Friday 27 June 2008

Other people's children

Like all Australians I was shocked and saddened by the news that 18-month-old twins were found dead last week, weighing less than 4 kilograms. It appears they had probably been dead for over a week when found by an 11 year old sibling. The mother commented to police "I don't think I fed them enough". The likely cause of the twins' death was malnutrition. However, both parents have been charged with murder. Neighbours have been stunned. Their comments have included "We're shocked", “the kids were neglected”, “I wish I’d said more” etc.

A second case of alleged child neglect emerged this week with children as young as five found living in "unhygienic" conditions in the heart of Canberra. Three boys and a girl were taken away after being found home alone at a house littered with rubbish, dog bones and discarded toys, just a few kilometres from Australia’s Parliament. Their 35-year-old mother remains in police custody after yesterday being charged with four counts of neglecting a child and a charge of threatening to kill a person.

I could go on citing more examples, but it’s too depressing. As usual, we’ve had the same responses from the popular media blaming the Department of Community services for not acting sooner, asking when the government was going to do more, and interviewing family members and neighbours. Once again, some had little to say, some blamed others, a few expressed regret for not doing more when they noticed the obvious neglect.

It seems to me that we need to stop blaming everyone else for these terrible cases and begin to question how each of us look out for others in our communities. Yes, we also should rightly question the role that extended families play in supporting family members, but what do WE do? Do we accept some responsibility for other people’s children? Do we even know our neighbours? Could we recognise a case of neglect? Would we do anything if we did?

One of my colleagues from the United States, Professor of Early Childhood Education Lilian Katz, offered this comment some years ago on the community’s responsibility towards other people’s children:

"Each of us must come to care about everyone else's children. We must recognize that the welfare of our children is intimately linked to the welfare of all other people's children. After all, when one of our children needs life-saving surgery, someone else's child will perform it. If one of our children is harmed by violence, someone else's child will be responsible for the violent act. The good life for our own children can be secured only if a good life is also secured for all other people's children."

The Greek philosopher Socrates some 400 years before Christ was born also saw the need to value children:

Could I climb to the highest place in Athens, I would lift my voice and proclaim, "Fellow citizens, why do you turn and scrape every stone to gather wealth and take so little care of your children to whom one day you must relinquish it all."

Parents have special responsibility for their own children, as do other family members, and there is a place for government and charitable agencies to support families at risk. But we all collectively share some responsibility in any community for the children of others, including strangers. While I’m not sure what Lilian Katz meant by the ‘good life’, the Bible points us ultimately to our relationship with God through Christ as the ultimate good. The good news of Christ leads to the ultimate good, being part of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 9:35). We should want this for our children and for other people’s children. As Katz points out, ultimately, the lives of our children and other people’s children in any community are interwined.

Jesus showed how precious children are and how important their future should be to us. He rebuked the disciples when they complained about parents who were bringing their children to him:

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (Matthew 19:14)

Christ raised the status of children by this statement; revealing their worthiness. They are not mere ‘objects’ of pride for the parent, nor simply a resource to be utilized by the family; they are potential heirs of the kingdom of heaven!

How do we show that we value children?

We start by showing that we love our own children, by caring for them and nurturing them physically, emotionally and spiritually. Our families should demonstrate to others biblical patterns for family life. Our priority should be to see our children come to faith in Christ and to grow in their understanding of God and their desire to serve him all the days of their lives.

We will demonstrate it within the church in the way that we treat other people’s children; by caring for them and supporting parents to raise them to come to faith in Christ. We will treat children as potential heirs of the Kingdom of God and demonstrate this in the way that the church teaches, supports and loves them.

We will show it in the way we show concern for our neighbours children. We will hopefully notice cases of neglect and abuse and do something about it. Perhaps this will involve offering support of some type to the children themselves, particularly those who go to school with your own children, or who simply live in your street. It might involve reaching out to parents who need help. And in extreme cases, it might require you to speak to a government agency to suggest they intervene.

Saturday 21 June 2008

The wonders of space: Seeing the creator in images of the universe

Praise the Name of the LORD
Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!

Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the LORD!
For he commanded and they were created.
And he established them forever and ever;
he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
(Psalm 148:1-6)

I grew up as a child during the great US and Russian space race of the 1950s and 1960s. Like most young boys I was fascinated by it. I collected cards, cut out every clipping I could find in the papers, read everything I could find on space. There was no TV at first but by the early 1960s black and white TV brought space travel even more to life. Like almost everyone who had a TV I watched the first moon landing live on July 20th 1969. I was not a Christian but I still marvelled at the vastness and mystery of space and the human achievement.

