Wednesday 27 January 2010

Mandela, Forgiveness & Reconciliation: A review of Invictus

Carmen and I went to see 'Invictus' on Saturday. The film is an inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with Francois Pienaar the captain of South Africa's rugby team, to try to win the 1995 World Rugby Cup and in the process to help unite South Africa. At the time rugby is hated by Black South Africans, being seen as symbolic of the all-powerful white South African culture and the oppression and violence of the past. Mandela's supporters want it stripped of its traditional colours, name and traditions. But Mandela as the new President senses that at a time of reconciliation, forgiveness and generosity must be demonstrated by everybody, including the victims of South African apartheid. As well, he believes that the Rugby World Cup could be a unifying force for the nation. The film has two overlapping plot lines, the politics of the new South Africa and the drive to win the rugby world cup. Its big themes are reconciliation, forgiveness and the quest to create a new 'Rainbow Nation'.

There is a memorable scene in the first 30 minutes of the film when Mandela's head of personal security rushes in to question the arrival of the previous President's white bodyguards as the back-up staff in response to his request for more staff. Mandela's security chief enters agitated about the situation. Mandela responds to his protests by leaving his desk and gently challenging him - wasn't he the one who requested more security staff?
Mandela says gently, "The Rainbow Nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here."

His security leader responds:

"Not long ago these guys tried to kill us."

Mandela responds, "Yes I know, forgiveness starts here. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon."

You can view the 60-second video clip below.

I enjoyed the film a great deal. While it has more than its share of clichés and it tends to paint Mandela as a man without fault, it does offer an insight into the power of forgiveness to change the hearts and attitudes of others.

I don't want to try to claim Mandela as a warrior for Christ, but the movie is inspirational and tells a powerful story of forgiveness and reconciliation that in its own way demonstrates the expectations that Jesus places on his disciples. Reconciliation and forgiveness are obviously at the heart of the Christian gospel and the Bible teaches that above all God's forgiveness is indeed a powerful force that changes human hearts, lives and their eternal destiny. All other forms of forgiveness are in effect a pale shadow of God's grace and kindness, shown in his forgiveness of a rebellious people. God's people are meant to live lives marked by a willingness to forgive.

The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) is just one of many places you can go in Scripture to learn just how essential forgiveness is.
Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." (Matt 18:21-22)
Jesus is essentially saying, keep forgiving without keeping count. And of course the foundational truth that underpins his comment is that if we have received the forgiveness of God then we too should show forgiveness to others. Those who have been freed of guilt due to Jesus' sacrificial death on our behalf (Colossians 2:13-14) should be so moved with gratitude towards God that they are prepared to forgive others. Jesus of course includes this in the Lord's Prayer when he teaches his disciples to pray "and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt 6:12).

Finally, Paul teaches us in his letter to the Colossians that the Christian lifestyle is heavily dependent on the demonstration of forgiveness (Colossians 3:12-17). When others wrong us we are called to forgive. Paul writes, "as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Col 3:13).

I hope others enjoy the film. Mandela's life is inspirational and is a remarkable demonstration of forgiveness in action and the impact that it can have reconciliation. Of course, the ongoing struggles in South Africa continue to demonstrate that true transformation in people requires them to accept the forgiveness of Christ. As John the Baptist taught as he prepared the way for Jesus, all must "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt 3:2).

Monday 18 January 2010

Holistic Approaches to Indigenous Educational Disadvantage

I wrote a blog post back in February 2008 (here) on Indigenous educational disadvantage. The post was motivated by an apology by the Prime Minister and the Australian Parliament on the 13th February 2008 that was focussed on the injustices that Indigenous Australians had suffered since white settlement began in 1788. The apology was met with widespread support, but many people (including me), called for action to address disadvantage now that this first step had been taken. In my post I pointed out by way of an example, that Indigenous Australians were greatly disadvantaged in educational opportunities. I cited the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy published in 2000 by the Commonwealth Department of Education Science, which concluded that:
a) Seven out of every ten Indigenous students in Year 3 are below the national literacy standard, compared to just three out of ten 'other' Australians.
b) Indigenous students miss out on up to one day of schooling every week, compared to around just three days every term for other Australian students, meaning that Indigenous students, on average, miss out on more than a year of primary school and more than a year of secondary school compared to other children.
c) That 18% of Australia’s ‘at risk’ youth are Indigenous.

