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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One person’s trash… (diving into dumpsters)

About eight years ago, I went dumpster diving for the first time. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this means raiding the bins of supermarkets or other shops and taking out the edible food or other useful waste they throw out. I had read about it before, and more recently had met people who did it. So one night I got on my bike and went to check out the bin of the local supermarket. Fortunately I had some reserves of persistence, because it wasn’t until the third supermarket I checked that I found any good food. But when I opened the lid to that bin full of vegies and bread, I can honestly say it changed my life in many ways.

One of the more minor ways is that fairly regularly I am contacted by people wanting to interview someone about dumpster diving. Sometimes these are people in the media, sometimes university students. The most recent was an ABC journalist this week. Mostly though (the most recent being no exception), I feel like these people come with the story they want to write and try to shoehorn me (a real life dumpster diver) into it. So I figured if I wanted an article that accurately represented my thoughts on dumpster diving, I’d have to write it myself.

So back to that first night. Something clicked in my mind when I saw that bin full of good food. Never one for half measures, I decided that night that I wasn’t going to be buying groceries any more, and I pretty much haven’t since then. But it opened up new possibilities beyond that – I got involved in a weekly community meal that fed anyone who came along (carting dumpstered food to share on the train from Sydney’s southern suburbs to the inner west). Most significantly, I coupled dumpstering with the knowledge there were loads of buildings sitting unused and figured that by utilising this excess I could be free of this whole money business. Within a year I was living with no income, travelling around Australia and having all kinds of amazing adventures. But that’s another story.

In the ensuing years, I’ve eaten out of bins in cities and towns all around the country (plus a few in other countries). If I’m going past a bin I often check just out of curiousity even if I don’t especially need food. I’ve blessed/cursed (it’s all a matter of perspective) various houses where I’ve been a guest with piles of food. I’ve consistently cooked for free public meals on a weekly basis (currently at Food Not Bombs in Brisbane’s West End every Friday). I’ve fed whatever household I’ve lived in (which for most of that time has been at least half a dozen people, often many more); catered for meetings, parties and events; given mountains of food away to others who are more reticent to jump into bins.

I can claim to be one of the few people who has actually been arrested for dumpster diving, and have a few other interesting interactions with cops and workers, though to be honest these are pretty rare occurrences in what is usually an uneventful pastime. I’ve found working electronics, new clothes, bouquets of flowers and so much besides. Plus all the food and the recyclable packaging I have saved from landfill. I’ve taken countless people dumpstering for their first time (the look of absolute shock on the face of a Chinese friend being one memorable example), and walked arm in arm to the bin on romantic outings.

Dumpstering introduces you to foods you would never otherwise try. I remember chatting with my mum on the phone after the first time I ever found a daikon and trying to see if she knew what it was from my description. It also gives the gift of creativity in the kitchen when you learn to make tasty meals out of whatever random ingredients you get. I find supermarket shelves boring and overwhelming compared with the bins which always offer the element of surprise when you open the lid.

After all this time I’m pretty jaded, and nothing found in a bin can really surprise me. I still get a little rush of excitement when I find a block of chocolate or a bottle of chilli sauce; but on the other hand I have to be the bearer of bad news for all those people who put effort into keeping their soft plastic packaging and putting it in the supermarket recycle bins – I know from experience that most of the time those bins are emptied into the dumpster and sent to landfill. When people exclaim things like “but why do they throw this out? There’s nothing wrong with it!”, I just shrug.

I shrug because I’ve become very familiar with what gets thrown out, but also because I don’t see supermarkets throwing out edible food as a shock. These are institutions that exist to make a profit; so they throw out anything that, for whatever reason, is not useful to that end. But I also don’t see food waste as an anomaly in an otherwise perfectly rational society. Look around us. We are the experts of waste.

We knowingly destroy our natural environment; drive whole species to extinction. Churn through natural resources as fast as we can. We design products with inbuilt obsolescence; manufacture trends to keep everyone buying and throwing out more. Governments spend vast amounts of money making and buying deadly weapons but are too stingy to pay foreign aid that will keep people alive.

We waste people too – letting millions die of disease, hunger and war or languish in poverty and displacement. Who knows what those people could contribute to the world if allowed to live up to their potential. We treat the elderly and disabled as burdens rather than assets. We waste people’s talents by forcing them to spend their time doing what will make a profit rather than what their skills or the world’s true needs dictate. We take people who could be useful members of society and turn them into insurance salesmen, advertising executives, or journalists writing about royal births.

Living in this reality, why would anybody be surprised when a bit of food ends up in the trash? Yet media reports on dumpster diving often treat it as a novelty. Which leads me to the other thing I want to emphasise: that the act of dumpster diving is not merely an ingenious way to save a bit of money on groceries removed from the rest of our lives and our broader society.

Dumpster diving, for some of us at least, is looking the society I’ve described above square in the eyes and rejecting it as the only way of doing things. And it’s seeing the seedling of a different way in the cracks of the present one. By exploiting the wastefulness of our world, we can start to develop new possibilities.