For a young boy this was the age of cracker nights, home made cracker guns, serious skyrockets, and the challenge of contests to see who could blast a tin the highest using a tuppenny bunger. My fascination with space exploration had two dimensions. The technology achievement of blasting men into space in tiny capsules atop giant rockets seemed unbelievable. And the images of earth viewed from space for the first time and those of the relatively inconsequential moon that were viewed on cinema screens and black and white televisions sets were amazing.

In the intervening years since the US Apollo program ended, space exploration and travel has seemed much more boring (notwithstanding the great work of astronomers and the achievements of the Hubble Telescope etc). But the Mars probe has rekindled my interest and the images have inspired me in new ways.

Image above: Mars North Polar Cap in summer [Image courtesy of Malin Space Science] Systems)

Residents at the university college I lead (New College, UNSW) were fortunate to have Dr Fred Watson as our guest at our end of session dinner recently. Dr Watson is Astronomer in Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran, where his main scientific interest is gathering information on very large numbers of stars and galaxies. He is the author of "Stargazer - the life and times of the telescope", and is a regular broadcaster on ABC radio. His new book "Why is Uranus upside down?" is based on listener questions, and was published in October 2007.

His address included a fascinating visual presentation of images primarily from Mars (it has obvious currency). His focus was the significance of the most recent Mars landing by NASA. The images he shared and thousands of others are available on the NASA website.

The landing on Mars by the NASA probe is another significant human achievement. The Mars Phoenix lander touched down in the far north of the Red Planet, after a 680 million-km (423 million-mile) journey from Earth. The probe is equipped with a robotic arm to dig for water-ice thought to be buried beneath the surface. It has already begun examining the site for evidence of the building blocks of life. There have been many attempts to explore Mars dating back to the 1970s, but the greatest successes have come in recent years. We now have three functioning pieces of equipment on the surface of Mars beaming signals back to Earth: the Spirit rover, the Opportunity rover, and the most recent is the Phoenix lander.

Dr Watson painted a vivid picture of the universe in all its majesty and wonder. He spoke of stars being formed and time spans of billions of years. The little boy in me was again captivated by the technology that sent the little landing vehicle to this distant planet and the wonder and enormity of space. The images of the Red planet captured my imagination. But while Dr Watson kept talking of the vastness of the Universe, the billions of years he believed that it had taken for the planet as we view it to be formed, I kept thinking of the creator who was responsible for all that we were viewing and the vastness that was still hidden from even the most powerful of telescopes. As amazing as the Mars landing is, in cosmic terms, it is barely a trip to the other side if the street, and the best of our images of the universe, collected by our most powerful telescopes, are little more than a view of the next set of hills.

As a Christian I believe that God has revealed himself through his word, that his plan for humanity is described in detail in the Bible and that this is revealed perfectly in the sending of his son Jesus Christ to die for us. But I also believe, as most of the great scientists did in the 17th Century, that God's creation also points to him and that science and religion don't have to be seen as in conflict. I'm grateful to astronomers who help me to understand the complexities of a universe that I believe God created. Their discoveries lead me to marvel at God and his work, not to doubt his existence. The latest edition of Case (a quarterly magazine that I Edit for CASE) has an interesting piece by Larissa Johnson titled "Redeeming Natural Theology" that argues that science and religion can co-exist and that science can be a useful apologetic.

As Dr Watson spoke, I kept wanting to shout Praise God! It is little wonder that astronomers marvel at the stars in the heavens and spend their lives seeking the secrets of the universe. I too marvel at it, for it declares the Glory of God.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hand

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard
(Psalm 19:1-3)

Above Image: The cliff in this image from Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam) is informally named Cape St Vincent. Scientists suggest that the rocks at Victoria Crater once represented a large dune field, not unlike the Sahara desert on Earth, and that this dune field migrated with an ancient wind flowing from the north to the south across the region.

Image above: Image of Victoria Crater showing Rover Opportunity's tracks as viewed from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft (26.6.07).

Sunday 15 June 2008

Bill Henson - Part 2

When I wrote a post about Bill Henson's controversial photographic work and the action by Australian police in closing down his most recent exhibition, it wasn't clear where this would end. In the past week we have seen the police drop all charges and Henson's supporters quietly celebrating the defeat of the "the philistines" who questioned his work. End of story? Well no.

