Sunday 26 October 2008

Greed and the economy

Sorry, we ate it!

Shortly after I took over as Head of a research centre at an Australian University some years ago I noticed that the centre had raised lots of money over the previous decade but there was little of it left. I asked one of the longest serving members of the team, "We've made a lot of money over the years, what have we spent it on?" The staff member replied, "Hard to say really. I had a nightmare once that Frank (the Vice Chancellor, not his real name) made me come to his office and he asked the same question. In the dream I just looked at him, shrugged my shoulders and said, 'we ate it'." She then went on to say how over the years they'd had lots of great dinners, had entertained lots of visiting scholars, bought lots of books and so on. They had largely spent the money on having a good time.

Paul Sheehan (in the Sydney Morning Herald 20th October 2008) has just written an interesting piece in which he pretty much says the same thing about the Australian nation. The essence of his argument is that we've been living beyond our real means for 10 years using credit to indulge ourselves. I expressed the same view to a senior manager in a financial services company recently and he 'bit my head off'. "No-one could possibly have predicted this financial crisis," he spat across the table. I pointed out exactly what Paul Sheehan and others have pointed out, we've been spending beyond our means for many years, and we were heading for a fall.

For Australia the telling piece of data is the extent of credit card debt (this is not news). Sheehan quotes Gabriel Stein, of Lombard Street Research, who had noted (as many others have been noted before) that Australian household debt had reached 177 per cent of gross domestic product, almost a world record:

"It is amazing that in the midst of the biggest commodity boom ever seen they have still been unable to get a current account surplus. They have been living beyond their means for 10 years. What worries me is that productivity growth has been very low: they have been coasting after their reforms in the 1990s."

I've had numerous conversations with varied people over the last ten years about the same, and related issues. For example that Australian savings as a proportion of debt have been low for many years, property prices in cities like Sydney (let alone places like Perth) have been inflated, households have been over-extending themselves with bigger and bigger mortgages, consumers have been insatiable in their appetite for goods and services, house are bigger than ever, credit card debt is at record high levels and so on. Not many people have been interested in listening.

Paul Sheehan asks in his article, "Did the lucky country become the greedy country?" He concludes his article with these words:

"During 17 years of unbroken economic expansion and a 10-year commodities boom, it took a lot of people, borrowing a lot of money, taking a lot of unproductive risk, to get to where we are today: a nation with excessive debt and excessive vulnerability to external circumstances barely within our control."

Sheehan isn't saying that people shouldn't borrow money or spend it, or for that matter, take risks. What he is suggesting though is that we've spent too much money that wasn't really our money with "unproductive risk". Risk that wasn't necessarily well motivated, and I'd say which in many cases was not motivated by anything other than greed and avarice. We wanted more, we wanted it now and so we got it now by borrowing more and more money.

People have been quick to point the finger at others to blame them for the economic melt-down that we're experiencing, here are some random comments I’ve heard: "It's all due to those dodgy American banks and prime mortgages", "Why didn't the government see this coming?" "The Baby Boomers are the problem...", "Why didn't the Reserve Bank act sooner", and so on. Now, there is truth in the fact that just as average consumers have been blind to their own excess, that banks and governments have also made some mistakes (see for example Peter Hartcher’s comments on the world’s ‘greatest banker’ here); but ultimately every single Australian who has wanted more of what they really couldn't afford, or couldn't afford to pay back, is partly responsible for the mess we are in.

A Christian response in tough economic times

It seems to me that there are three fundamental things that Christians need to ask themselves individually, as church fellowships and as citizens of this nation:

  • How can we ensure that we are not guilty of the greed and excess that mars our world?
  • How can we demonstrate generosity in the midst of economic hardship?
  • How can we encourage our leaders to make good, wise and compassionate decisions in the days ahead?

