member is not wearing a hat is always morally wrong. Sex with a hat might be morally wrong in some other way but a hat on the head of all participants is an essential requirement of a sex act being morally ok.

Now you might consider this belief silly. You might reject it out of hand as absurd. I contend that you cannot find this belief to be hateful. There isn’t any hate for any one behind it.

You could claim that the application of this belief is likely to be unfair and even cruel. Poor people who are less likely to own hats are going to be more heavily restricted by this belief than rich people with a hat for every boudoir. People with some physical disabilities might curse this belief every time they struggle to put a hat on, if they even can. Other people will find following this rule a breeze. But this unfairness in application does not necessarily make the belief hateful. At most we could say this belief is not very “woke” to its justice implications but I would still argue it is not a hateful belief in itself.

If this belief was widespread we would expect to see something; People with hate for others seizing on this belief to amplify and justify their hate. The desire to have sex regardless of a hat would be patholigised so that people with that desire could be seen as sick people, not to be trusted in many ways. People who have sex without hats ( a category that would earn both a medical name and a few derogatory slurs to call its own) would be denied jobs or the opportunity to formalize their relationships with the result that hatlessness in bed would be connected to criminality and promiscuity, justifying the discrimination. At the peak of this belief there would be a legal defence for murdering someone who wants to have sex without a hat and the police would barely bother to investigate the deaths of such people. Such people would be the butt of numerous jokes and stereotypical depictions. And far from the corridors of institutional power “Your mother doesn’t own a hat” would be a schoolyard taunt that always led to blows.

The institutionalized hate around this belief would make it difficult to separate the belief itself from all the prejudices and priveleges of its proponents. Indeed there would be no easy agreement on what was the hate and what was just the belief. Is a program to remind people to wear hats in bed using shock treatment and prayer born of hateful discrimination or misguided love? Arguments would go on about how to understand these programs. Such confusion, however, does not mean the original belief itself is hateful. There are people full of hate who have found this belief useful to them (and we can reflect on whether that utility is in the nature of any legalistic moral claim) but there could be people who hold none of the hate who still hold the belief in its entirety. It is simply incorrect to call them hateful too.

You’ve probably realized the metaphor I’m making by now. We live in a world in which some people believe that sex that isn’t between a man and a woman is always morally wrong. They believe there are many ways that sex between a man and a woman can also be morally wrong but the presence of the two genders is a necessary requirement for the sex act to ever be morally ok. This belief can be cruel in its application – people who don’t feel any homosexual desire follow it with ease unlike others who only feel homosexual desire. The belief certainly has been used by hateful people to justify their hate in all the ways I mentioned such views can. But I would still argue that the belief itself is not necessarily hateful.

This is important to realize. We are in the middle of a national debate on the merits of opening our civil rite of marriage up to same sex couples. At the moment civil marriage in Australia requires the participants to be male and female. For some people to remove this requirement would be to “endorse sin” at a national level and this forms the motivation of many no voters in the postal survey we may be having (the High Court challenge is yet to decide if it will proceed). I disagree with this view of sin. Its just silly to me to make heterosexuality a moral requirement of sex and a distraction from the real issues around love, mutual flourishing and consent. Still, I don’t think their idea that sex must be between a man and a woman is necessarily hateful and I wont join in labeling them as such.

There’s more I could say on this but I need to finish up. I think we need to be able to hear other people say “homosexuality is always wrong” in the same way we might hear them say “masturbation is always wrong” or “sex before marriage is always wrong.” That is, to disagree but not necessarily be offended. There will be some who are aiming to be hurtful and spread hate. Most wont be aware of how unfair they are being although some may well be. But the ideas themselves can be held by people who are loving, as hard as that may be to understand.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Wonder Woman: A political, philosophical and theological review part 2

In Patty Jenkins’ 2017 blockbuster film, Wonder Woman is born with a specific holy purpose; she opposes the evil of Aries and restores humanity to their created nature. Throughout her story she brushes aside the suggestion that removing Aries won’t end all war, let alone the war around her.  She is certain his destruction will instantaneously cause soldiers to drop their weapons as if stepping out of an enchantment. While there is an element of comedy to such an unsophisticated world view, Wonder Women’s is a naivety we can’t fully scoff at. After all, the truth she needs to learn instead, is deeply collectively embarrassing for us, as well as a truth that endangers hope. Her belief that Aries alone is why humans act with depravity towards each other not only lets us off the hook, it offers a simple path to victory. It is not too different to the naiveties we often embrace ourselves.