I concluded my post by saying that "my hope is that we won't be reading 2008 reports in 2010 that have not been activated, nor should we able to read them in 2013 and say little has changed."

I write again 2 years later in 2010 and report that more recent data are discouraging. A report by the Australian Council for Educational Research as part of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) published in 2009 is depressing. The report draws on data from PISA for the period 2000-2006. It brings together analyses of the achievement of Australian Indigenous students in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy in each of the three cycles of the PISA conducted in 2000, 2003 and 2006. I serve on the National Advisory Committee of PISA as one of three academic representatives. The key findings are as follows:
1. Indigenous students have performed at a substantially lower average level in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy than their non-Indigenous peers.
2. In each domain, the average for Indigenous students was more than 80 score points (or more than one proficiency level) lower than non-Indigenous students and more than 50 score points lower than the OECD average.
3. Indigenous students are over represented at the lower proficiency levels and underrepresented at the upper levels in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy.
4. In terms of year level proficiency standards, there is a gap of around two years between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
5. Internationally, Indigenous students are performing well below the OECD average and nationally perspective, and they are well below the performance of non-Indigenous students.
6. More than one third of Indigenous students did not achieve a proficiency level in reading, mathematics and science literacy considered to be the minimum level necessary to meet the challenges faced in life beyond school.
The PISA report concludes that "...initiatives to improve the education of Indigenous students through educational policy have to date had little effect."

The above has been followed in recent days by the release of a United Nations report - State of the World's Indigenous Peoples - that has shown that Indigenous people in Australia and Nepal had the lowest life expectancy of all indigenous people around the world. Life expectancy was the lowest amongst the 90 nations, with Australia's Indigenous people dying up to 20 years earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts.

All groups within Australian society must take collective responsibility for addressing the significant disadvantage of Indigenous Australians. A number of Christian organizations and many individuals have been working in Indigenous communities for decades but much more needs to be done. A good example of grass roots action is Yirara College run by the Lutheran Church in Alice Springs within the Northern Territory. Similarly, a good example of efforts in urban areas is the initiative of St Andrews School in Sydney that has established a special campus in Redfern that is tackling Indigenous educational needs head on. Gawura is a small community based school of about 25 children in mixed staged classes from Kindergarten to Year 6 is focussed on the teaching of literacy, numeracy and elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and tradition.

These are good initiatives but it will require many more initiatives of this kind if we are to make a difference. It is also obvious that Indigenous health problems, high levels of adult unemployment, various addictions, and poor housing are all related. We need an holistic approach and we've been saying this for a long time. But far too often our efforts in addressing educational disadvantage have been tokenistic and have lacked persistence and follow-up. It will require all levels of government and communities of interest that grasp the injustices facing Indigenous Australians and take positive action to make a difference.

Related Reading

'Aborigines have worst life expectancy' (here)

United Nations Report on 'State of the World's Indigenous People' (here)

New York Times report on high levels of educational disadvantage in USA southern states (here)

Australian Human Rights Commission Report (here)

Educating Indigenous Young People from Remote Communities (here)

Saturday 9 January 2010

The Ethics of Shopping

This post is a repeat of one posted on the 22nd December 2008

Carmen and I spent some time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong about a year ago. On the Saturday before we left Hong Kong for home we did what many people do when they travel to Asian cities, we went shopping for a bargain in one of the well-known markets. We were mainly looking for Christmas presents for our grandchildren, but as we wandered up and down the rows of merchants there was one very consistent cry:

"Copy watch, you want copy watch sir?"

Typically this was a question asked of me and it occurred at just about every second stand. It was sometimes followed with statements like "We've got Rolex, copy Rolex out the back, you want one, very cheap".

I had no trouble resisting the pleas of the many sales people. For a start, I wouldn't want my friends and the residents of New College to see me wearing a watch that looked like it was worth $5,000 (even though it was only worth $20); I'm not one for bling! But I'm also strongly against people ripping off the trademarks and intellectual property of other individuals and companies. I'd thought this through as a Christian long before I started receiving 6-10 SPAM emails daily offering me similarly wonderful 'replica watches' as the spammers call them. This decision seems like an easy ethical dilemma to resolve. But this made me think, what other ethical shopping dilemmas will I face this Christmas season. And which ones am I not even aware that I'm facing? What does it mean to shop ethically? What guidance does the Bible give us?