In his Presidential Address at the Anglican Diocese of Sydney 2008 Synod, Archbishop Peter Jensen made reference to the difficult economic times we face and used the example of R.B.S. Hammond as an example to us all. R.B.S. Hammond was Rector of St Barnabas, Broadway from 1918 to 1943. He was known as fine preacher and a man of action. There was a wall plaque dedicated to him in the old St Barnabas which said this:

‘The Need of the World was on His Heart.'

In the Depression of the 1930s he responded with action. He modelled for his parish how to hold together a concern for the preaching of God's word and care for the community, a relationship which he knew was consistent with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. "He (Hammond) fed the hungry, clothed the poor, fought against the drug trade (namely the abuse of alcohol), advised the famous, lifted up the hopeless, and began a whole new suburb of homes for the homeless, Hammondville."

In citing Hammond's example, Peter Jensen commended Anglicans to consider how they might respond in troubled times. As people who will continue to be wealthy in global terms, even in a recession, how will we respond generously to the needs of others less fortunate than ourselves?

"We are experiencing a significant economic downturn, with a possible increase in unemployment, poverty, homelessness - even of hunger. What sort of people will we be now? There will be far less choice. Our investment in the secular individualistic values will prove to be as illusory as our investment in some parts of the market. Choice will disappear for many; tolerance will prove too cool for comfort; work may be harder to find. Instead of the secular values, it would have been better to invest in the great biblical virtues, faith, hope and love. In abundance or in want, these are better for human beings to aspire to. I hope that we have not forgotten them, for we are going to need them."

Practical Compassion

Our response in troubled times is not simply to speak out against sins like greed. Yes, we need to exhort one another to repent of such sins, but we also need to show practical compassion. Not to atone for our sins (Jesus has done that!), but as acts of compassion for those who will suffer in and outside the church. The word ‘compassion’ comes from two Latin words, ‘suffer’ and ‘with’. We must become involved in the suffering of others and enter into their situation. Compassion is not a theoretical concept. ‘A compassionate response to suffering requires that one be moved by the suffering of the other, act to remove the immediate effects of the suffering, and respond at length to correct the structures which may have given rise to the suffering itself.’ (New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, p. 244).

We see this practical aspect of compassion supremely in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37). A traveller is attacked, stripped, beaten and robbed, and left half dead on the roadside. Two religious people - a priest and a Levite – are travelling by on the same road later in the day. Each refuses to get involved and simply pass by on the other side.

Then a Samaritan (a person of mixed-race hated by Jesus’ audience) came by. He saw the man and ‘he had compassion on him’. He then gave generous practical assistance, bandaging his wounds, putting him on his animal, taking him to an inn, and making arrangements for him to be cared for, as well as paying for his accommodation.

Jesus’ message here is that compassion is more than words. ‘Which of these three,’ he asked the lawyer who received the parable, ‘was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer replied, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus responds, ‘Go and do likewise’.

The words of James 1:22-25 are also helpful:

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

A biblical case for living more simply

I wrote two posts late in 2007 (just before Christmas) that each focussed on greed. I sugested in each that the Bible teaches that we should seek a simpler lifestyle and that consumerism can be a trap for Christians (here and here). On both occasions I spoke of the impact of excess, on the environment in the first, and in people's lives in the second.

I suggested that the biblical pattern in relation to possessions is one of simplicity, of having our needs met, and of generosity with what we have. The biblical pattern of seeking to satisfy our needs, not our cravings and wants, was clear even in the way God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness as they fled Egypt. God provided enough food for their needs. The Israelites were to collect as much Manna and quail as they needed each day, and no more (Exodus 16:15-17). Later Moses taught that God's law required them to be generous with what they had. He urged them always to give generously to the poor. “Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

This pattern is given plenty of attention in the New Testament. Paul urged the church in Rome to live lives worthy of God “….as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” They were not to be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, “…but (to) be transformed by the renewing of (their) mind.” (Rom 12:1-2). Paul then went on to list generosity as one of the gifts that God gives. If your gift “ contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously” (Rom 12:8). So some people are gifted givers, but all are called to be generous.