As Miranda Devine writes in her opinion piece "Picture this: society draws the line" in the Sydney Morning Herald (14.6.08), the art community cannot simply conclude that art is beyond question from other interpretive communities, even if they choose to show it to an exclusive and 'safe' group of supporters. Devine notes that the art of Henson is not just being questioned by the police and government censors; nor just blogs like mine that have raised concerns in terms of the rights of children as well as moral and ethical concerns. In recent days a large group of psychologists, social workers and child-protection advocates have raised their concerns in a very public way in the form of an open letter. The group believes that the concern about Henson's work has been sidetracked into a pointless discussion about art versus pornography; when as they and others suggest it is about the protection of children and their developmental inability to give informed consent. The spokesman (Chris Goddard) states:

"We are particularly concerned [by the suggestion] Mr Henson's photographs are in some way so special as to be above the question of consent"

As I pointed out in my previous blog post, no interpretive community (even the art community) can hide behind postmodern notions that art appreciation and how any work is 'read' is all relative. The meaning is not just in the knower (rather than the work), all such meanings or interpretations of art are not simply relative. A photograph of a naked 13 year-old girl might be, in the eyes of some simply art, but it is still a photograph of a real naked 13 year-old girl. Like many others (it would seem), I find his use of such images, and the way that he does it, in the name of art to be inappropriate. I'm pleased that I am not alone. As Devine points out, it seems that:

" tolerance for underage exploitation has found its limits

I'm pleased about this and would hope that the community at large might continue to consider where it draws the line on many issues that affect society. I'd also be keen to continue to encourage others to consider on what basis they make such decisions. I know what my yardstick is for informing my worldview and the choices I make about what is just and unjust, appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong. It is the teaching of the Bible and the wisdom and truth of God that it communicates.

Thursday 12 June 2008

Communication, Cyberspace & Community

Case #15 is out and should be in the mailboxes of subscribers this week. The theme of ‘Communication, Cyberspace and Community’ has been chosen in recognition that we live an age of unprecedented development in communication technology that is having an impact on our lives. Whilst technology has led to rapid improvement in communication throughout the last century, the changes in the last 20 years have been staggering. The impact of new media and communication has arguably changed the way people communicate, relate to one another and form communities of interest and support.

Consider the fact that in the 1st Century AD communication at a distance was achieved with letters and written messages of various kinds. This system remained largely unchanged for almost 2,000 years. While the speed with which the written word was sent increased slowly over the centuries due to technology advances in transport, the Roman system of sealed written documents delivered via a network of mail centres and ‘postmen’ has changed little even up till the present day.

The ability to share knowledge in more complex and extended forms was restricted until Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. This eventually permitted the mass production of books and as a result opened up education to the masses. This technology was largely unchanged for over five centuries, but the printing press enabled greater access to information and knowledge.

But the last twenty years have seen changes in communication shaped by technological advances not thought possible in my childhood. The 1970s to 1980s saw the development of the personal computer. The fax machine gained widespread use in the 1980s. The Internet had its genesis in the defence industry in the 1960s and the University of California in the 1970s, but it did not become widely available until the late 1980s. Similarly, the mobile phone did not become available until the late 1980s. Associated with these developments was the growth in the power and reach of the Internet in combination with software developments such as search engines, email programs, and developments in video and audio technology. In the last few years alone we have seen MySpace and Facebook change the way a whole generation communicates, and the electronic book is now a serious competitor for the traditional book that has been largely unchanged for centuries (see a recent post of mine on the Kindle on another blog).

We gave four themed articles:
  1. Mark Hadley and David Horne contribute “The Brave New Online World” and suggest that massive changes in communication technology present us with opportunities to develop new types of Cyber communities to share the gospel.
  2. Kamal Weerakoon contributes “Gospel, Community and the Cyberchurch of God” and explores just one application of new media of the type that Hadley and Horne encourage us to embrace – the Cyber Church.
  3. I contribute “Truth and the Internet” and explore more broadly the impact that the Internet might have on truth, knowledge and learning.
  4. Roberta Kwan contributes “From Privacy to Community” and discusses how our desire to protect our identities is related to a biblical understanding of sin and man’s desire to hide from God as part of our rebellion against him.
Case #15 also contains book reviews, a response to Andrew Bain by Ben Myers ("Which Apologetics") and a piece on Natural Theology by Larissa Johnson. If you're not a subscriber to Case could I encourage you to consider joining. This full colour 32 page magazine comes out quarterly. You can become an Associate of CASE for $55 per year which will entitle you to receive all four issues plus other benefits. There is also a student rate of $35 (great for Bible college or university students) and an online version for overseas associates that avoids postage costs and delays. More information is available here.

Friday 6 June 2008

Do Fair Trade and Foreign Aid work?

Like many people I've always been a strong supporter of foreign aid and argued for an increased commitment by the Federal government in a previous post on the 'Business of World Poverty'. But some question the notion that simply spending more money is necessarily a wise thing. The most vocal critics believe in a free market and want minimal government interference in market forces. Recently, Associate Professor Andrew Leigh from the Australian National University wrote an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review (20th May, 2008) in which he was (constructively) critical of Fair Trade programs and foreign trade in general.

