An open letter to my fellow Christians (on homosexuality and the church)

Many years ago, I was a young man just out of my teens attending a Pentecostal church in Sydney’s southern suburbs. As often happens at these things, there was a call from the preacher that anyone who wanted prayer could come to the front and someone would pray for them. I noticed a youngish guy come out to the front. I had never met him before, but when no one else went out immediately, I walked out and (as is the tradition) put my hand on his shoulder.

We’ll call him Dave, though that wasn’t his real name. I can’t remember what Dave said he needed prayer for exactly; and I don’t know if my prayer had any effect on whatever it was. But after that, I would always say hello to Dave and go over for a chat when he came to church.

Dave was obviously someone who had encountered his share of difficulties in life. He was nervous, awkward and a bit lacking in personal hygiene. He didn’t make friends easily. I slowly got to know him a little bit. He worked in the city doing IT. One day he told me there was something he really didn’t want to but had to tell me. Could we go out for dinner?

Dave built up this conversation quite a bit. He was even more nervous than usual. But eventually when it came time to cut the small talk, he told me he was gay. That was it.

Now I shouldn’t downplay this. Dave had told very few people this – especially inside churches. He never stayed very long in any church partly because he was afraid of this information being found out. For my part, looking back I’m pretty sure Dave would have been the first (somewhat) openly gay person I had ever known. Only a decade or so later this sounds hard to believe, but you have to understand I came from a country town and my social life at the time consisted mostly of church and sporting clubs – neither of which are known as havens for the out and proud.

But even so, I remember feeling a bit surprised that Dave had built this up to be such a big deal. But I learned more of the story as the evening went on. He had been sexually abused as a boy, had little contact with his family, and had attempted suicide several times (over the years, almost every gay Christian I have met has at one time been suicidal. I think it’s partly an ontological issue – when you are something you don’t want to be, not being seems like an appealing option).

Dave’s relationship with the church was a difficult one. He loved God and wanted to be part of a church but he had been hurt in the past and lived in constant fear of being too open about himself. The idea many have of church as a place where you can feel accepted as you are, and a place where you could possibly meet a romantic partner; were not part of Dave’s experience.

The pastor of the church we attended would sometimes say anti-homosexuality things from the pulpit that would make me cringe a bit, but to his credit when Dave approached him and came out, he responded that everyone was welcome in his church.

Still, Dave didn’t hang around long there. I stayed in contact with him though; we would call fairly regularly and chat. A few years later I came across a church that was openly gay-affirming and found out they were running a conference. I told Dave, he went along and loved it.

At some point though, I stopped being able to get onto Dave on the phone. His facebook profile had disappeared somewhere along the way too. I tried contacting everyone I knew (and some I didn’t) who might have had contact with him. Nobody knew anything. Occasionally I still have a look online to try to find a trace of him, but I have for a long time assumed the worst. Dave was a guy with a lot of troubles, and some of them might have just seemed that bit too insurmountable.

It was a friendship that had a lasting impact on me though. I had grown up immersed in the casual homophobia of boys in our society, and mostly accepted the complicated “hate the sin, love the sinner” theology of the mainstream church. Meeting Dave was a window into reality for many same-sex attracted people. Quite simply, he would have done anything he could to not be gay. He had done the gay-cure prayer programs. I can’t imagine he had ever been in many relationships – his sexuality existed just as a burden around his neck. The idea that Dave, this person whose life had been so unfairly brutal when compared to mine, was committing some wrong by carrying this inclination he had done nothing to cause just didn’t make sense.

I wanted Dave to feel comfortable to make friends and be himself without fear. I wanted him to be free to use his gifts and personality to better the world (he would always ask me how the youth group was going – he did scouts as a kid and would have loved to be a scout leader but said he wouldn’t be allowed to). I wanted him to as, as Jesus promised, have “life, and life to the full” (just one of the two would be a good start). I wanted him to be able to fall in love and have the same kind of deep, caring relationship we all hope for.

My friendship with Dave set me on the path to be an active supporter of the cause of sexually and gender diverse people. Not that I claim any special status or reward for this – it’s just a normal part of what someone who cares for the well-being of those around them would do. I don’t claim it’s very much either, but I hope that in my friendships and my private and public acts of solidarity I have made some positive impact.

Because I believe in the transformative power of the message of Jesus and the value of communities built around his teachings; I have also put effort into trying to make the church a more welcoming place for LGBTI people. Again, I don’t claim to have made a world of difference.

But after discovering an obscure photocopied zine made by gay and lesbian Christians in Australia I took it upon myself to make and distribute hundreds of copies. We had a lesbian Christian stay with us at my house a few years ago. She didn’t come out straight away to us, but she told me later that the first day she met us I was distributing that zine and it made her feel safe.

Once, some kids in the youth group I was leading asked about homosexuality and the bible. I knew a talk on the topic would be difficult but important ground to tread, so I nervously gave it my best. One day later on I was brought to tears when one of the kids present that day came up to me at a marriage equality rally and proudly introduced me to his boyfriend.

After many years of working it out, I sat down one day and wrote in full my analysis of the biblical texts on homosexuality and what we should do with them in today’s world. It’s hard to gauge the impact of things you put out there on the internet, but certainly many people have read it; I hope at least it has provided something to think about. What I really hope is that it has also maybe reached a few people who, like Dave, live in conflict between their religion and their body. People who were maybe feeling on their own and reaching out to the internet for answers.