But Paul goes even further and makes a connection between being generous and our relationship to God; connecting godliness with contentment: "But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it" (1 Timothy 6:6,7). Paul stresses to the young Timothy that he is to put his hope in God, and that to be "rich towards God" is to "to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share" (1 Timothy 6:17-18).

Paul suggests that contentment is the key. He had learned what it meant to be content with what he had, rather than hankering after more. As he sat in prison and gave thanks to the Philippian church because of its generosity to him he wrote: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:12-13).

We are commended in the Bible to rid ourselves of the idol that is greed and to give just retribution to the poor and needy:

"As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life" (1 Tim 6:17-19)

We are living in challenging times, but the Bible has challenging words for us for these times. In world terms we are very wealthy. We will need to fight against the sin of greed in our own lives, encourage one another to be generous, and call on our government to be generous and compassionate both at home and in our giving to nations less fortunate than ourselves.

Further reading

See the Paul Sheehan article here

See Pater Jensen's Presidential address here

See Peter Hartcher's comment 'Humiliation for the High Priest of Capitalism' which offers a perspective on how even the great Allan Greenspan got it wrong.

See previous posts on this blog:

Shoping till we drop the planet (here)

Greed and the multiple paths to destruction (here)

Sunday 19 October 2008

A biblical theology of Christian Assembly

1. Australian Church of England Diocese of Sydney Synod 2008

As Anglican media has reported the 48th Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia Diocese of Sydney met this past week. The first three days had many highlights including a wonderful Presidential address by Archbishop Peter Jensen (you can view it here and read a report on it here) that he framed with testimonial words to the work of former Rector of St Barnabas Church Broadway R.B.S. Hammond ("The Need of the Word was on his heart") and James 1:22 (KJV) "Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only". There were also excellent sessions each day on the Diocese's strategy for evangelism, Connect 09. On Wednesday (Day 3) one of the most interesting sessions was the presentation of the Sydney Diocese Doctrine Commission report on "A Theology of Christian Assembly" (see Anglican Media report here). I want to focus on this item in this post.

2. A theology of Christian Assembly

Dr John Woodhouse (Principal of Moore Theological College) and Dr Mark Thompson (Academic Dean of Moore College) presented the report of the Doctrine Commission. Its purpose was to examine a Biblical theology of Christian Assembly using the Bible to re-establish a coherent understanding of large gatherings typically called 'church' or 'worship' to answer three questions:
  • Why Christians meet together?
  • When we meet, what is our gathering for and what good comes from it?
  • On the basis of why we meet and what it is for, what ought we do when we meet?
Dr Woodhouse made it clear that the paper is not meant to be comprehensive and to answer all questions about worshiping together as a church. As the Anglican Media report indicates there was healthy tension in the room as the paper was debated and a level of disagreement that was managed by all in a godly way. Some were concerned that the report failed to give due consideration to the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, others were concerned at the deliberate use of the word 'assembly' rather than 'church' or 'worship', and a few felt that the ideas gained from the experience of "missional church plants around the Diocese" should be considered. There was also a strong push to 'receive' the report rather than 'welcome' the report. As Phillip Jensen (Dean of the Cathedral) pointed out, simply "receiving" it was a 'good' way to make sure that the church doesn't act on it; simply noting that it's there and perhaps ignoring it. He urged Synod to 'welcome' it and act on it, for there is a great need in Anglican churches to rethink biblically why we meet together as we do. Some also questioned the lack of emphasis given to some things which they felt should be acknowledged more fully (e.g. the Sacraments).

As a participant at Synod I was struck by the fact that many seemed to miss the point of the Commission's report. It is not an attempt to attack more traditional styles of meeting together (church worship as they would stress), but rather to challenge all Anglicans to consider why they do the things they do when meeting together. In fact, the Chair of the Commission expressed the view that his greatest concern was with churches where there was greater informality. The report is not an attack on traditional Anglican Prayer Book services.