The most obvious real world parallel to Wonder Woman’s perspective is a childlike view of the devil. According to some biblical interpretations the world is in the devil’s thrall, handed over by God to be their hunting ground as they “roam about like a hungry lion” (1 Peter 5:8). Only those who are strong in their Lord Jesus, who trumps the devil, can protect themselves from the devil’s possession. This is a fantasy that all the world faces one opponent in disguise. Worse still, this can be read in reverse to declare any opposition to either faith or just familial authority, as coming from this evil one. This simplistic idea of human evil is what we read about it in some terrible tale of a family exorcism that kills a child or in the experienced of other victims of religious abuse declared by their families as taken in by the devil. Sophisticated clever people, religious as well, scoff at the ignorance of such a totalising world view in a way that the Wonder Woman movie could be seen as encouraging.

But politics, secular politics too, is full of equally simple naiveties. The lure of simple singular enemies is strong. One such foe, patriarchy, is touched upon in the Wonder Woman narrative. If only women ran the world, maybe life could be as idyllic as a Mediterranean paradise. For some feminists of the time and setting of the film, the hoped for effect of women voting was an end to war. For some later feminists the Age of Aries with its male symbolism is supposed to be replaced by the Age of Aquarius and an ascendancy of “feminine values”. Demonstrably the inclusion of women in politics can and does improve the world, increasing the political viability of peace, the valuing of the environment and the funding of education especially for girls. Society after society has shown this. Defenders of patriarchy are peddling a disproven medicine. But there is also a naïve overreach in the hope that only patriarchy needs to be overcome for utopia to emerge.

The optimism that an all-women’s collective will have no toxic politics, or that lesbian relationships will be free of domestic violence, or that a female politician will be incorrigible, is an attractive fantasy. It gives us a simple path forward to a peaceful and just world. I remember hearing when young the speculation that generations from now we could become a humanity of one sex, reproducing asexually through technology and subsequently no longer containing our ancient code for violence in male DNA. But such utopian speculation sets us up for disappointment similar to the disappointment felt by Wonder Woman when human peace was unlinked to Aries’ death. Women betray women, just as men betray men. Gender, with respect to Monique Wittig, is primarily a set of relations between two classes and in the absence of sex to mark gender lines, new lines are created to create new classes. The partial truth at least of this can be confirmed by anyone who attended a single sex school. Biological sex is not necessary to divide the school into valued/unvalued, privileged/oppressed, key/peripheral, “male”/”female”. A single sex world is likely to simply gender itself anyway.

For my part I like to blame capitalism. I want to locate all our horrible dealings with each other as outworking of this system that commodifies everything from knowledge to fun and ultimately turns people themselves into mere capital. Racism, sexism, the destruction of the environment can all be seen as bolstered by capitalism. But just like patriarchy, capitalism is only a form evil takes. The Jonestown practice of apostolic socialism had terrible problems but none of them can be fairly attributed to capitalism. The mass murder of Jonestown members including many children is often mistakenly referred to as a suicide although it is uncertain how many chose in any way to drink poison. Certainly no infant chose anything and we know others felt they had no choice. Multiple other disappointments with the utopia of post-capitalism exist as well. Certainly figures like Stalin and institutions like the KGB show us that great cruelty can thrive in societies that reject capitalism.

Whenever we move beyond our initial naivety we are left with two choices. We are right to feel a sense of betrayal and even heartbreak. A promise of an easy victory has been broken. The Catholic Church represents such a broken promise for many who grew up there and were told that the faith was a refuge for children. So too does the Queer community for anyone who has been screwed over there despite the profession of family, while left wing activism has its own internal conflicts despite the songs of solidarity. Religions and political affiliations which cast our problems as having a singular identity inevitably come to wear the villain’s hat as well. Why not condemn everything as pointless and equally bad?