Last week, the news was full of Christianity and homosexuality. It was the release of details of a government review into religious freedom, which affirmed the rights of Christian schools to reject gay teachers or students. It was one of those times you wonder if all that work has just been swept away like a sandcastle in a king tide. I was hurt (I wish I could say shocked) by the news story and the amount it was shared in the media. And I’m not even gay. I can only imagine how it felt to those people who are gay or lesbian – many of whom are dedicated Christians. Many are caring and dedicated teachers. All were once school students, and quite possibly bear the scars of trying to navigate that difficult age and place knowing that no matter how hard they try they will never just fit in with the other kids.

It hurt because I don’t want to just separate myself from the church and say “I’m not with them”. I know some in the church would probably happily disown me at times, but I happen to believe in this idea we call the Christian church. Not just in theory either. I believe in the power of our churches to be a force for good; for everyday Christians equipped with the extraordinary message of Jesus to change the world.

Yet for all the beauty and power Jesus has to offer, all the very real good things Christians do every day; it seems the only thing Christianity is ever in the news for is to publicly come out against homosexuality in some way. It’s mind-blowing that people can think this is an effective way to show love or pursue justice or stand up for Godly principles.

For the average Australian, the church has zero moral authority. Deservedly so after the horrific revelations of sexual abuse within the church, but not limited to that. What does the church have to offer morally? Those Christian private schools so precious about defending their Christian morals are like fortresses for protecting and enabling the wealth and privilege of the elite in our society. The church is hardly distinguishable from the world around us when it comes to caring about the fact we are destroying our planet (God’s creation), or about the injustice of poverty and immense wealth disparity (“whatever you did for the least of these…”). The social services the church once set up as an expression of love are now professionalised and funded by the government.

The cynical might suggest that the reason Christians seem to be so caught up on the homosexuality thing is because it’s the only “moral issue” where we can actually find any difference between ourselves and the world we are told by Paul “not to be conformed to”.

I know this: no random observer sees the church’s public discourse and thinks “I know they are the Christians by their love”. They mostly just see a bully, using our immense wealth and status to harangue people who have already been abused and cast aside by our society.

The lack of self-awareness is astonishing. Look at that report from last week. This is an institution who has schools we set up to promote our own values, funded by the secular government. We have the lobbying clout to get the government to run an inquiry into “religious freedom”. The Prime Minister is a Christian who speaks in favour of existing laws granting the church special legal powers. Yet the church claims it is us who are being persecuted, while we join the queue of people wanting to inflict psychological trauma on young kids struggling to find themselves in a confusing world of sexuality and social norms. The people who actually do know what it means to be persecuted in 21st century Australia.

I can understand why Christians like Scott Morrison, Lyle Shelton and the many who support their views believe what they do. I’m not one of those people who will shout that they are all bigots. I can sympathise that theirs is not an especially popular position and it takes an element of courage to do what they do. I can even agree that some of the actions of those on the “yes” side of last year’s plebiscite were hardly great examples of love and understanding either.

But I can’t believe that every time an opportunity comes up to show the great love of Jesus (love for our neighbours, love for the outcast, love for our enemies?), many of our most prominent Christians are instead jumping out of their skin to wield state power like a club and show for the world their insensitivity not just to those different to us, but to the many like Dave who are in our church pews every week.

One of the most famous and beautiful stories in the gospels is that of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In that story Jesus comes across religious puritans intent on hounding to death (or at least threatening with death for their own purposes) a woman with no social power to defend herself (women’s testimony was apparently not accepted in Jewish courts of the time). He intervenes not by overpowering the mob, but by calmly inviting them to see the commonalities between themselves and the woman.

Sometimes I worry Christians have forgotten this story. Sometimes I worry we have remembered it, but forgotten which character we are supposed to be imitating.

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The virtues of blockading

This year I’ve met a number of young people in politically active spaces who have spent time at Camp Nudja near Bowen – the camp set up to try, through various means, to stop the construction of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine and the rail and port infrastructure associated with it. They all have found it an empowering experience and come away keen to be more involved in that and other social and environmental campaigns.

It reminded of time spent at the Maules Creek blockade in Western NSW, as person after person would come out there and talk about how inspiring they found it. Hundreds of people were arrested out there blocking the clearing of the forest and the construction of a coal mine. Many of them have gone on to be heavily involved in different causes around the country, including some for whom it was their first ever political action.

I don’t think this is limited to those two campaigns either. I think about the random people I have met over the years who have told me they were among the 500 arrested at the Jabiluka uranium blockade in the late 90’s. Or how after years of rallies, petitions, etc about Australia’s treatment of refugees, the most exciting and empowering moment for so many was a few days spent camped outside Lady Cilento children’s hospital in 2016 pledging to blockade the removal of the infant known as Asha. Or how campaigns like those at Terania Creek or the Franklin River have passed into Australian political folklore.

After years of being around political campaigns of various kinds, I still think there is something especially enticing and empowering about blockade camps and other forms of direct action.