3. Key points in the report

The gathering of people together is not unique to Christianity, it is universal and stems from our created nature as relational beings in the image of God. To understand why Christians should assemble together we need to understand how they fit into God's "history-wide plan of God" and examine the biblical theology of worship as revealed by the whole of Scripture. In short:

a) What is the Christian assembly?
  • Christ's assembly is built as people from all nations are gathered into it by the Word and the Spirit.
  • Christ's assembly is heavenly, and will be revealed in the age to come, the new creation (Col 3:1-4; Rev 21:1-4; Rom 8:33-39; Rev 7:13-17).
  • Christ's assembly is seen now in the assemblies of Christians (Eph 2; 2 Cor 1:21-22; Eph 3:6; Phil 2:1-2).
  • Christian assemblies are markedly different from Old Testament assemblies because of the fulfilment of God's promise in Christ (John 2:19-22; Heb 7:11) and can take place anywhere and don't require a priest and any ritual, only Christ (John 4:21-24; Heb 8:1-6; 9:11-14; 10:19-23).
  • Christian assemblies are not perfect representations of the heavenly and ultimate assembly. As such we should expect unbelievers to be present (1 Cor 14:23).
  • The Christian assembly is unique among human gatherings and is essentially those who have been called together by the gospel and who share in the Holy Spirit and who fellowship together. This has a vertical dimension (Godward) and a horizontal dimension (one another).
b) What are the purposes for meeting together?
  • The very fact of our gathering testifies to the gracious purposes of God; and "the manifold wisdom of God" is made known to "rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (Eph 3:10) through the assembly of those who have access to the Father in Christ (Eph 3:12).
  • We meet for fellowship with one another and with God. While we know that Scriptures teach that we are always in fellowship or sharing with each other and God through the Spirit (Eph 2;18), the New Testament also speaks of a particular sharing or fellowship together in Christ in the assembly here on earth (John 17:20-23; 1 John 1:2-3).
  • For building toward maturity in Christ - The Christian assembly of people must be moving forward and be in the process of being built (edified). This involves numerical growth and growing in maturity and depth of faith in Christ (Eph 4:16; Col 2:19; 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Peter 2:5). The growth of the assembly involves the growth of individuals as well as their mutual relationships; we are "built to be edified" (Col 2:6-7).
  • The Christian assembly while giving testimony to God and welcoming non-believers, in the New Testament, is characteristically the fruit of evangelism, not its agent. The gospel is proclaimed everywhere, not just in the assembly (1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Col 4:2-4; 1 Peter 3:15). Proclaiming the gospel for the purpose of the conversion of others is not the primary purpose of Christian assembly, rather it will further the gospel work by building outward-looking mission-minded Christians who will whatever they can to win other to Christ and will take the gospel to the world (1 Thess 1:8).

c) What should assembled Christians do?

A key starting point for answering this question is that the Christian assembly should realise that "the most important aspect of the meeting is what God does rather than what we do"; God is not a passive observer of our assemblies, Jesus promised to be present with us when two or three are gathered in his name (Matt 18:20). Neither is he silent, his voice is heard as the words of Scripture are read (1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 2 Cor 13:3). What we do together should flow directly from God's purposes for the gathering. Such gatherings should do many things:

First, they should be a testimony to Christ. The assembly is a testimony to the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3:10), which is especially displayed as followers of Christ love one another with Christ-like sacrificial love (John 13:34; Eph 4:1-3; 5:1-20). Such love is born of the Spirit (Rom 15:30; Gal 5:22) and is the proof that we know God, have been given new birth and are obedient to the truth (1 John 4:7; 1 Peter 1:22). This is also achieved through the Sacraments; for example, the sharing of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:20) is a testimony to fellowship in Christ (1 Cor 11:26).