This option is put to Wonder Woman in the film. After moving beyond the first naivety that human society would become perfect without Aries, a second naivety is proposed by Aries - that all humanity is to be condemned and the best we can hope for is its destruction. The first movement is a movement beyond simple faith but a second movement has to be made to go beyond disillusionment with everything. It can be a return to a different simplicity. We can lurch from one solution to another as if now we know what fixes humanity but I consider this a disgenuine denial of reality. I don’t think Wonder Woman ends up in that place.

Wonder Woman knows that any blow she strikes will never be decisive. We who have made a similar journey out of simple faith know that any change we make to society will never be entirely enough. We know there isn’t any absolute refuge from evil. Church communities, activist communities, alternative economic systems, retreats to family or tradition, will never be perfect and will always have the potential to be abused and to let us down. If faith is faith in something as a perfect solution, then we have entered an acceptance of no-faith and yet we do not give up on humanity.

Society is not utterly depraved and in the struggle to do the right thing improvements are made. Even if no improvements occur this is not necessarily what engages us. Humanity, with its moments of kindness and passion, its concern and its actions of self-sacrifice, captures Diana’s imagination as it should capture our own. If those moments are fleeting and constantly swallowed up by greater evil it simply becomes even more necessary that we become involved in order to sustain them that bit longer. This is the sort of faith that embraces its own folly, which acknowledges it can’t win in any final way. Diana, as Wonder Woman, ends the film still a hero in our own time, 100 years later, presumably having seen both World War Two and the Cold War follow Aries’ demise.

I want to particularly mention the scene where Wonder woman forgives the poisoner, Dr. Maru, rather than destroy her. This could be construed as Wonder Woman putting her faith in love or forgiveness in a way that was completely in-congruent with all the killing she did to get to that point. I agree this would be in-congruent but I don’t think Wonder Woman does make this act of faith, at least not in the sense that a pacifist does. This is one moment where the idea of no-faith or faith that acknowledges its folly is necessary to understand her actions. Wonder Woman, post her movement beyond naivety, engages in violence with no faith that this violence will be conclusive and in mercy also with no faith that this act concludes anything. In this sense she has moved beyond her destiny as god-killer, or the identity Aries offers her as God, and stands alongside the rest of humanity.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Wonder Woman: A political, philosophical and theological review Part 1.

This post contains spoilers for the 2017 Wonder Woman movie. Loving the craft of movies as I do, I don’t want to spoil a good one and Wonder Woman, without needing to call it a classic of cinema, is a good one. Come back after you’ve watched the movie. Even if you have to wait for the DVD this will still be here.

This isn’t intended to be a general review of Wonder Woman. I’m only going to focus on what I see as the substantial political, philosophical and theological content of the film. In one quick aside though, Wonder Woman deserves to be complimented on the contrasting use of colour between Diana’s bright birthplace and “the world of Men”.  I wish we’d lingered in the sunlight for longer – the tendency of modern films to shoot so much in shadow annoys me – but I get the point they were trying to make. The world of WW1, and Industrialisation as grey, muddy and smogfilled makes sense. That was just one of many clever film making choices of this movie.

The gender politics deserve special mention. Even if this wasn’t the first blockbuster superhero film directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, and the first mainstream success of the sub-genre with a female lead (The 1984 Supergirl movie by comparison returned less than half its production budget in ticket sales), the setting of the film with its Amazonian idyllism in contrast with WW1 before women got the vote in England, put gender front and centre in the film. For me two points stood out. The male allies of Wonder Woman stand as testaments to the brokenness of the world  she has entered. Their depictions are sympathetic and complex. Many male lead action movies have treated their female side characters as having far less depth. As a male I particularly liked viewing men in a softening role, helping the action hero to not lose themselves in god-like power by reminding them of their humanity, ironically in Wonder Woman’s case. I might grow tired of seeing my gender cast that way a hundred times over in some alternative reality but as a change it was more than refreshing. In fact, it felt healing. There has been a lot of ink over how empowering it is to see a strong female on screen but seeing softness in male characters, in the action genre, was an equally rare delight.