An economist's view

Andrew Leigh has an interesting site aimed at economists, students of economics plus, I guess, policy makers and interested people like me. It is one of a number of secular sites that I read that aren't in any way connected with my Christian networks and communities. While he says plenty of things that I don't agree with, he also applies his econometric skills to many topics that I'm interested in and he challenges some of my views. I see this as good! It helps me to sharpen my own arguments, learn new things and offers opportunities to participate in other virtual communities. There is great benefit in entering and participating in varied communities of interest and debate - that's what apologists should do! It is important to listen to other ideas shaped by different worldviews, to understand them, and to learn from them.

Andrew Leigh quotes the economist Tim Harford who suggests that fair trade coffee in some London stores costs an extra 25 pence per cup, but only about a tenth of the mark-up actually reaches the coffee farmer. Harford suggests that "A fair trade cappuccino might have given the drinker a warm inner glow, but it didn’t do much to reduce world poverty".

Leigh points out that the harshest of critics sometimes say the same about overseas aid.

"They point out that unlike the voters who judge domestic programs, the recipients of foreign aid cannot punish bad policy at the ballot box. Aid’s critics say that with a few exceptions – like disaster assistance – the world would be better off with less aid, not more.
With this year’s budget promising a major increase, Australia’s overseas aid is set to rise from 0.3% to 0.5% of national income by 2015. So the billion-dollar question is: does aid work?"

Leigh's key arguments

Here's a summary of Leigh's response:
  • It is difficult to identify the impact of foreign aid on a country’s level of development.
  • In the 1990s, a series of studies reached ambiguous conclusions about the impact of aid.
  • Burnside & Dollar (2000) found that aid did raise growth as long as the recipient country had good fiscal, monetary and trade policies.
  • Easterly, Levine & Roodman (2003) suggested these results were fragile, and did not hold up when more years of data were added to the analysis.
  • Paul Collier later conceded that even in badly governed Africa, poverty rates would today be much higher had the continent received no aid.
  • Jeffrey Sachs has argued that much foreign aid in the post-war era was directed towards winning the Cold War rather than helping the poor.
  • Sachs accepts though that we shouldn’t discriminate against countries with bad institutions; but instead we should be ruthless about not giving the wrong kind of aid.
Andrew Leigh suggests that ethically, it would be hard to justify withholding charity from some of the world’s neediest people. With this I strongly agree! Yet the research suggests that we need to understand that progress will be slow.

The second challenge Leigh highlights is the need “to distinguish between good and bad aid. This is a particularly thorny question at a time when the program is being expanded. This year, AusAID’s budget will rise from $3.2 to $3.7 billion.

A Christian response

The Bible is clear that we are to be generous, to give to the poor, that the most disadvantaged must be amongst the recipients
(Matt 25:31-46), and that we should give to aliens (Jer 22:2-4) as well as to those in the church. But how do I reconcile the work of economists like Andrew Leigh with the biblical imperative to be generous to the poor. Here are a few thoughts that I've had. First, three fundamental biblical foundations that give me hope:
  • I need to remind myself that my concern for justice in the world is an outworking of my faith in Christ, my gratitude to God and my desire to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
  • I need to remember that my primary concern is first to see people of all nations hear the gospel of Christ - their souls saved not just their earthly needs met.
  • While God is not responsible for the suffering and injustice that concern me, and while I know that it will be part of God's fallen world, I need to remember that God is in sovereign control (Prov 19:21; 21:1; Dan 4:35; Rom 8:31; 35-37).
With the above as foundational, how might I respond to the fact that even within attempts to fight against injustice (e.g. the giving or foreign aid etc), the sin of mankind is undermining well-intentioned responses to injustice?
  • I need to continue at a personal level to try to give generously, indeed sacrificially to people I identify as needy. As I see need I must respond.
  • I should be wise in how I use the limited amount that I can give and I should target it at those in greatest need (e.g. those in the most life threatening situations, or those who have received less support).
  • I should make sure that agencies that I give to use the money wisely and that the funds generated from others and me reach the people in need (or as much of it as possible).
  • I should actively encourage governments and major aid organizations to use support wisely to help communities to become more sustainable and self-sufficient economically, agriculturally and educationally.
  • I need to be prepared to look more closely at foreign aid policy and participate in informed ways to seek better outcomes for the most disadvantaged. I need to understand the limitations of government-to-government aid (see this critique from the CATO Institute). I need to be prepared to speak out and lobby politicians when government aid policy appears to be shaped by a desire for strategic advantage (e.g. protection of our trade, access to foreign resources etc) rather than a response to the most acute need.
  • Finally, I need to support agencies where possible that have a desire to share the gospel of Christ as well as providing material support.
You can read the post from Andrew Leigh that prompted this post here