Living off the waste we find takes us out of the cycle of consumerism. We are no longer manipulated by the false seduction of advertising; no longer feel the need to define our identity by the products we buy. Once you find yourself regularly fishing through the rubbish, the status games of our society start to seem obsolete – time to give up pretending we are more rich and successful than our neighbours. We can take the burden of this expectation of our shoulders. My own life is proof that dumpstering can be part of a lifestyle that rejects the money-driven imperatives of paid work. That in turn frees up time to experiment with what ways to spend our time we really find useful and meaningful.

It changes how we think about food too. Once you realise you can get virtually unlimited food for free it becomes a resource to share rather than to hoard. When you run into someone else at the bin, food is always shared out freely. You can give away food, throw extravagant dinner parties. Facebook pages are set up where people offer up to strangers excess food they have found. Every week me and my friends plonk a table of food down on the street and sit down to eat with whoever comes along. My hope is that impacts everyone we meet there and they take a little bit of that spirit away with them.

Dumpstering breeds a resourcefulness and creativity that we take into other parts of our life. It teaches us that just because something has been deemed worthless by our system does not mean it is. Constantly being confronted with our excess reminds us that “food insecurity” is a myth – there is enough for everybody if we share resources around equally.

Wise people have told us for centuries that we live in an interconnected ecosystem where the waste of one species is vital to the survival of another; that the decomposing remnants of one meal are the nutrients that enable the growth of the next. The dumpsters of the 21st century hold their own lessons about the possibilities of new life if we are willing to dive in and seek them out.

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Cleaning my room with Jordan Peterson and Tom Waits

At some point last year I was surfing the web (does anyone actually still say that?), streaming music. In the process I found myself listening to Tom Waits’ hobo classic Cold Water. I briefly scrolled down to see the comments on the video and discovered, much to my surprise, a number of people saying they had been brought to this particular song by Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

Like I have been with everything that’s ever emerged on the internet, I have to confess I was a bit slow on the uptake with Jordan Peterson. In fact, it’s only this week that I have for the first time read anything written by him or watched any of his videos. When I first saw those quotes on that Tom Waits song, I knew vaguely who Jordan Peterson was but found the references to “room-cleaning rock” etc a bit cryptic. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that one of Dr Peterson’s messages was that people should clean their bedrooms.

I can now say I’m a bit more familiar with his work. There also happens to now be a bit more of his work. Not only has his popularity exploded on the internet and in his speaking tours (to the point where he is regularly described as “the world’s most influential public intellectual”), but he has also this year published his first book since he rocketed to viral internet fame.

That book is 12 Rules to Life: An Antidote to Chaos – like a self-help book with a few more references to Carl Jung than the genre usually provides. I haven’t read it, but the chapter headings mostly look like pretty sound, if unremarkable, life advice. I can also agree with his emphasis on taking personal responsibility (mostly for your own life, which is what his motif of “clean your room” refers to, although he does also talk about trying to impact the world around us).

Some of his theories are a bit more strange or worrying – the often-quoted examples being his bizarre thesis that he can’t deal with disagreements with women because if it came down to it he could never hit them; and his promise (since withdrawn) to, like a 21st century Joseph McCarthy, build a database of humanities courses full of “cultural Marxism” to warn people off them and eventually close them down. (So much for rule 9 “assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t”).

I’m not going to do an in-depth critique of Dr Peterson’s ideas, and wouldn’t be able to even if I wanted given I’ve hardly read them. My cursory scan doesn’t show much of the overt misogyny, transphobia or xenophobia he is often accused of. There is admittedly plenty to dislike about the values of many of his biggest fans (who are strangely keen on labelling his fairly mild monologues “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS LEFTISTS” etc). He certainly does fit the mould of a “culture warrior” given his combative way of approaching ideas other than his own (it’s strange given his extensive analysis of the psychology of beliefs to then hear him talk about “post-modernists” or “cultural Marxists” as if they are one homogenous conspiracy). But if it comes to the battleground of culture wars, I would say if ideas can’t stand up to the critique of someone like Jordan Peterson they probably won’t convince many people outside of the believers anyway.

The thing about his output though, is for all its vast quantity (when I googled his “12 rules” the first video that came up was a three hour lecture!), I just don’t think there are many new ideas there. I mean, clean your room? That is the exact advice your mum gave you your whole life. Using bible quotes, traditional social values and psychology 101 to give a motivational speech? That happens in literally thousands of churches around the world every Sunday. A bit more uncommon are the quotes from Nietszche and Jung, but they are just that – quotes.

You could say it’s symptomatic of our current media landscape, where youtube videos and not books are the dominant medium of ideas, that someone like Jordan Peterson can be called a prophet. But then again, he is hardly the first person to sell millions of books by offering people a dozen steps to transform their life.

Once you’ve watched a few of his videos and your “recommended” feed fills up with his work, you realise how many of his popular videos have titles like “how to attract women” or “what women want”. You realise then that maybe it’s not actually 21st century interpretations of Carl Jung and the bible; not even critiques of post-modernism and identity politics; that people are flocking to him for.

But what I think is a shame, the thing that irked me about all those people proudly proclaiming how Jordan Peterson sent them to Tom Waits’ video, is that Jordan Peterson’s “bear your suffering, sort yourself out bucko” cheerleading is kind of cheating people. It’s that image of all those people cleaning their room while listening to Tom Waits sing about the joys of not having a bedroom.