Second, we meet for fellowship. As Christians meet together much of what we do will be a sharing together in the fundamental Christian response to God in Christ. For example, we will:
  • share in confession (Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 John 4:2)
  • pray for each other (James 5;15; Acts 4:23-31), for the progress of the gospel (2 Thess 3:1) and for all people (1 Tim 2;1) in the light of the coming kingdom (Matt 6:9-13).
  • respond in praise and thanksgiving (Eph 1:3-14; 5:19-20; 1 Cor 14:16; Phil 3:1; 4:10) and in practical ways, for example sharing news with one another, commissioning and sending members out for the gospel (Acts 4:23ff; 14:27ff; 21:17ff; Acts 13:3; 15:4; 18:27-28; 20:1-3; 17ff; 21:5-6).
  • demonstrate generosity of all kinds individually and collectively (1 Cor 16:2; 2 Cor 8:9), including supporting those who bring the word of God to us (1 Cor 9:1-12; 1 Tim 5:17-8).
Third, we meet to be build maturity in Christ. The assembly is called into being through the word of God, and the same word dwells in and builds the assembly (Acts 20:32; Eph 4:15-16; Col 3:16). Hence, if the assembly is to grow and be built up, hearing the word of God is central. The early Christians "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42), to the "public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Tim 4:13; Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27). As we meet together we also speak the word of God to one another (1 Thes 4:18; Heb 3:13), and we speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15-16). Paul also commends the fellowship in Eph 5:19 to sing "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (speaking God's words melodically). All these things are for building the church (1 Cor 14:26). Assembled Christians " the assembly by prayerfully proclaiming God's word, and by encouraging and exhorting one another to respond to the word in repentance and faith, to persevere in the hope to which we are called, to love and serve one another, and grow in godliness as we wait for the coming Day of the Lord" (Heb 3:13).

The Commission report ends by affirming that there will be diversity in the way we assemble together, and that the purpose and theology of the Book of Common Prayer should be retained. In spite of diversity, the Commission calls on every Christian assembly to be ordered around hearing Christ's word and responding to it in faith, obedience and loving fellowship with God and each other. Every assembly it urges should include the speaking and hearing of the word of God, and a shared response to it of prayer and thanksgiving. The assembly should be shaped by "theologically-driven care and thought" and should not be designed to interest, entertain, attract or intrigue non-Christians. This is not their purpose. The purpose is to be intelligible for Christians attending and authentic to the realities of human life in this sufferieng world. If it does this it will be the kind of assembly that welcomes outsiders, and is intelligible and edifying for all.

Previous posts on the purpose of the Christian assembly

I have written previously about the purpose of worship in the Christian assembly here and here.

Sunday 12 October 2008

New Abortion Laws in Victoria: Where does this leave us?

1. Divided reactions to the approval of Victorian Abortion Reforms

The State of Victoria's revised legislation on abortion was approved on Friday (10.10.08) without amendment (Melbourne Age report here).

Pro-choice advocates are pleased with this outcome pointing primarily to the fact that abortion has now been removed as an offence in the Crimes Act and terminations are now legal up to 24 weeks gestation.

Pro-life groups are deeply disappointed with the new laws pointing to the fact that the amendments while partly aligning Victoria with some Australian States, have now made terminations easier up to 24 weeks and even after this with the approval of two medical practitioners. The laws also make it more difficult for doctors who object to abortion on moral or ethical grounds, with the legislation requiring them to refer a woman seeking an abortion to another practitioner who doesn't have such an objection.