Secondly I do not think it is too great a stretch to suggest that the films treatment of sex and sexuality owes a lot to the considered gender politics of the film. Wonder Woman was originally written by a man with a penchant for female sexual dominance. Her original character was strong and fierce but also for her time very sexual, often either tying others up or being tied up herself while, again for her time, scantily clad. Much has also been said about the inadequacies of women’s attire in both superhero and fantasy genres and Wonder Woman’s corsetry and hot pants never bucked that trend. With this back story and context and in today’s time when sexualized violence against women in shows like Game of Thrones is a proven seller Patty Jenkins could have chosen to have capitulated to such trends. Catwoman with Halle Berry did just this by practically reducing that character to a walking butt shot and it was punished commercially for its lack of depth. Alternatively Wonder Woman could have skirted any controversy by avoiding all hint of sexuality  in the film, and making no overt reference to either the politics of modesty or overt sexuality, as the Wonder Woman tv show and orginal comics did.  Patty Jenkins chose neither.

By The collection assembled by H. J. Vinkhuijzen (1843-1910). See: [2] - New York Public Library (NYPL) digital gallery: [1], Public Domain, films cleverness lies in tackling the issue of sexualized female heroines head on. The immodesty by early 20th century standards of her costume is treated as a comment on the prudishness of such a society and its effect on woman’s capacity to move is exposed. When Wonder Woman attempts to kick while wearing one dress there are unhelpful gasps at the revelation of her bloomers and the womanly attire she is given to wear is ultimately deemed inadequate for fighting. Mary Wollstonecraft in her vindication of the Rights of Woman would agree. This point is aided by the fact that Wonder Woman's armour has a practicality to it.  Crucially her guts are protected, exactly what armour in Ancient Greece was designed for and like Wonder Woman, the Ancient Greeks did not generally use leg or arm protection. The bare midriff that Zena the warrior princess sometimes wore is nowhere, thankfully, to be seen.

Perhaps best of all in terms of gender politics is how clearly the film depicts Diana’s agency regarding sexuality in a way that also includes the audiences relationship with her character. When Diana sleeps with Steve Trevor the initiative is hers and Steve is clearly shown to consent but then that is the extent to which our voyeurism is permitted. This is not sex for us the audience in the way that HBO practically guarantees a woman will be stripped to the waist in every episode but sex as part of Wonder Womans control over herself. I’m not saying that nudity is in any way always negative in story telling. Nudity can be funny. Nudity can be powerful. Nudity can be incidental or tragic. Nudity however can also titillate. Titilation, also not necessarily a bad thing, shapes audience relationships with characters so that they are there for us, not merely in the context of the story, but in a seperate context of our own sexuality. I was thrilled with a directorial decision that meant Wonder Woman was a sexual being without our relationship to her as viewers being sexualized in any way. Thankfully the particular combination of titilation along with violence against women was a mistake the film never came close to. Too often directors emphasis the vileness of a villain by showing them molesting a women, especially a heroine, in a way that is not accidentally erotic for audiences and which affects our relationship as fans to that character.

In a few brush strokes the film even holds up to the viewer the divisions of race and class between the gender of men. The deep respect of the Native American character in the film, nicknamed Chief, played by the actor Eugene Brave Rock, when Wonder Woman speaks to him in his native Blackfoot language is palpable. The poignancy when Chief points out that his land was taken by the people of Steve Trevor is real. This character and this interplay could have been dropped from the film without changing the story much. I am so glad it wasn’t however. Besides being a rare respectful portrayal of first nations people in US cinema, it adds a richness to the location of the story in time and an understanding of feminist and patriarchal history that goes beyond the cartoon idea of bad men. Race and class in contemporary politics confound simple caricatures  of women=victims/saviours, men = powerful/oppressors. This film, with its basis in comics, could have stayed with such a cartoon analysis, for cheap effect, but didn’t. By going beyond, it gave Wonder Woman that feminism that goes hand in hand with tackling all injustices, in which women’s equality is a necessary part but not the end of making the world a better place.