As well as liking Tom Waits, me and Dr Peterson also have a mutual appreciation of that other famous hobo – Jesus. But what does the professor like about Jesus? Is it his radical inclusion of the outcasts (the disabled, prostitutes, tax collectors)? Or his anarchistic philosophy of social organising (“you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven… The greatest among you will be your servant.”) Or his habit of sticking it to the powers that be in his society (both Roman kings and Jewish religious leaders)?

Well it doesn’t seem to be any of those. He likes Jesus as someone who manfully carried the cross of his suffering, but a big part of it seems to be that he likes Christianity as the cultural foundation of modern western civilisation. There is some validity in that view, but by seeing Christianity as a foundation pillar of the status quo, he’s missed out on the best bits. As well as – importantly – the whole thing that got Jesus killed in the first place.

When he sums up his theories in pithy little points about dressing up in a suit for your self-confidence, or accepting traditional social and gender roles, or becoming more productive and successful workers; Peterson is actually insulting Jesus, Tom Waits, and most of the great thinkers he is so fond of quoting – most of whom had to directly challenge the social norms of their time and place to find meaning in their own lives and to contribute something unique and significant to the world.

Jordan Peterson likes to tell his listeners to do something heroic, to make the world better. In hoping for that I can again find some common ground with him, except I think his manual left out Step 13 – imagine a future for yourself and the world around us that is different – better – than the one we live in now. Dedicate yourself to living for that world, even when it means being out of step, or actively working against, some of the values we have inherited from our past.

Dr Peterson is right – we do live in a world that is tragic and unjust. But in a society riddled with exploitation, greed, xenophobia, social and environmental destruction; lives of meaning and heroism can surely mean more than just clean bedrooms.

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Review of Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond at the UQ Art Museum

Few christian saints can match the popularity amongst non-believers of Teresa of Avila. Teresa lived a varied and eventful life, but the aspect which enamours her particularly to the world of artists, and that which inspires this exhibition entitled Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond at the UQ Art Museum; are her mystical visions of encounters with Jesus or angels.

Most famous is the excerpt from her autobiography of her vision of an angel: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The sexual connotations of the passage are especially drawn out by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque masterpiece The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Built in the middle of the 17th century in Rome’s church of Santa Maria della Vittoria; the sculpture depicts Teresa lying on her back moaning, the angel standing over her with phallic-like spear in hand. The couple are surrounded by beams of golden light.

In many ways it is this sculpture that has built the legend of Teresa of Avila. In the intervening centuries she has come to represent the expression of feminine sexuality in a time of repressive sexual mores; of a sensual christianity that rejects the ascetic dualism of the religion.

This is well demonstrated in Audrey Flack’s depiction here of Teresa’s moaning face with a stick of lipstick, the angel with a frosted cupcake. Flack describes Teresa as the antithesis of a middle aged de-sexualized nun, but rather a beautiful vibrant young woman in the throes of intense passionate feelings … That she is a young woman allowing herself to display her sexuality (albeit religious sexuality) is courageous, unique and historically important.”

I’m not sure what Teresa herself would think of this. She was, after all, a nun who took a vow of chastity and devoted herself to lengthy sessions of prayer. As a young Carmelite sister, she was disenchanted with the way her fellow nuns gossiped and socialised with the local (male) gentry. So she founded her own monastery where strict routines of prayer, absolute poverty and vegetarianism were enforced. Her nuns became known as the discalced (shoeless) sisters.

The Teresa who inspires this art exhibition is the sensual orgasmic maiden of Bernini’s sculpture and post-modern mythology rather than the pious nun of Teresa’s actual life and writings. Which is fine, but gives an interesting subtext to the rest of the exhibition.

For one, Teresa’s decision to reject nobility for a life of voluntary poverty is the exact opposite of the scenes of Bacchanalian excess portrayed in works by Pietro Aquila and Girolamo Nerli. It doesn’t have that much in common either with other works in various shades of sexual innuendo that adorn the gallery walls.

Most explicit of these is Salvador Dali’s montage of female faces in orgasmic moans. While the definition of Ecstasy we are given as we walk into the exhibition is one of “self-transcendence”, the depiction of ecstasy here is on very much embodied rather than out of body – the carnal joys of copulation. No question that such desires have inspired much great art over the years, but what relation does it really bear to St Teresa’s ecstatic mystical visions?

Elsewhere in the exhibition the themes stretch further afar. David Wadelton’s sublime Show Them You Want It takes a picture of a couple of AFL stars, and with no more than a change of perspective recasts them gazing heavenwards. Brilliant work of art though it is, it marks a further digression from the transcendence of the divine. Here ecstasy is found in the spectacle of the football.

Chris Bennie’s Mothership, meanwhile, is a video of the artist dancing on his own to trance music, seemingly in his mum’s loungeroom. Bennie says the artwork is about the sublime possibilities of the mundane rather than the mysticalBut in its depiction of rapturous dancing to bad electronic music, it brought to mind the most common use of the exhibition’s title these days. In the 21st century, “ecstasy” is just another product you buy – a little white pill to provide instant transcendence. In Bennie’s video, he dances more and more wildly while his surroundings stay exactly the same. Ecstasy is an ephemeral moment of pleasure preceding the inevitable comedown.