Pro-choice groups have argued strongly for the revisions to legislation on the following grounds:
  • There is inconsistency across states and Victoria's laws were more conservative than some, hence the argument was why should Victorian women find it harder to obtain an abortion than women in other states.
  • The Victorian laws were based on an 1861 English Law, and made it an offence if women unlawfully obtained an abortion.
  • The Laws in place only allowed a legal abortion on the grounds that it was necessary to preserve the woman from serious danger to her life, or physical or mental harm.
  • The laws were silent on a permissible period within which any abortion was legal, based on a judgment as to whether the child was capable of being born alive.
Some of these issues might well be argued on the basis of equity for women and consistency across the states but I would note the following:
  • The Victorian laws are now more liberal than some other states, and from a pro-life perspective, at least as bad as the rest.
  • There has been serious debate in recent times about the age at which an unborn child can be assumed to be unable to survive if born. While 24 weeks was once seen as the age at which a foetus could not survive if born, many doctors and medical ethicists have increasingly questioned this due to the higher survival chances of the foetus at 24 weeks or even earlier. Many babies can now survive at 24 weeks when born prematurely. Victoria has chosen an age that many would suggest is not ethically justifiable. Some medical experts are now suggesting that 20 weeks should be the upper limit necessary abortions. See these recent reports in the UK media (here & here).
  • The pro-choice arguments fail to consider the rights of the unborn child, choosing instead to place the choice of the mother above all else. The Discussion by de Crespigny and Savulescu in the Medical Journal of Australia that is regularly cited by pro-choice advocates is illustrative. In citing the public debate about the abortion of a 32 week foetus on the grounds of probable dwarfism, they argue that such debates create "a harmful uncertainty" for patients, families, staff, the hospital, other institutions, future patients, the Australian society without any mention of the child's life.
  • The new laws now make it difficult for doctors to maintain legitimate objections on moral and ethical grounds.
  • Some question the fact that while someone can face criminal charges (up to 20 years) for killing the unborn child of a pregnant woman ("Byron's Law" - here & here) women are given the right to approve this action if it is their own child. This seems ethically inconsistent.
The debate has provided an interesting insight into community views on abortion and in particular, some of the key groups that have participated in the debate. There is no doubt that ethically it is an issue that divides many members of the community as some of the following responses indicate.

2. Varied Community responses

There have been many different voices in recent debate and many varied submissions to the Victorian Law Reform Commission's abortion law review. Here just a few.

Pro-choice groups have used a frequently cited statement published in the Australian Medical Journal as part of their campaign to change Victorian laws. The discussion paper was written by two doctors, Lachlan J. de Crespigny and Julian Savulescu support women's right to choose abortion (read it here).

Some accept the right of others to choose while arguing against abortion based on personal experience. For example, this article by Tracey Spicer argues that 24 weeks is too far advanced to allow a child to be terminated. Experiences like Tracey's are a challenge to those who want to make laws more liberal (read it here).

The Catholic Church continues to be a strong defender of the rights of the unborn based on medical, moral and ethical grounds. The Catholic Church has been one of the most vocal opponents of the Victorian reforms (read the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne's submission here and media comments here).

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has also been a vocal critic of any liberalisation of abortion laws, its submission argued for abortion to remain in the Crimes Act, governed by a tight interpretation of the Menhennitt Ruling (Read its submission here).

The Anglican Church in Victoria has been surprisingly neutral as the following extract from its submission suggests: "Our consensus view is the gradualist position....While we believe that the destruction even of an early embryo is of moral significance, we believe the moral significance increases with the age and development of the foetus. The significance increases gradually over time, in parallel with its physical development. As a pregnancy advances, more powerful moral reasons are required to allow the destruction of the embryo/foetus. It is more serious to consider destroying a foetus at 28 weeks than at 10 weeks. We would want to see this distinction noted in any legislative provisions, though we would counsel against a legislated absolutionist end-point after which an abortion could not proceed." Read its full submission here.

The Women’s Health Victoria (WHV) Council has welcomed the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) Law of Abortion Report (March 2008) as a comprehensive landmark document that it supports (Read their submission to the commission here).