Not that I think that kind of political action is necessarily the most effective at attaining particular objectives. Sometimes it is, and it can certainly be a vital part of a campaign for various reasons. But the thing I think camps are really effective at is getting people who have not done much political action before and nurturing within them the belief and desire to be active in the struggle for a better world.

I think there are a few reasons for this. One is the feeling of actively doing something. So many of us spend so long angrily reading the news but feeling powerless to do anything about it. Politics seems removed from our everyday life. The ritual of going to the polling booth every few years seems so far from actually having our say about how society should be run.

When all you have ever known is political disempowerment, a blockade camp is an amazing experience. You can lock yourself to some infrastructure and watch the trucks grind to a halt while they wait for you to be cut off. You can stop focusing on the power you don’t have and acknowledge instead the power that everyone has – the ability to put their body in the way of activities you never gave your consent to. You know that even if you can’t permanently stop things, you can at least make your disapproval a tangible thing that must be dealt with. In saying a defiant no, you are saying yes to active involvement in what’s going on.

Another element of the power of blockading is the connection you develop to the issue. In a forest blockade, you are trying to save the forest, but at the same time you are living in the forest – building a personal connection to the issue. You come to love the trees and animals that surround you, feel personally invested in their survival. Same with fragile but beautiful desert ecosystems. Once you have been immersed in the issue it is harder to dissociate and keep going about your normal life.

There’s another way you are immersed in a blockade camp. Living at the camp; the campaign becomes your work, your play, your community. A bit overwhelming at times and not always healthy; but a powerful experience in a lot of ways. It builds skills very quickly, as you are constantly in close proximity with people of different abilities who are happy to share knowledge. The constant on-the-go nature of the camp means you have the opportunity to step up to tasks you never would otherwise. You can go in with no experience and in a short time come out a seasoned activist with a new level of self-confidence.

But it also leads you to a new understanding of living in community. In a camp you cook and eat together, work and relax together, at times go through extremely intense experiences together (and then also act as emotional support to each other afterwards). You form bonds of the type that are so rare in our atomised and comfortable urban lives, bonds that will last a long time even if you rarely see one another in other contexts.

For all these reasons, blockade camps and other forms of direct action work as “peak experiences” – something that can potentially change your worldview radically. Even people for whom the experience is a one-off that doesn’t lead to a life involved in activism; it is a dramatic step to move through the norms of social respectability, of our conditioned apathy, to be active and even willing to be arrested for a cause that doesn’t affect you directly. That is never an insignificant thing, and can influence someone in a variety of ways. For many though, an experience of direct action can be a catalyst that leads to years or even a lifetime of involvement in causes for a better world.

For that reason, I think anyone interested in building movements capable of creating social change should take seriously what direct action campaigns and intentional communities offer. There is a tendency to, for the sake of pursuing widespread appeal, reject that kind of action as too “radical”, likely to deter people from getting involved or put them offside. Or it can be dismissed as not strategic; too far removed from corridors of power where men and women in suits make the big decisions.

I’m not a fan of chasing some mythical middle ground that will suddenly make everyone embrace your cause; and I think that dramatic, creative and confrontational actions can actually be more likely to inspire awareness, sympathy and support. Plus my experience is that in terms of inspiring people to get and stay involved, blockades can work better than more conservative forms of organising.

But I will acknowledge a few limitations of direct action – despite the idea inherent in the name, it can very rarely change an issue long-term without being combined with other tactics to change corporate or government policy. Blockading doesn’t really helped develop a very nuanced understanding or tack of action to social issues either. Also, the simple fact is that while it may work for forests (and more recently mining infrastructure), not every social issue you might want to change can physically be blockaded. It is a tactic of limited effectiveness.

Still, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think blockading should be dismissed. And more than that, I think it is worth different causes thinking seriously about the good elements of blockading I have outlined, and asking how can they be incorporated into any campaign.

How can we make political movements spaces where participants get a sense that their actions have a direct impact on the issue? Where people feel a personal connection to the cause that will motivate them to stay involved beyond the glimmer of recognition from reading a headline? Where people’s involvement leads to them developing new skills, new sides to themselves, new understandings of what is possible? And where we are building connections with each other that nourish, encourage, inspire, challenge, sustain us? Connections that mean more than merely passing the time with small talk; connections that demonstrate on a micro scale the kind of society we would like to live in.

These are the virtues that blockading at its best offers to those who get involved in it – as many of us who have will testify. They can also be lessons offered to broader movements for change that can hopefully make our efforts more vibrant, inspiring, and hopefully successful.

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Our first Pentecostal Prime Minister

Since Scott Morrison clambered to the top of the greasy pole that is Australia’s prime ministership, there have been numerous news reports from various angles on the fact that he is Australia’s “first Pentecostal Prime Minister”.

You might think the subject has been worn out. But as someone who spent more than half a decade heavily involved in Pentecostal churches (and most of that in Scott Morrison’s home territory of the Sutherland Shire), I thought I might contribute my thoughts.

What attracted me to Pentecostal churches as a teenager is the thing I am still most grateful to them for – the belief in God not as theory or concept, but as an active force at work in people and the world. The reasons I moved on from those churches are varied, and we’ll get to some of them. But first a bit of history.

Pentecostalism has the kind of origin story religious sects dream of. The man identified as its instigator was William J. Seymour – a black, one-eyed, son of slaves who read the bible and asked why, if speaking in tongues and miraculous healings were so frequent in the book of Acts, were they not a part of normal Christian life?