In contrast to these come the artworks most closely aligned with the philosophy of Teresa of Avila – engravings by Claude Mellon depicting St Francis of Paola and St Ignatius of Loyola, and Gordon Stephenson’s oil painting of St Stephen; each experiencing ecstatic religious visions.

Francis and Ignatius both founded religious orders, dedicating their lives to poverty and charity. Stephen meanwhile is famous as the first christian martyr – a man who stood on the witness stand facing the death penalty for blasphemy and proclaimed he saw Jesus at the right hand side of God.

In more ways than one these staid old guys don’t fit in with the rest of the artworks. They are certainly a bit more restrained than the scenes of excess around them, but more than that, these pictures show the kind of transcendent experiences that fundamentally change your outlook on the world. The kind of ecstasy you would die, or give up everything you once thought valuable, for. A quest that doesn’t seek ecstasy as a momentary release from our circumstances, but rather attempts to transform the world around us into a more permanent state of joy.

One of the highlights, as he is in any exhibition, is William Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism. As ever, it is a hideously dystopian vision of Georgian England. It’s set in a church of religious tricksters – the faith of the people exploited by church leaders motivated by power and lust. The miserable parishioners seeking something to believe in are offered puppets of witches and devils, a clergyman molesting a young girl, and a thermometer of emotions that runs from “suicide” to “raving”. It is of course a critique of the 18th century church, but in the context of the exhibition you can also see in it the marketplace of shoddy salesmen offering the promises of various experiences to liberate us from our daily horrors.

Teresa of Avila’s mystical experiences were the result of and the catalyst for a life of extraordinary resistance to the powers and cultural norms of her society. She rejected the norms of her family, social caste, gender and religious institutions; and faced persecution at every turn. Yet she did it all joyfully out of a powerful belief in something greater. Anyone trying to use her as an exploration of what it means to “transcend the self” would do well to remember that.

ps. The exhibition is over now, but you can view the artworks and read artist statements in the exhibition handbook published digitally here.

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Put Away Your Sword – repentance, prophecy, arrests and media outrage

The sword and the cross

I have subsequently been told the idea came originally from an event I organised. In November 2016, on the 100th anniversary of Australia voting against conscription in World War I, I put on an event to draw attention to Australia’s history of resistance to war. The venue I chose was the “Temple Of Peace” in Toowong Cemetery, built by Richard Ramo in 1924 as “an appeal to all nations to cease from war”.

That day there were a number of people gathered for the event. Among them was Jim Dowling. Jim has been active in the cause of peace (among other causes) for nearly 40 years. He is also, like me, someone involved in the Catholic Worker movement – a tradition of christians who aim to take personal responsibility for creating a better world. Catholic Workers traditionally operate houses of hospitality (like the one I live in in Brisbane and Jim’s farm just outside the city) where we open our doors to anyone in need. We also tend to live lifestyles of voluntary poverty and engage in public acts of witness like political activism.

As we told stories of creative and courageous resistance to militarism, Jim noticed the war memorial barely 50 metres away from the temple of peace. Also built in 1924, the monument was a large cement christian cross with a sword hanging down its middle.

To Jim, this symbol represented perfectly a christian religion fatally compromised by its cooperation with violent regimes. Jesus’ message of radical love has been co-opted time and again by kings, warlords and governments seeking to baptise their conflicts as “holy wars”. And too often, the church has been too happy to acquiesce (plus occasionally wielding a few swords of our own).

The cross in christianity, it should be remembered, is the ultimate symbol of Jesus’ refusal to violently resist his opponents. Jesus would rather willingly suffer brutal execution than break with his radical message of love for enemies. As he was arrested, he literally told his friends trying to violently resist to “put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” As he hung there dying, his words were not of vengeance or justice, but “father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. This was the ultimate example of an ethic Jesus had earlier set out when he said rather than loving our neighbours and hating our enemies we should love our enemies; that rather than taking eye for eye and tooth for tooth we should turn the other cheek.

And yet here was the cross with a sword hanging in the place of Jesus. It was there to commemorate the first world war, that mass slaughter that killed 15 million people for the sake of imperial territories. Weren’t soldiers on both sides professing christians? Weren’t all those casualties people made in the image of God? Wasn’t that sword a complete perversion of the message of the cross? Jim turned to my friend and housemate Tim and said “I want to take that sword off”.

The first time I heard of it, a plan had been formulated. There would be a ceremony to take place on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 days of sacrifice and repentance that leads up to Easter in the Christian calendar. Jim would lever the sword off the cross as an act of repentance for all the wars and violence christianity had been used to justify over the last two thousand years. Tim would reshape it into a garden hoe, symbolically enacting the words of the Old Testament prophets Micah and Isaiah:  “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” They would do the act openly; with prayer, reflection and song; and then wait for the police to come and arrest them.

My feelings about the action were conflicted. I agreed with their feelings about the symbol, and I liked their portrayal of the reshaping as an act of contrite repentance rather than righteous anger. The only thing was, I knew this action was going to be a bit, you know, controversial.