3. Where does this all leave us?

Let me say first that I know that there are genuine cases where pregnancy represents a threat to life for some women and where serious abnormalities discovered prior to birth leave parents with an awful choice to make. As Christians we need to be loving and supportive of women and men who find themselves in such circumstances (see Claire White's good comments on this in her Briefing Article "After the Silence: Dealing Christianly with abortion"). It is not our job to judge, but we must speak out if we have concerns. The issues are complex and the need for careful responses from the church has never been more important. We have been let down by some of these responses and non-response.

The Victorian legislation was an opportunity to introduce new legislation that at least addressed the latest scientific evidence in this area. While respecting the right of people to express different views in this area, I am disappointed that rarely is anyone (even large sections of the church) arguing for the rights of the unborn child. The latest data on survival of babies born prematurely, coupled with our knowledge of the extent of human development in the womb well before 24 weeks, would suggest that to continue to assume that the unborn child is not a child at all is an obscenity. It is a grave ethical inconsistency that the death of an unborn child due to violence against the mother, or even negligence in a motor vehicle (see for example here and here) can lead to criminal charges against the perpetrator (as it should), while our abortion laws in many states allow for almost total discretion on the mother's part, to terminate well beyond the point at which the child could survive outside the womb. As Nicole Starling commented in a blog post (here) on her blog 168 Hours:

"It seems difficult to explain why a father killing his child is 'foetal homicide' and a mother killing her child is legally sanctioned 'termination of the pregnancy'."

We do need to be actively involved arguing against abortion, not in a self-righteous way, but by arguing on moral and ethical grounds supported by hard facts that present the case for the unborn child (Don Carson has some good suggestions on how to do this here). My point in writing this post has not been to be judgmental and simply to take the high moral ground, it has been motivated by sadness at the rejoicing in the streets by some because it has now become that little bit easier in Victoria to terminate life. History will judge us badly when it considers that in Australia alone up to 100,000 abortions are performed each year.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Bill Henson Part 5: When can children decide for themselves?

Some background

Regular readers of this blog know that I've written a number of posts about the photographic art of Bill Henson and the debate about the inappropriateness of using photographs of naked children for artistic purposes. You can follow the threads of the earlier debate and my critique here.

For overseas readers of this blog here is some brief background. Henson was at the centre of a major controversy caused by an art exhibition featuring his photographic work. He is a one of Australia's most famous living artists and has gained widespread international acclaim. However, in May this year the police were called to a gallery where his latest exhibition was to be opened. A number of members of the public had taken exception to images of naked children used for advertising the exhibition and some which were placed on the gallery website. Henson has for many years included photographs of young pubescent children in his work. In his own words he likes to express "..ideas about humanity and vulnerability and our sense of ourselves living inside our bodies and our bodies in space" and has been interested in the transition from childhood to adulthood (amongst other things). The police originally charged him and the gallery owners, but eventually the charges were dropped. However, interest in Henson and his art continues to attract comment and debate.

The latest twist to the controversy

Just when many of us had forgotten about Henson, he has broken his five month long silence with an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald (here). This was followed the day after by extracts from a book concerning the Henson case in the Herald's weekend magazine. The extracts are from a forthcoming book by David Marr, "The Henson Case". It took just hours for the first article and the extracts to cause further concern. In both the article and the extract Henson shared that "he has been invited into schools in his search for models". In his words "I went in there, had a look around at lunchtime, just wandered around while everyone was having their lunch....I saw this boy, and I saw this girl too actually, and I thought they would be great and the principal said, 'Fine, I will give the parents a ring and let you know'. So the ball is always in their court...."

One can only wonder why a school principal would allow an artist into a school to search for children who might be suitable for nude modelling without the consent of parents to be there for this purpose.