In 1906 Seymour started preaching in houses in Los Angeles until the meetings outgrew the houses and a crumbling old building in Azusa St. was rented. At Azusa St the meetings exploded; going around the clock, attracting thousands of people, and developing into an anarchistic free-form service of praying, singing and speaking in tongues. Seymour rarely preached and could hardly be described as leading the service. For much of the time he sat hiding behind a couple of boxes. One observer wrote “No instruments of music are used. None are needed. No choir- the angels have been heard by some in the spirit. No collections are taken. No bills have been posted to advertise the meetings. No church organization is back of it. All who are in touch with God realize as soon as they enter the meetings that the Holy Ghost is the leader.

The church certainly caused a stir. And while many reports were favourable like the one above; most of respectable society and Christianity were horrified. One report from a local paper represents what was surely a common feeling: “..disgraceful intermingling of the races…they cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell. They claim to be filled with the spirit. They have a one eyed, illiterate, Negro as their preacher who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between the wooden milk crates. He doesn’t talk very much but at times he can be heard shouting, “Repent,” and he’s supposed to be running the thing.

The worship services at Azusa St were certainly unusual, but so were the values. The multi-racial congregation was completely counter-cultural. More than half a century later Martin Luther-King would still famously say “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning“. But at Azusa St they took as their model the original day of Pentecost in Acts 2, where God spoke to people from all around the world together, each in their own language.

As Pentecostalism rapidly spread across the globe, race wasn’t the only social barrier it broke through. The first Pentecostal church in Australia was started by a woman – Sarah Jane Lancaster in 1908 in North Melbourne. Back in Los Angeles, another woman became the first of many celebrity Pentecostal preachers. Aimee Semple McPherson changed Christianity for the 20th century with her exploration of new forms of mass media (the radio) and her use of huge auditoriums for church buildings. When she began building Christianity’s first “megachurch”, women in the US still did not have the right to vote.

Central to Pentecostalism’s identity was that breaking down of barriers of gender, race and class. Not that you would call it political – politics was part of “the world” that it wanted nothing to do with – but its desire to return to the book of Acts put it out of step with social norms of the day. Plus the fact that it was somewhat the wild west of Christianity meant rejects of all kinds could find a home within its doors.

Pentecostals were rejected by a conservative and hierarchical mainstream church for their radical practices like speaking in tongues and praying for healing; and their radical idea that God spoke directly to lay people. Outside of the church, its not hard to imagine what the reaction was. But as they were shunned by the world, Pentecostals also shunned the world – rejecting the then-new technology of movie theatres, as well as the old classic evils of alcohol and dancing. Missionaries headed across the world with literally nothing – often they didn’t even speak the language, believing (with a bit too much faith) that they would speak in tongues and people of other languages would understand it.

Early Pentecostals were apocalyptic in both senses of the word – they believed they were spoken to by God, and that the end of the world was imminent. And they lived accordingly. But when the world didn’t end, some of the initial energy was lost and the movement became a more rigid set of beliefs and practices with a more insular focus.

But just as it might have died out, Pentecostalism gained an unexpected boost in the 1960’s with the “Charismatic Renewal” – a time when mainstream churches began taking on Pentecostal belief in speaking in tongues, praying for healing and other spiritual gifts. It challenged some of the old standbys (especially when these churches started including the devil’s music of rock’n’roll), but it had a couple of significant effects – it kept Pentecostalism alive when it might have faded out, and moved it for the first time into the mainstream church.

Since then, the trend is that most other Christian denominations have declined in numbers but Pentecostalism has grown – picking up people from other churches who want a more exciting church experience and a more active faith. But as Pentecostalism has absorbed and been absorbed into the mainstream church, it has lost some of its distinctive weirdness. There is much less denouncing worldliness or talking about the end of the world. These days many of the denomination’s most prominent churches have stopped speaking in tongues as part of their worship service.

In their place, Pentecostalism has embraced a suburban middle of the road lifestyle. Its fitted-out warehouse buildings are like fast-food chains in their comforting uniformity (many of them literally have cafes set up inside the church). The music is generic and happy like your local radio station, the sermons like motivational pep talks.

Though the denomination certainly has its share of affluence (where the “prosperity doctrine” has taken hold sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a business lecture, not a church sermon); it is still resolutely working class and uneducated, somewhere the church pastors are often tradesmen who have never been tertiary educated. While older churches survive in wealthy areas aided by the patronage of elite private schools; Pentecostal churches thrive in the unfashionable and poorer suburbs. The experiential (rather than conceptual) nature of the faith and the emphasis on spiritual gifts (roles in the church are chosen not by formal training but by whether God has “gifted” a person with the ability) make it ideal for uneducated working class people.

These elements also make it ripe for abuse by autocratic leaders and exploiters of desperate faith. Not that it is alone among religions when it comes to that of course (the epidemic of sexual abuse in churches has not been to the same extent in Pentecostal churches, though it still exists, notably including Hillsong founder Frank Houston). In my time in the church I certainly saw my share of petty dictators and theatrical charlatans. A memory that still stings is the episode of Mike Gugliemucci, a pastor at a megachurch who travelled the country for a year falsely claiming he had cancer and was miraculously being kept alive.