My concern was not theological disputes about pacifism and just war. It was the war memorial I was concerned about. In our very secular society (where Easter means chocolate eggs and Christmas Santa Claus), ANZAC Day is our most significant religious occasion; war memorials our holiest icons. They represent Australia’s genesis story of bloodshed at Gallipoli, our holy commandments of mateship and national sacrifice. To alter a war memorial would be the ultimate heresy.

Now that was a concern, but not necessarily the primary one. Australia’s religion of Anzackery has problematic consequences and dubious origins of which I’ve written about elsewhere. My real concern was that we would be seen as disrespecting those people who had died in the war, though I knew that wasn’t the intention. The worry was compounded by the fact the war memorial was located (even if only just) within a cemetery.

Still, I had to agree with the overall message, and I admired the courage of Jim and Tim who had thought these things over and were still willing to do it. So I said I wouldn’t be volunteering myself to be arrested, but I would help out how I could.

It turned out, as it often does (especially when working with these Luddite Catholic Worker types), that meant technical assistance. I would film and photograph the ceremony and then be responsible for publicising the action. So as we gathered at our house on Ash Wednesday, the 1st of March, and prepared all the necessary tools (pinch bar, hammer and anvil, bread and wine); I packed a camera.

The removal

It was early afternoon when we headed out to Toowong. There was a couple of carloads of us. The plan included the removal and reshaping of the sword; some singing and reading of bible passages, and a short mass presented by a supportive priest. Given the memorial is next to a busy road and the cemetery workers’ cottage, we didn’t know if we would be able to get through any of those proposed stops. We thought we’d leave it up to the spirit.

Still, we didn’t waste time once there. We unloaded the ladder and Jim got to work on the sword. The first couple of pins came out easily as he thought they would, but there was a slight snag when he got to the hilt – it was fastened much stronger than he had expected. He struggled for a while before realising the blade and hilt were not actually connected. He popped the last pin of the blade and down it fell.

While Jim fixed a sign saying “turn your swords into ploughshares” to the top of the cross, Tim set the sword over the anvil and began putting the words into practice. The guitar was brought out and Franz, another of my housemates, sang some spiritual songs suited to the occasion. Others present read some bible passages and quotes from christian history. Tim had reshaped the sword into a reasonable garden hoe and tilled a bit of soil just to test it out. I filmed and took photos.

Amazingly, the police had not yet arrived. In fact, nobody else had made any appearance besides a lone jogger who ran past uninterested in what was going on. So we set up for mass. Our friend the priest did a bit of liturgy, shared a short reflection about Jesus as a prophet – part of his vocation was to show all humanity how things are and how they could be. That was what we were trying to also do that day. We shared the bread and wine of communion and, after all the rushing around, stopped to reflect for a while. It was very moving in the quiet of the cemetery; in the company of people who, though from different backgrounds, were united in our belief in the transformative power of the message of Jesus; and in our desire to live our lives accordingly.

We stayed there for quite some time, until it was apparent the police were not going to show up. This wasn’t what we had expected; but Jim and Tim left a note with their names, phone numbers and motivations for the action on it next to the sword/hoe. We picked up our stuff and headed home.

The next question was what do we do now? Do we make it public? Nobody saw a reason not to, so the press release I had made with quotes from Jim was sent out. I had a lot of good photos and videos (it was of course a very visually symbolic action), and Jim and Tim would either be at work or in the watch house the next morning. So I put my own name on the bottom of the press release as someone who could be contacted for visual media.

Possibly not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but in my defence, I have many times done the same thing for previous actions where people had been arrested. And besides, I don’t really believe in secrets. “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not brought out into the open.” said Jesus; “let your yes be yes and your no be no”. I believe in not doing things you will later be ashamed of. And despite the butterflies in my stomach that had been my constant companion that whole day, I wasn’t ashamed of what we had done.

With that sent out, I also posted a report on the action on social media and turned the computer off. We had our regular Wednesday night open community meal. A bunch of people came around and we talked about the action. People who hadn’t been there expressed their gratitude and support. It had been a nerve-wracking day, but there was a kind of peace in the room. Jim went home, Tim went to do an overnight shift of support work. And I, after lying awake a long time with the nervous energy of the day running through my veins and thoughts about it running through my mind, eventually drifted off to sleep.

The arrest

There were a few things I had to do the next day, so first thing when I got up was to pick out good images to send to the media. As I sat on Franz’s computer doing this job, I was interrupted by another housemate. The police were here, and they wanted to speak to me. I hit send, and walked out to see them. I didn’t want to say much, as I was sure they had already seen what we had publicly put out explaining it all. They told me I wasn’t under arrest – yet – but they wanted me to come to the station “just for a chat”. Knowing full well that just for a chat in police language never actually means just for a chat, I got in the car with them.

The day before had been a day of nerves, but this was something else. I had, after all, specifically opted out of being publicly associated with the action. Now it seemed I would be facing the full consequences – legal (up to a potential prison term, when I already had another one hanging over my head from an anti-war protest) and social (people were going to be furious, and I am a fairly easily identifiable person). In the police car we had a bit of a theological discussion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cops didn’t agree with my position.