Curiously, Marr seems to have shared this detail in his forthcoming book (and in the extract) in an attempt to present Henson as a normal decent bloke who also happens to be a great artist. I have no reason to doubt that both these propositions might be correct. As my previous posts should indicate, I have never accused Henson of having wrong motives, and I have always acknowledged his ability as an artist. What I continue to question is his use of naked children as his subjects and the way that they are presented. The SMH article on Friday suggests that he still doesn't get this. I find it incredible that neither Marr nor Henson can grasp that your average parent would feel quite uncomfortable about someone visiting a school to look for appropriate models. But that's not why I've written this post, I'll leave this part of the debate to others. What I want to comment on is Henson and the child's parents approach to parenting.

The folly of children being able to make such choices

One of the clear themes of the David Marr extract is that parents are closely involved at all stages of Henson's work and that the children themselves make the final decision to pose or not to pose. The reference to visiting schools and the manner in which children were solicited as models also appears to be an attempt to rather naively suggest that parents are involved from the start.

On three occasions Marr uses quotes from Henson and the mother of the young girl referred to as "N" to make the point that it is the child who makes the final choice:

"They gain some strength because it's (i.e. posing for Henson) a big decision to make, and no one can really make it for them." Quote from Henson

"...We have always given our children a voice in our family and as an educator I know the value for kids to take responsibility and learn through authentic life experience. N is accustomed to making decisions, trusting her instincts and she certainly has a pretty good handle on what is right and what is wrong." Quote from the mother of the 12-year old girl "N" featured in naked poses.

"....we were a bit concerned about N's self esteem as she was at the tricky time in her life anticipating the horror of starting high school....this was an extremely stressful time for her. We felt that working with Bill would give her a bit of a boost and help her regain her confidence (and it did). Ultimately it was her decision........." Quote from the mother of the 12-year old girl "N".

The view that a twelve year-old not only can make such decisions, but should, reflects the lie of liberalism that humans and their children should be free, in John Locke’s terms, “…to order their Actions…as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man”. The Fundamental Liberal Principle holds that any restriction on liberty must be justified, freedom to choose is always the default position.

Henson and the mother of N, like many parents immersed in a society that fails to question such ideas, have accepted the argument of philosophers like John Stuart Mill that one basis for endorsing freedom is by developing individuality and cultivating capacities ‘…it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings.’

The good life for the liberal philosopher is one that you freely choose. Such a life is characterised by a person developing his or her unique capacities as part of a plan for their life; this is still the most significant liberal ethic shaping the way some parents raise their children.

What follows from this thinking is that being a good parent is all about helping our children to make good choices themselves. Ultimately, they argue, the child must choose. Which like all ideas has some truth. Of course we want children and adults to be able to make good choices, but we cannot assume that if we allow total freedom to do so, that they will. The folly of applying this to a 12 year-old should be obvious. Yes, good parents encourage their children to make good choices, they help them to think through the rights and wrongs of any choices, as well as the consequences. There are many decisions for which we hope children might take early responsibility: Will I do my homework? Should I lie to my parents about why I was late home from school? Should I disobey my mum? But can, and should, a 12 year-old decide whether she should pose nude or not? I don't think so. Children should be helped to grow in their ability to make good choices in life, but at age 12 years parents need to be wise in deciding in which areas they will give them the freedom to choose.

We live in a society where there is a need to accept that one's choices are made in relation to other people. Our choices have an impact on other people. That's why there is great wisdom in the Bible's teaching that all are under the authority of others (see for example Ephesians 5:15-6:9). First and foremost, we are accountable to God. But we also are accountable and have responsibility to the state. Then we have various relationships with each other, some of which involve authority structures. Children are under the authority of their parents and parents in turn are responsible to teach their children, to take responsibility for them, to love and to care for them, and to help them make right choices. When they are young, or too immature to make the decision in question, then the parents must make the choice for them.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honour your father and mother"—which is the first commandment with a promise— "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." (Ephesians 6:1-3)

Of course, this begs the question, what if parents make bad or wrong choices? If this happens, then it is our hope that the law will protect the child, and other children who might be impacted by the family's 'freedom' to choose. The whole 'Henson Case' shows that perhaps our laws need some strengthening.