The problem of selectivity

Part of the problem with thinking ethically about shopping is that we tend to focus on one area of concern. For example, I know people who act (quite rightly) as campaigners for Fair Trade. Their concern is driven primarily by their desire to see justice for workers and suppliers (fair pay for products as well as the labour that produced them). Others campaign to ensure that we don't encourage the sale of wooden products that destroy the environment. It's easy to pick some issues that you can quickly make an ethical decision about while missing other areas of perhaps equal ethical concern. I suspect that we face ethical decisions as shoppers every day. Here are a few examples:
  • You are given too much change by the shop assistant - should you give it back?
  • You wear a piece of clothing but decide you don't like it - you are tempted to take it back for exchange after wearing it (just once), but should you?
  • You have to answer questions about your driving record when seeking a new insurance policy which will affect the premium you're charged - do you tell them the full story?
  • You see products that have most likely been manufactured by workers who have not been treated justly, (often clothing, but also household items in wood or cane). The workers might have been poorly paid, child family members could have been forced to work long hours and may have been denied education (especially girls), slave labourers may have been used, staff within family sweat shops may have produced the clothing and so on. How do you assess this and should you buy the products?
  • You have the chance to buy something that will tempt you or the recipient of the gift to break the law or act unethically themselves - e.g. police scanners that allow people to listen in on the police broadcasts, machines for multi-copying of DVDs and CDs, devices for detecting speed cameras so that you can speed in 'safety'. Should you buy such a device?
  • You see a book, CD, video or clothing item that is obviously a copy of a well-known brand (like my 'copy watch'). Do you purchase it?
  • You know that the seller is desperate for a sale (often this can occur in Asian countries) and you think you can drive the price even lower to the point that it is costing you almost nothing. Should you? I can well remember bargaining for a painting in a village in Indonesia about 5 years before I became a Christian and getting it for a ridiculous price. I recall later realising that it cost me 14 cents and feeling very guilty, as it was hardly a fair price.
This might all seem a bit much, you might think I'm going over the top! But am I? If you're a Christian reading this blog then like me you need to consider what the Bible has to say about ethical shopping. Even if you aren't a Christian it is important to think ethically about issues like honest shopping.

What the Bible has to say that can help us?

The easy part is that if your action or choice is going to lead you or others to break the law then you shouldn't do it. While we are to be obedient to Christ first, we are to be obedient to the laws of the land that are set by authorities appointed ultimately by God. So, a 'copy watch' is out, as is an illegal video, copied music etc. Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 are helpful here, especially Rom 13: 1,2 & 7:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment....Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honour is owed.
But the Bible teaches more than simply obedience to the laws of the land; we are called to pay attention even to the 'spirit of the law' not just the 'letter of the law'. Jesus teaches about this in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20) when he says:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus is suggesting to the Scribes and Pharisees that the righteousness that he expects is nothing less than complete conformity to God’s law. Jesus is teaching that it is the heart not just the outward deed is that is ultimately most important. This is God-given righteousness; hearts transformed by the saving grace of Christ, not a righteousness of outward compliance. Jesus demands more than just an outward pretence of honesty while all the time acting unethically and unjustly by seeking some level of right action, to keep up appearances, but quietly pushing the boundaries of what is right in one area while trying in another.

I’m challenged by Jesus’ words for I know that in my heart I’m tempted constantly to ‘cut corners’ so to speak, hiding behind a façade of ethical action a heart that while viewed as free of guilt because of the righteousness of Christ, is still engaged in a daily war against the flesh. Jesus teaching is hard teaching here. What is expected of us? Mere token observance of the laws of the land? No much more than this. As Christians we must not relax “one of the least of these commandments” and what’s more I must flee the false righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees that fails to satisfy the heart and the mind, that seeks to glorify self in our actions, that is self made, not reflective of a repentant and obedient heart.

Friday 1 January 2010

The continuing quest for belief

One of the interesting things about Christmas is that as well as the regular token treatment that the media gives to Christmas Day church services; there is often an outbreak of 'wise' commentary on what is right and wrong with religion and Christianity in particular. The Sydney Morning Herald has had a variety of articles about Christianity and faith including two articles written by David Marr the Australian journalist, author, and political and social commentator. The Marr articles discuss a poll commissioned by the paper and conducted by the polling company Nielsen. It was a survey of 1,000 Australians concerning matters of faith. The results surprised many including (I think) Marr.