At the station I was arrested. Jim had already been, and we briefly shared a cell. He had been thinking about if for weeks and was at peace. I was a bit of a wreck. We were bundled into police cars and transferred to the city, past television cameras waiting outside. I wasn’t exactly feeling joyful, but I was neither ashamed nor angry (the expected emotions of people arrested), so I smiled for the camera.

Another conversation with cops in the car. One woman had been part of arresting Jim so had heard all about the catholic worker movement and was full of questions about our house. It’s a good idea never to trust people in uniform, but she did seem genuinely interested and was quite supportive. Talking to her was at least a welcome break from my own thoughts. Once we were at the Roma St watch house, with a cop forcing a DNA swab into my mouth, she walked past on her way out the door. She mouthed “good luck” to me.

It’s hard to put a name on my feelings in that cell other than just anxiety – that purely bodily response of fear beyond any immediate threat. I’ve been fortunate in my life to rarely have had to deal with what for some people is quite a common experience. But it was my turn now in that cold cell, and I sat there virtually curled up in a ball.

Eventually, I got talking with the guy I was sharing a cell with – always an interesting experience. He was a straight looking guy who had worked at a bank for ten years and at some point had started siphoning money from his employers. He had been caught, then had tried to leave the country but been arrested at the airport and was now facing indefinite imprisonment while he waited for his trial. He was very critical of the banking system, but the encounter still left me grateful that, conflicted about our action as I felt, at least my crime had been one with altruistic motivation.

After a couple of hours we were charged and released on bail. Willful damage to cemeteries, monuments etc. was the charge; maximum penalty seven years in prison. There was a tv crew waiting for us outside. Jim offered for the first time what would become his standard line – he didn’t damage the cross, he improved it. The damage was when the sword had been put there in the first place. We caught the bus home.

Tim was arrested the next day after he finished work (in the cell he was punched in the face and had his head smashed into the wall by a random psycho who didn’t even know what he was in there for), while a week later Franz was also arrested. He had been seen in the video and had been recognised at our house. That one was even more of a shock – if I hadn’t been expecting to be arrested at least I was used to the experience and had played a fairly active role. Franz was 19 with only one previous arrest. His only crime was playing guitar.

Before we got to all that though I got home from the watch house. There were messages from the media. It was already in the news. “Religious fanatics vandalise war memorial” was one headline, “Crusading cowards charged with smashing up a Brisbane war memorial” another. Brisbane lord mayor Graham Quirk had expressed his outrage, while the Catholic Archdiocese had disowned us, saying the catholic workers had no ties to them. I don’t put much stock in the opinions of church hierarchy, but for devout catholic Jim to be tossed aside by his church was an unpleasant feeling.

I had some lunch. There was a tv crew at the front door (another had already been and gone that morning apparently). I told them I could send them film of Jim explaining why he did the action. That wasn’t the footage they were after though. They stood at the door, cameras rolling, demanding an interview. When I reluctantly agreed to answer a few questions, I was grilled with a rare hostility. “How could you do this to this ANZAC memorial? THIS SACRED SITE!” was literally one of the questions. After trying my best in difficult circumstances to convey the spirit of the action, that night on the news I was naturally edited to look like a maximum scumbag.

I went back inside a bit shellshocked. The cameraman was on the footpath filming the (very distinctive) front of our house. Looking back now, I can’t remember whether we actually locked our front door for the first time that night or if we just spoke about it, but that was the point we were at.

I went out to a couple of meetings – normal commitments. The mundanity of everyday life was reassuring, as the morning had felt a bit like my life was in complete turmoil. On my way home though, the kind of bizarre incident that seemingly only happens at times like this. I stopped on the bike path to help a guy whose bike was broken down. We got his bike fixed, but I was stung by a bee. I’d never had an allergic reaction to a bee sting before, but my foot soon swelled up to a ridiculous extent. By the time I ran into a nurse friend the next afternoon, her horrified response was to send me immediately to the pharmacy for anti-histamines.

Upon seeing my foot, the chemist prescribed me the strongest pills he had. “They might knock you out a bit,” he told me, not knowing how welcome a bit of sedation was right at that moment. I managed to still fulfil my regular commitments the next few days, but all in a bit of a daze. I could hardly eat due to a stomach constantly in flux. I couldn’t bring myself to turn on a computer. To this day I have never read the 100+ comments on my original facebook post (I’ve been told a couple of friends put in the extraordinary effort of responding to the various comments). Same goes for most of the 30 messages sent to me from strangers in those few days (the glance I have given them shows up mostly a mixture of abuse and threats of physical violence).

And yet the response we had feared never came. Someone pulled into Jim’s driveway yelling at him to “come out like a man”, but that was as close as it got. Most of us in the catholic worker movement have had people in our own home tell us to our face they were going to bash or kill us, so a few threatening phone calls or internet posts aren’t the end of the world. The feelings of anxiety took a while to subside, but over the next week or so they slowly began to as everyday life kept going on.

That process was helped by messages of support that came in. A close friend baked biscuits and brought them round with a lovely note. A supportive card came from Tim’s home country of New Zealand, signed by over 30 attendees of the Catholic Worker hui there. Long-term catholic worker peace activist Ciaron O’Reilly sent round a letter of support asking people to sign, especially those who were military veterans or families of veterans. Responses came from all over the world, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire.