Some of the theology heard in Pentecostal sermons is truly extraordinary in its stretching of the bible and selective choosing of passages, but this is somewhat to be expected from a philosophy that believes God reveals things directly to believers. What empowers the average person to believe they have an intimate connection with the creator of the universe also empowers preachers to say things that have nothing to do with the bible and claim it came straight from God.

One of the effects of Pentecostalism’s mainstreaming is that for the sake of its identity it has to find ways to retain its sense of distinctiveness. It once rejected rock music, now its churches are set up like concert venues. It once denounced worldliness, now it runs business courses. The movement has grown stable and comfortable, yet its theology demands a radical faith. What do you do? A solution has been that Pentecostalism has become an enthusiastic participant in the “culture wars”.

I’m not really sure when this crossover happened, though like many things the influence of US culture surely plays a major part. Once politics would have been seen as a waste of time when there were souls to save, or as part of a sinful world. But these days most Pentecostal services will include some railing against The Greens, Safe Schools or other kinds of Godless modernity; and a defence of conservative values and God-fearing leaders.

And now we have a Pentecostal Prime Minister. This fact alone seems to be a symbol of Pentecostalism’s unlikely absorption into the mainstream.

The thing about aligning your religion to a set of political beliefs though is that you can become subsumed. Pentecostalism had once radically put women in positions of power, now it defends traditional gender roles. Where once missionaries trekked to the corners of the globe to bring all peoples to Jesus, now they are against migration. Once it had beseeched believers to change a heathen world, now it finds itself defending “the way it has always been”.

When you look at Scott Morrison’s policies and how they reflect his his faith you can see this. His anti-gay beliefs at least reflect his believe in the bible (even if I would disagree with his application). His love of coal has nothing to do with anything from scripture; while his treatment of asylum seekers is a clear betrayal of biblical values – done seemingly for the political expediency of being able to claim he “stopped the boats”.

In Morrison’s maiden speech in parliament in 2008, he cited the examples of William Wilberforce and Desmond Tutu as people who “stood for the immutable truths and principles of the Christian faith. They transformed their nations and, indeed, the world in the process.” He quoted Tutu: “we expect Christians … to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.

Morrison said that day “For me, faith is personal, but the implications are social“. Yet evangelical Christianity like that of Scott Morrison and much of Pentecostalism has promoted an individualistic notion of faith which is about a personal relationship with God removed from broader social implications. Where morality means personal sin (especially the sins of those conspicuously different from myself, rather than the more widespread sins common to us all); without any critique of whether our broader society or economic system reflects biblical values. I hope Scott Morrison continues to reflect on that Desmond Tutu quote and whether his policies have really worked towards that end.

Scott Morrison may be our first Pentecostal Prime Minister, but it remains to be seen whether we will see anything distinctively Pentecostal in his leadership. Maybe not speaking in tongues (which would be inappropriate), but believing without fear of ridicule in an active God at work in the world to make it better. Or will we see a God defined by traditional social conventions, by financial success, by doing what it takes to win re-election?

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Learning to dance

I had moved (more or less) in time with music before, but I don’t think I had ever really danced until I did it in places you weren’t supposed to. Late nights in abandoned warehouses and empty blocks; or shutting down a road with a joyous mob moving to the sounds of a wheelie bin converted into a sound system. By the time the police close in around the dancefloor, you have already shed all the inhibitions that normally encumber free movement. It’s only momentarily, but for a second (even without drugs) you can glimpse the freedom of losing yourself in the music; of unrestrained connection with the others around you. Whether they are friends or strangers; you move in synchronicity, and in little glances and smiles you communicate the sense that you are sharing something rare – the transformation of ourselves and our surroundings into something that moves to a rhythm other than the tedious beat of normality.

I’d done bushwalks too; and marvelled at the natural beauty, enjoyed the serenity of strolling along at a slower and quieter pace. But that never compared with the feeling of walking where I wasn’t supposed to. Walking through the forest at night to reach a logging coupe we were going to blockade; or using the cover of the bush to get onto a military base and disrupt the “war games” they were undertaking. In those moments I felt like a part of nature, not a spectator of it. The sounds and sights of the forest felt like they were supporting us – covering us up or spurring us on. And each step we took felt filled with purpose – we walked not just from one place to another, but from one self to another – the powerless and passive bystander we were once reduced to into a person who, successfully or not, at least did all they could to influence destiny.

I can go on… no fancy banquet ever tasted as good as the first time I reclaimed food from a supermarket dumpster and served it up on the street for free. I never really got the urge to paint until the night I took a spraycan and redecorated some of the grey walls I would pass on my way around the city. That city never really felt like home until I rolled out my sleeping bag in one of its parks rather than pay for somewhere to stay.

So many of us sleepwalk through our existence for so long – taking life as it’s set down in front of us, making the best choice we can from a limited set of options, vaguely experiencing life in the same way we vaguely engage in the TV shows we watch to pass time on the couch then instantly forget.

Though we often feel like the way things are is just how it is, of course it’s not by nature that the possibilities of the universe have been narrowed down to the choices on the supermarket shelf or the netflix menu. Most of the blame for that goes to a way of organising society that we are born into and forced to accept – a way that says money will be the mediator of all our exchanges. That everything n the world can be bought or sold and if you don’t have the money, then most of it is not for you. With the whole world – and not just property but knowledge and experience – walled off, we are forced to subsist on whatever crumbs we can get rather than creating the world around us.