What the poll told us

In his first article in the Herald, Marr outlines the key findings as follows:
68% of people say they believe in God
53% of people say they believe life after death
56% of people say they believe in heaven
38% of people say they believe in hell
37% of people say they believe in the devil
51% of people day they believe in angels
22% of people say they believe in witches
41% of people say they believe in Astrology
49% of people say they believe in psychic powers like ESP
63% of people say they believe in miracles
34% of people say they believe that the Bible is the word of God
27% of people say that the Bible is literally true
42% of people say they believe in Evolution
84% of people support the separation of Church and State
David Marr's second article, "Politics and Religion: crossed paths" can be found here.

A diversified search for meaning

While Marr is not seeking to promote Christianity, he manages to put his finger on a number of salient points that I find interesting. While these findings suggest that the number of people who have faith in God has declined over the last century, they also suggest that many people still hold to some form of Christian faith. This is in stark contrast to church attendance. Rather than depressing those of us who still go to church, it should encourage us, as the results demonstrate that there is still much latent interest in God, even if this interest is confused by dabbling with astrology, psychic phenomena, superstition and so on. For many people, while there is some level of acceptance of God, they do not seek a relationship with God. Marr puts it this way:
"Belief for most Australians is about values far more than devotion. It's belief without belonging."
Marr concludes that while it is a minority of Australians that see the Bible as the word of God, Australian society can hardly be characterised as non-Christian, let alone atheistic. He suggests "Atheism is always about to break through and never does".

The survey results suggest that while some Australians have rejected mainstream Christian faith, they have not simply embraced atheism. In fact, many of those wandering from Christianity, seem to be drifting towards a variety of other religions and more minor belief systems. While they are rejecting God in the form that the Bible teaches, they are grasping for other beliefs that help them to make sense of their world.

One further interesting insight from the survey is the gendered nature of doubt and unbelief. It seems that men outnumber women 2 to 1 in denying the existence of God. As well, age seems to play a part, with 42% of people under the age of 25 years denying that there is a God, compared to only 25% of people over 55 years.

How do we respond to this?

This small survey reinforces what many Christians already know, that while many people reject mainstream Christianity, this does not mean they cease to be interested in matters of faith.

How do I reach out to people in their unbelief as well as to the many people searching after other forms of belief? There are clearly special challenges in reaching men and younger people in particular. How do we respond? We need to personalise this. Not what the Church needs to do, but what do I need to do? I'll give this a try.

For a start, I need to have a deeper desire to love those who don't follow Christ and to want to see them consider his claims in the Bible. I also need to pray for opportunities to share my faith and to invest in relationships with my neighbours, friends and family members. I need to deepen my own faith and to ensure that it translates into an authentic life, that is well lived; a life noticed for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. I also need to sharpen my understanding of the questions that non-Christians ask of me, and to respectfully listen to their claims and questions. I also need to be not only prepared to give a reason for my faith, but to seek opportunities to do so.

I need to do more than just offering a defence or reason for the hope that I have in Christ. As I wrote in an earlier post (here), I must do more than simply seeking to win arguments; my life must also commend Christ. David Hohne contributed an excellent essay to Case #20 in 2009 in which he used Peter’s challenge in his first letter (1 Peter 2:10-12) - to live 'beautiful lives' - as a framework for talking about apologetics. He argued that we are to have lives (not just words) that commend God to others.
“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
David Hohne argued that our defence should not be simply rational argument; we must use our ‘head, heart and hands’ and live as apologetic people in apologetic communities - “…our whole lives [are to be] both a defence and commendation of the grace of God in Christ.” The church is not separate from culture, and yet it should stand out against it. I need to keep learning this lesson in 2010.

Related posts and articles

CASE has offered a variety of publications and blog posts in the last year or so that have attempted to help Christians think about the above questions. Here are a few:

'Apologetics is more than just winning arguments' (here)
'Humble Apologetics' (here)
'Apologetics in Family Life' (here)
'Apologetics of the Heart' (here)
'To Give a Reason' (The whole of Issue #20 of Case magazine was devoted to this topic)
'A New Epistemology' (here)
'The Need for truth, not seduction in a pluralistic society' (here)
'Being a church that welcomes children' (here)
'Loving Your Neighbour's Children' (here)
'The Reason for God' (here)