I think it’s because my anxieties over people’s responses were so heightened that even now I can vividly remember so many of the individual conversations I had. “I think everything you guys do is great”, said a woman who frequents the free shop in the front room of our house. Friends with intellectual disabilities were very excited to see us on tv. “Someone’s got to take a stand!”, one of them told me. On that insane first day, as irate commentators lined up to denounce us, a camera crew turned up at the office of local Councillor Jonno Sri. Poor Jonno has enough hassles from the media without being dragged into ours, yet that night on the news he was saying “people may disagree with this action, but the catholic workers do a lot of great work in the community.”

I was a bit worried about the reaction from the footy club I had recently begun training with, given there were a number of military personnel at the club. What I got from the coach and board was a heart-warming and kinda humourous example of Australian egalitarianism – “everyone’s got a right to their beliefs; and to be honest people at this club get arrested for all kinds of things. All we ask is that you don’t bring the club into it by wearing a club polo shirt while you do it.” Later on, after the court case was all over, a couple of the army guys told me they didn’t take it as a disrespect to soldiers.


Two weeks into Lent, it was time for our first court appearance. Purely a formality in terms of court proceedings, it was nonetheless an opportunity for the media to report on it again, which they certainly did. Of most interest to them seemingly was the fact that we turned up to court barefoot. In between filming our feet and asking why we didn’t wear shoes though, they did manage to touch on some other topics. As ever though, the soundbite nature of tv news was something to grapple with. I was hoping to let Jim do the talking to the media, but they swarmed around me too leaving me without much choice. One reporter asked me if our action didn’t didn’t violate the right to freedom of religion. The question caught me off guard. The basis of a freedom of religion is a separation of church and state, which that memorial (with its religious symbol commemorating a state war) certainly does not represent. I couldn’t think of a way of cramming that into a soundbite though, so after a pause I said I had no comment. Naturally, despite all the other questions I did answer, that was the clip that went to air that night.

I don’t expect much from commercial news sources, so in a lot of ways I thought the coverage was ok (even at its most ludicrous) because they at least reported our reason for doing the action somewhere in the article. But we certainly got a show of all the tricks, from sensationalist headlines to judicious editing. They didn’t always feel compelled to report our calm responses to some of their more sensational claims. While news reports compared us to Islamic State destroying religious temples in Syria; we replied that, controversial as our act may have been, we were actually the ones saying religion should never be used to justify violence – it was the war memorial which gave the opposite message.

The next day Tim and Franz had their first appearance (our staggered arrests was the reason for the different court dates). They, both introverted and inexperienced public speakers, were quite worried about the media. But as it turned out, they shared a courtroom with a couple accused of murdering their baby. As a journalist friend told me, for the commercial media a crime with an identifiable victim trumps an act of vandalism every time. We slipped past the cameras unnoticed.

I went away for a couple of weeks after that, which certainly helped take my mind off the issue. The drama at home didn’t end, though that was the result of violent, unstable or anti-social house guests rather than this particular issue. We were able to check up on each other to see how we were handling it all.  Easter came, bringing an end to what had been an extraordinary Lenten season.

Our next court appearance came, with it the surprising news that we would not (as we had assumed) be facing a jury trial in the district court. Though our charge was an indictable offence, the reported damage of $16,000 made us only small time criminals to be dealt with in the magistrates court. Rather than dragging on for months, the hearing would be the 19th of July.

The trial

It was with trepidation that we approached that date. We took time to chat to a few people who had done recent prison stints to prepare ourselves just in case. Yet as the trial drew closer, our spirits lifted. This was due mostly to the sudden appearance in Brisbane of supporters from around the country and across the Tasman. By the time the court date came around (and the events we had organised to coincide with it; our house was a bustling community of about 25 people from different places and generations, breaking bread and sharing life together. We started to actually feel excited about court. I have never in my life experienced to such a degree the power of communal solidarity.

The court tactics themselves were slightly complicated. Despite the all-in solidarity we had with each other, we felt it was best for myself and Franz to try as much as we could to get off; given the precedent it may set for future protest actions. I had a number of older activists warn me of the dire consequences for journalism that would come from me getting a conviction just for filming. There was a slight tension between this and the usual unashamed honesty that is my normal approach in court. We would be representing ourselves, though a helpful lawyer friend had given us some suggested legal arguments.

So it was a crew of about 40 of us, holding signs and banners and proceeding in silent single file, that turned up to the court that morning. When chief magistrate Ray Rinaudo walked in to see our supporters overflowing out of the gallery, he said “this won’t work” and moved us into the biggest courtroom in the building.

The prosecution got the trial underway, with a series of police and council witnesses testifying of discovering the altered monument and arresting us. We broke for lunch (a picnic in the park behind the court) and came back for more of the same. As witness after witness appeared, it became clear that the trial would not fit into a single day though that was all that had been allocated. The courts were booked out for the next day. It was ruled we would come back the following Monday. The suspense would be prolonged.

Before the day ended though we did get the chance to begin our case. To be honest the prosecution had kind of began it for us by playing Jim’s half hour police interview explaining the action, as well as an interview I had recorded of Tim and one Jim had done with ABC radio. Our argument in essence was that we were not damaging the monument but restoring the cross to its proper (swordless) state; or at least we had a sincere belief that was what we were doing.