Which is why transgressing social and legal boundaries can be such a powerful experience. The examples I gave may seem frivolous, but each of them were genuinely new experiences – familiar things but recast in a way that made me imagine what else could be done differently. Maybe my life contained other possibilities beyond what I had experienced or seen around me. Maybe the same was true of my city, or the way we organised society as a whole. More than any book or movie, it was these experiences of dancing through the parameters of social acceptability that made me believe a radically different self, and a radically different world, was really possible.

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Farmers and foreign aid

I’ve never been very fond of billboards. I don’t appreciate having advertisers with clear vested interests offering me unsolicited life advice as I walk down the street. I don’t like the fact that the majority of spaces of public art in our city are offered to the highest bidder to sell their products. I’m not that keen at the moment on having Clive Palmer’s Trump impersonation leering down at me every time I turn a corner.

Still, it’s rare that a billboard affects me so strongly that I swear out loud to no one in particular as I ride home. Yet that’s what I did the other night. It was one of those rotating digital billboards, and one of the things it shows are selected messages people send to the billboard company. And on this occasion the sign flashed up asking Why only give our farmers $12K to help but send more than $2billion overseas in aid?”

Now I should say here that I absolutely support drought relief payments to farmers. I grew up in rural Australia during the famous “Millenium Drought”, so I have some understanding of how droughts affect farmers in a way they have no power over. I still travel often to rural areas so have been following this drought over the last couple of years. At the start of this year for my radio show I interviewed climate scientist Andrew King about the drought. So at first I was glad that over the last month the concerns of rural Australia were finally making national news. Unfortunately, since then the commentary has taken a turn for the worse.

See, I also take quite an interest in foreign aid. Growing up through the era of the alter-globalisation and Make Povery History movements; a big part of my political education was learning about global poverty – its effects and its causes. My first political activism was volunteering for an overseas development organisation. This has been of enduring influence for me – my choice to live simply and sustainably is partly motivated by an awareness of the limited resources we have to go around the world’s population; and that knowledge helps keep in perspective whatever difficulties I personally face – that very useful three word slogan “first world problems”.

It has been with a disconsolate heart that I have watched Australia’s foreign aid budget reduced every year since the election of Tony Abbott in 2013. The United Nations in 1970 passed a resolution that developed economies would aim to to pay 0.7% of gross domestic product in overseas aid. Today half a dozen countries have lived up to that promise. Australia’s contribution got as high as 0.47% in 1974, but has now declined to its lowest ever point at 0.22%.

There are many reasons to pay foreign aid –  in your own interests as a tool of foreign policy (which has been the main defence the coalition government has offered this month), as a way of healing some of the ravages of colonisation (eg. Africa’s economic wealth was systematically carried out of the continent for centuries), and as a simple acknowledgement that though many people are born into poverty, no one deserves to be.

I can’t imagine how anyone with a passing knowledge of how much money is thrown around unnecessarily by various government departments, how much massive companies avoid paying tax while collecting government subsidies, and how tiny our foreign aid budget is in the context of the world’s needs; could complain about our overseas aid as an economic wrong.

Part of the reason people do may be that they have no idea of what our aid budget actually is (one study found Australians on average believe it is 17 times higher than it is in reality). But I think really, the response we have seen comes down to a pretty simple emotional response – the recipients of foreign aid (many of whom, of course, are farmers affected by drought in other places) are people seemingly different from us, who we never come into contact with. They are the perfect scapegoat for any problem – one that doesn’t force us to confront our own actions or those of people around us.

So at least in popular discourse, discussion about the drought rarely mentions what water security measures could be put in place. It rarely mentions the unlimited water licences given to mining companies while farmers count every drop. Or for that matter, how New Hope Coal’s massive expansion at Acland was ruled out by the land court on water security grounds yet they are now appealing with the apparent support of the government. Or the possibility that burning fossil fuels may have some responsibility for this drought and could lead to more extreme weather events in the future. No mention that right now in East Africa, droughts mean that 22 million people (including 9 million children) are not getting their basic nutritional needs met.

Natural human response it may be to want to lay the blame elsewhere, but it is alarming the way it has risen so strongly in our current context. In the last few years it seems like sentiments of racial division are rising. Dissatisfactions about immigration played a role in the election wins of Donald Trump and Brexit. Far-right anti-immigration groups are increasingly visible online and even in parliaments. In Australia we’ve seen refugees consistently dehumanised for years, leaving them demoralised and trapped on pacific island prisons. This year we’ve had sensationalised media reports of African gangs, and in the last month we’ve had an overtly anti-immigration op-ed from Andrew Bolt published in national newspapers, and former Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles supportively interviewing a neo-nazi on a national news program. All of these things have real life effects on real life people. Effects every bit as serious as what is being faced currently by farmers; but effects we don’t necessarily notice because these are people who are not like us.