My comments so far were originally only intended to be introductory for another discussion. The way this film deals with human evil and with the concept of judgment has a lot to teach us. Instead I found I had more than just a few things I wanted to say about Wonder Woman’s treatment of gender. Consequently I’m going to leave those thoughts about evil for a second post. As always I would love to hear your comments on what I’ve said so far. Do you disagree? Were there other elements of the films gender politics you consider worth mentioning? Would you rate the film less favourably? Feel free to comment below.

Monday, May 8, 2017

We need fair micro-credit solutions.

I have friends who, when bad luck strikes, have been forced to take out credit card loans. Every single article I have read or consumer advice show I have watched has warned me this is a terrible idea. Those friends however are disinclined to accept any direct financial assistance from my partner and I instead. I get that there are solid cultural reasons for this. I believe we can overcome, or maybe circumvent such reasons, with positive micro-credit systems.

We view direct transfers of money between friends as problematic. If your mate helps you out with a lift you might give them money “for petrol” as a way of diminishing the act of payment. If they help you fix your door (which friends have done for us) then you’ll often have a better chance of paying them with food or alcohol than you will putting money in their hand. The exchange of money can transform a relationship into employer/employee or service provider to customer. Those relationships can overlap with friendships but they also come with their own kinds of expectations. We are friends with our mechanic. But when he operates as our mechanic we expect a certain standard of service and he expects prompt payment.

The problem is sometimes we need money. In such situations we are culturally predisposed not to solve our problems in our communities with our closest allies. Instead we go to banks and when we lack the collateral to secure a bank loan we take out credit card loans, hoping we can pay them back before the above 20% interest rate kicks in. And we pay high fees for the privilege. When for some people repayments become difficult the crippling debt and fees serve to dig an impossibly deep hole, for others credit cards just add to the cost of living – not killing them but making life significantly harder.

The alternatives to credit card companies are worse. So called payday loans which provide instant short term loans of amounts like $6000 without credit checks, are loan sharks with fancy marketing. People end up with real interest rates as high as 68%, face late fees for not meeting repayments and end up facing constant harassment from debt collectors. Here are some resources that make for harrowing reading:

The ultimate lender of last resort is the pawn shop. Cash converters is the most famous. They are an unwitting but not unwilling fence of stolen goods half the time. Even when they pawn legitimately owned property that business model is based on undervaluing goods to those who bring them in. I remember seeing an elderly man being told how worthless his wedding ring was by some young punk in a Cash Converters Polo-shirt while I waited to check if they had any of my stolen property. That’s the ugly face of capitalism they keep out of the brochure. In addition Cash converters joins in the payday business with a lack of scruples that makes the other players in that industry look good. In  2015 they were reached a settlement to refund about 37.500 customers after charging them real interest rates as high as 633%!

If you are wondering if there is a solution you’ll be pleased to know that there sort of is. All the small dodgy lenders we’ve mentioned (like Nimble and the rest) can be considered micro-credit or micro-finance agencies. They are ways to provide small amounts of credit – anywhere between less than a 100 dollars to a few thousand. NILS, the No Interest Loan Scheme, administered by Good shepherd, is showing how micro-financing doesn’t have to be exploitative and can serve as a crucial step in staving off deeper poverty. For want of a grand for example a person may not be able to repair their car and thus can’t make it to work.

The NILS program is restrictive. The loans can’t be used for ongoing costs like rent or bills. This is so as not to put a loan in the hand of someone who might be able to obtain emergency rental assistance or defer their bill payment – better options really than a loan. It also ensures the loans aren’t simply bandaiding a problem that will re-present in a month. The size of the loans are also very small between $300 and $1200. That no doubt ensures the program helps the most people but there would be many people who need more than that. For example, purchasing a roadworthy car for less than $4000 is nigh impossible.