Assisting our case was our first witness, heard that afternoon; Dominican priest Peter Murnane. Despite spirited arguing from the prosecutor, Peter outlined the symbol of the cross in christian theology and how it was incompatible with that of the sword. It was a great way to finish the day.

The next Monday we returned to court with only a slightly smaller group (a few people had to return to their lives interstate or overseas). All that was left now was each of us getting up to make our case. The magistrate had already seemingly thrown out the prospect of me and Franz getting off as merely bystanders, so we were free to speak our hearts on the stand.  “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial”, Jesus told his disciples, “do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” That was what we were hoping for.

There were a few nerves to contend with though. Franz had intended to sing an anti-war hymn on the witness stand, as that was what he had done on the day. A slightly flustered Jim though interrupted him as he was about to hit the opening note. I had wanted to pick up the bible kept on the stand for taking oaths and read from it. When I was inevitably interrupted I would say “that’s just it – the bible’s used as a prop to give human institutions some kind of divine legitimacy, but you’re not allowed to mention what it actually says.” In the end though, under pressure on the stand, I chickened out and let that golden opportunity slip away forever.

Still, we gave the best account of ourselves that we could. To a media and court hostile to our actions; we wanted to at least give a display as sane people acting out of sincerely held beliefs, as a community of people that supported each other and took seriously the message of Jesus in all its radical implications. To that effect, the way we interacted with each other and the court were as important as what we said on the stand. Our bare feet, so beloved of the news cameras; were a symbol that the court, like our society’s infatuation with violence and economics, was an imposition to which we were not willing to compromise our essential selves. If the media never quite came around to supporting our action, I think they at least gave their audience a glimpse of this. They definitely seemed to get less antagonistic with each report.

In the end, without needing much time for consideration, the magistrate found us guilty. Sentences were read out in ascending order of severity – Franz $1000 fine, me $1500, Tim 100 hours community service, Jim the same plus a three month suspended prison sentence (though Mr Rinaudo later discovered it was beyond his powers to give both these penalties, so the community service was rescinded). Between them, Jim and Tim were ordered to pay the $16,000 restitution.

Jim had repeatedly said he was willing to go to prison (he had previously done a few stints in the old days of Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland), but we all breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced his sentence would be suspended. Prison does no good for anybody, and someone has to be on the outside to grow all those exotic fruits and vegetables and to keep pricking the conscience of society and church.

Outside the court there were hugs and smiles and time for one last media interview. Jim repeated his previously made offer to pay for repairs as long as the sword was not put back. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn’t be paying. Tim said the same.

We returned to the park for a relieved picnic. The relief was because none of us would be going to jail, and that the court process was over, but also because in the end none of those fears of savage retribution had come to pass. We had seen powerful support from friends and strangers, and we had come through with our faith intact that Jesus’ way of love for enemy and non-cooperation with the powers was indeed preferable to our society’s cult of violence and power.

We could even laugh at some of the courtroom fun. One moment of levity was in the magistrate’s sentencing remarks to me. Regarding the fact that I had merely been documenting the event, he said apparently without any sense of irony: “What you did here was not report dispassionately and independently as some of the reporters that are here today are doing.”

We stayed in the city that afternoon. A Chilean couple we had met at Food Not Bombs, the street kitchen we do every Friday in West End, were getting married at the registry office on Ann St. It was a small and informal wedding, but it was great to be able to be there and celebrate their love even as their families and friends were far away. When the ceremony finished we returned to our house for the reception – a dual celebration! Franz had of course been up late the night before his big court date baking a vegan wedding cake.

Even at the time we felt this was the perfect ending to the whole episode. Because these were really just two notes in the one song of following Jesus and living as part of the community gathered in his name. Times of celebration mixed with times of trial, fears in the end countered by the love of others. We went to bed that night free – not because of the benevolence of the state (something we were admittedly grateful for), but because we had resolved to do what we believed was right and would continue to do so through good and bad circumstances.

To be honest, my feelings about the whole thing are still somewhat conflicted. It’s taken me this long to feel able to write about it, and even as I do this some of those old butterflies have been testing out their wings in my stomach. But I can honestly say I’m grateful for the whole extraordinary experience. And when it comes down to it, we should remember what that cross actually symbolises. It was the method of execution a court somewhat similar to ours passed down on another criminal who challenged the religion of the day. If that cross doesn’t mean occasionally raising the ire of the society around us it means nothing at all. Another quote from Jesus to his disciples: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”

But that cross is not just a pathway to persecution and masochism. It also represents a wild, utopian hope. The idea of loving enemies and turning the other cheek was as ludicrous in Jesus’ time as it is now. Yet countless people through history have given all out of belief in it. It was for repentance we took that sword down but also for prophecy. The desire to communicate that the cross represents something more than the violence, injustice and self-centredness that surrounds us daily. With some justification, many have come to believe Christianity means nothing more than an affirmation of the status quo. I hope that, aided by those images that brought me so much trouble and were relayed by a media not always very sympathetic, our action at least placed the seed in people’s minds that the cross invites us to so much more.



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