Many Australians will generously dig into their pockets to support farmers affected by the drought. I applaud them for it, and I’ve given money too. But we can support those around us without having to draw boundaries between who is in and who is out. Uniting people encourages more helping one another by seeing the commonalities between us all. Divisions are likely to only exacerbate problems. On seeing that billboard the other night I took the only moral response I could – I went home and gave money to an overseas development organisation. Because I will never allow anyone, even for a second, to convince me that someone’s worthiness is based on where they come from or whether they are like us.

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Living in a house of hospitality

For most of the last six years, I have lived in two intentional “houses of hospitality” (we got kicked out of one then started another six months later). Now that’s not a term that’s used very often, so I’ll explain what I mean by it.

Essentially it means we have opened our doors to anybody who needs somewhere to stay – either short term (many travellers or people in emergency situations stay for a night or a few days) or longer (occasionally people stay for 3-6 months). Short term we never ask for payment, though if people stay more than a couple of weeks we ask them to contribute to rent. We don’t advertise anywhere, though through word of mouth and things like our presence on the street doing a weekly street meal means we have a pretty constant stream of people. It’s not uncommon for us to have a dozen or more people staying at our (rented, five bedroom) house between guests and permanent residents.

These houses have done other things (community meals, film/discussion nights, political activism, simple and communal living) but probably the most distinctive feature has been our emphasis on hospitality. Often it has been a wonderful experience, sometimes not – we have been physically threatened, lied to and stolen from by people we have welcomed in. We have had to ask questions about whether we are just enabling destructive behaviour and how to draw boundaries. We have little private space and our time is frequently interrupted by strangers arriving, or spent cleaning up the chaos of the house. And yet we very rarely turn anyone away. Recently a friend contacted me with a fairly reasonable question – “why do you live in a hospitality house?” I appreciated the query because it made me think again about the reasons. Once I had I thought I could share them here for everyone.

First off I should say we didn’t come up with the idea. Our house is part of a specific tradition of houses called the Catholic Worker movement, and through history there have been many other examples including temples, monasteries and shelters. In many cultures there is a norm of offering hospitality to strangers, and things like the couchsurfing website show that though uncommon, it is not extinct in our own culture. Still, I’ll offer this as an explanation of my own (my housemates would have similar) reasons.

First off, I do it because I have a house I can offer. A house is an example of an abundant resource – you can offer it to somebody else, yet you still have it for yourself. Some resources are finite and need to be limited, but many – like shelter – there is easily enough for everybody if we don’t take more than we need and we share what we have. If we take shelter as a basic human need, there is no reason why something as simple as a safe place to stay should not be available to everyone when it is so easy to offer.

Secondly, it’s fun and interesting having different people come. I haven’t travelled overseas very much, but I’ve had people from around the world come to my own loungeroom, as well as people from all kinds of different backgrounds and persuasions. I have few lonely nights at home alone, and when I travel myself there are often places I can stay because they are the homes of people who have stayed at my own house. Offering hospitality to anyone introduces us to a diversity of people we would just not come across in our lives otherwise; where we tend to gravitate towards people of similar ages, backgrounds and beliefs.

It can also make a real difference to the people who stay. I will never forget one random guy I met on the street one cold night and invited to come and stay. He told me in the morning I had saved his life. Most cases aren’t that extreme, but certainly plenty of people who come to our house are in pretty great need. Even the ones who are not, staying at our house offers an insight into a very different way of living (and not just because of our open doors) and thinking. As many people travel to try to discover more about the world and themselves, our house can offer a valuable new discovery.

Another reason is that it challenges me to put my beliefs into practice every day. It’s easy to say there should be no homelessness or people should be more generous and less selfish. But living the way we do forces us to understand the complexity of issues and to come into contact with our own selfishness and complacency in the face of others’ needs. It takes concepts like love, generosity and tolerance; even a critique of private property; from the realm of ideas and into the sometimes difficult world of praxis.

Similar to that, I have over the years subscribed to a pretty counter-cultural idea known as anarchism. The idea that no person should use force over any other; which when taken to its logical conclusion implies a possible society with no prisons, police or property laws; also without enforced taxation or the welfare state as we know it. It’s my belief that for such an ideology to hold any credibility, I have to be willing to engage with some of the more difficult issues that many in our society are happy to pass on to the state to deal with. It also keeps our politics grounded – issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and refugees; which don’t necessarily affect me personally at least become things I have personal contact with.

A long time ago I came to the conclusion that private property was a great big scam. Who allowed people to claim ownership of the earth they did nothing to create? And by what power did the first landlords take control of their property if not by violence? I rejected the system and lived without paying rent in squats for a while; but was lured back into the property market by friends wanting to rent a hospitality house and have dutifully paid my rent over the last few years. That’s been a sacrifice I’ve been happy to make, but to be honest the thought of paying rent just for somewhere to exist on the earth without that also going to a project overtly trying to create a better world would for me just be depressing.

“I’m not moving into one of your utopian experiments” was what a friend told me once when I offered him a room in one of those squats many years ago. Utopianism gets a bad wrap these days, but living in a hospitality house isn’t some kind of delusion – it’s a willingness to stake your house on the idea that we could live in a way very different to how the world is now. It’s also a belief that these changes can be brought about by ordinary people using the resources we already have at our disposal. It’s not easy to change the world, but with a few good friends we can change our immediate surroundings to be more like the kind of world we wish we lived in.