Participants also need to be on low incomes and healthcare cards. This ensures the program meets the deepest need however even people off health care cards can face the need for credit with a real uncertainty about when or if those circumstances will turn around. The Health care card cut off is reached with an income of about $500 per week with an allowance of $34 dollars per dependant child. Two bedroom dwellings in Bendigo ( a regional Victorian town) are at their cheapest at $220 per week, while in Fawkner (a once outer suburb of Melbourne and traditionally very working class) they sit above $300 (which is still more than $100 cheaper than a basic single person apartment in Carlton). ( It is easy to see how a family might be on an income above the Health care card cut off and still be in financial stress after rent.

We should also consider that it doesn’t make economic sense for people to focus on mere survival. Living beyond our immediate means can be good economics. A person might reasonably build or purchase their own home, or undertake study or obtain a bee hive and a couple of chooks, or get that sore back properly looked at or buy a push bike. These are all investments in a more sustainable personal economic future which lines of no interest credit would make a lot easier. The NILS program of the Good Shepherd might service only some of these occasions. Its not meant to replace exploitative micro-credit agencies all together. For that we may need to consider other options.

Crowdfunding can be a way forward. Peer to peer lending is specifically a type of crowd funding which aims to emulate the banking system with lower overheads. The outcome is both lower interest rates for lenders and higher returns for investors. In addition peer to peer lending can give investors more control over how their money is loaned out. One positive aspects of peer to peer lending is how it draws loans from a very broad range of investors thus reducing the impact of a single loan default on any one person. The platforms also provide anonymity to lenders and borrowers overcoming our cultural problem with money and friends. Peer to peer lending however is profit driven perhaps precisely because of that anonymity enabling us to make a profit off simply loaning money to someone. I hope peer to peer lending does bite into the major banks business but I also don’t expect it to fundamentally challenge the banking business model so much as run it more efficiently.

The other extreme are crowdfunding sites through which people give money away like  GoFundme and to a lesser extent Pozible (which has some rewards for givers). Theses sites don’t fully escape our cultural taboos about asking friends for money. There are people who, in financial stress, still wouldn’t use such a means of asking. On the flipside because the money isn’t officially loaned people may put a higher standard on why they would give it. Perhaps a car that needs repairing wont be enough to garner support.

I did say Pozible and GoFundme don’t officially loan money but they can still be understood as forms of credit. If I fund you when you need money and when your situation recovers you fund someone else and so on, including the possibility that I will one day be funded myself, then the gifted money acts just like a no-interest micro- credit scenario would. Money moves around to meet need and keep people away from loansharks.

There are other ways donations can form a kind of bank. Free Wheeling Fun in Bendigo takes in old bikes, fixes them up and then provides them for a donation to anyone who needs a bike, This concept of free-cycling minimizes expenses and waste at the same time. Baby gear; prams, cots, high chairs, clothes and toys , even non-disposable nappies; all are perfect for free cycling. They just take up space  once outgrown but they will be a real boon to someone else. What makes this sort of giving away into a form of micro-credit is the reciprocation. Upon giving away a cot, get a kids bike for a donation, then give that back because your kid is grown and ask a stuff-sharing community for a cot because its second child time. Or something like that. What doesn’t make this like a bank is that giving or taking is not tracked. While this means people may exploit the situation I suspect that doesn’t happen as often as feared. Rather I worry that people would be concerned about looking like they were exploiting the system and despite the opportunities in free-cycling will only turn to it after exhausting less savory options.

The enemy of positive, generous and non-restrictive micro-credit alternatives is a cultural view that we all must stand on our own. Nobody does stand on their own of course. We are supported by family and friends if we are fortunate. Less positively we are a part of histories of oppression and theft in Australia. For good or ill, any employment we have is embedded in a whole society that makes that employment possible. In so many ways the cliché call to stand on our own (in addition to conjuring an image unfair to people without use of their legs) is never accurate. If we can accept that, we can instead invest in fairer ways to help each other. Anything has to be better than interest rates that contribute to our growing income inequality.