We offer our house up to those who walk in our doors as a roof over their heads, food in their belly, friendly faces but also as an alternative vision of what our homes, our lives and our world could be like. We also offer an invitation to be a part of trying to create that in our own flawed way. And that is something precious to us – something the occasional difficulties or inconveniences of living in this way can’t take away. So our doors will stay open. Come drop in some time.

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Through good times and bad with the Socceroos

Despite having one of the worst nicknames in sporting history (and I love a good pun, but that’s not even close), the Socceroos hold the odd place in my heart of being the only Australian national sporting team I have ever really cheered for.

Long before the most recent scandal the Australian cricket team always played with an unpleasant ruthlessness. Or were just too good to offer the emotional ups and downs following a sporting team should provide. The teams from other countries always seemed to have a bit more charisma as well as the classic underdog status.

Same goes for rugby league, where internationals often seem like exercises in ego for Australia. Aussie rules offers its own kind of national pride (it’s even in the name of the sport), but international rules games with Ireland just seem like acts of desperation. Other sports I’ve never really cared enough to watch, and something like the Olympics just allows for ugly displays of patriotic chest-beating (oi oi oi).

I don’t really believe in national allegiance – the idea that just by the fact someone is born on the same land mass as me they share more in common than people born elsewhere doesn’t really make sense; the thought that I somehow share in their success or failure is bizarre.

And yet there’s the Socceroos and the way my heartrate sneakily accelerates when they attack, how it skips when they try to defend. Even the fact that while I have intentionally missed every single television show of the last decade, I make an effort to find somewhere to watch the Socceroos’ big games.

See unlike many Australian sports stars, the Socceroos are underdogs. Underdogs on a global scale (the entire team wouldn’t command as much on the transfer market as superstars Neymar or Paul Pogba). But also underdogs in Australian society. Any soccer lover in Australia can tell you what it’s like – try to find the soccer in the back pages of the newspaper. Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters was the name of legendary former Socceroo Johnny Warren’s autobiography, so-called because they were the names he was called as a white Australian who loved the round ball. I think of Trevor Huon in Simon French’s classic Australian kids novel Cannily, Cannily, whose struggles to fit in at his new school were compounded by the fact he played soccer and not footy.

When I was growing up, being a soccer fan required commitment – it meant getting up/staying up to ridiculous hours to watch games. It meant tuning in to SBS every weekend or buying magazines months after they had come out in Europe to gain insight into the intriguing world of European leagues. It meant tolerating the sport’s petty administrative squabbles and the occasional ethnic sparring of fans. It meant subjecting yourself to the perennial tragedy of the national team’s failures.

I remember seeing Johnny Warren straight-facedly tell the story of a curse put on the Socceroos by an African witch doctor and how that explained the constant disasters. It was a long period of waiting – with hardly any games and even fewer with the best players allowed by their European clubs to play – for the eventual world cup qualifiers that determined whether we could participate in the global soccer party or watch from the outside like wallflowers at a dance.

That moment when it finally came in 2005 against Uruguay – and not only can I still remember jumping out of my seat and around the room, but I also still get goosebumps watching the shootout on youtube – was so special because it released the tension of three decades of failures. That’s what you can hear in the footage as Craig Foster screams his mic levels way into the red, and see as John Aloisi rips of his shirt and starts sprinting around the ground. It wasn’t just about going to the world cup – it was vindication for every migrant who never quite fit in with their rugby loving mates, every kid who preferred chasing the spherical ball to the oval one, every fan who spent their spare time learning how to pronounce “Ruud Gullit” or “Pedrag Mijatovic”.

Australian soccer was never the same afterwards – the national team gained a new respectability; but also that year the A-League started – ushering in a new level of corporate professionalism to the game locally. In 2006, Australia was accepted into the Asian confederation of FIFA, meaning there would be more competitive games and a more forgiving path to world cup qualification.

All positives, but in some ways it lost some of its distinctive character. I liked these clubs with strange names like Marconi and Sydney Olympic and their distinct ethnic histories. I liked the gateway to a whole other world that came from following it. The new clubs were depressingly corporate entities (club bosses included Westfield CEO Frank Lowy and Clive Palmer) with boring names like Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory. It was a little bit like the punk music fan immersed in a whole underground subculture who watch their favourite band become just another bunch of rockstars on a big stage.

The A-League came in promising a new era, and in a way that’s what it has been. But it irks me that people want to forget the contribution to the game that all those old clubs, players and coaches made. The old NSL, which was dissolved to make way for the A-League, was developed by brave visionaries in the 70’s long before aussie rules or either rugby code had been game to build a competition that crossed state borders. People smugly insist on calling the sport “football” as though it’s something we’ve just imported from Europe and have no local tradition of. Many of us though used to follow the National Soccer League, and learned our skills playing soccer on the school field or local park.

I still play in those local parks when I can, but have to admit I am a long way from the most dedicated fan in the country. I can accept that these stakeholders who market the A-League etc do so out of a love of the game and that my sentiments are hardly their top priority. It’s pretty rare that I get around to watching a game, but I can guarantee you that I’ll be watching Australia’s games in the world cup (for once at mercifully reasonable hours). And I’ll be cheering them on, not just out of patriotic pride; but for Trevor Huon, Johnny Warren and all the rest of us who despite it all love Australian soccer.

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