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City streets

For the last year and a half or so, members of my household have committed to doing a weekly one hour protest vigil for West Papua. Every Wednesday afternoon, we take some banners and flyers and head to King George Square.

Sometimes noteworthy things happen and sometimes they don’t. Hopefully it does a bit to raise the visibility of West Papuan people’s struggle for self-determination. But it does mean I regularly do something I wouldn’t do otherwise – stand still for an hour in the middle of the city. After a while you come to be well-acquainted with the happenings of a city street, especially the little strip of Adelaide St that is our regular haunt.

Our vigil is not the only thing trying to get the attention of the many passers by. Far from it in fact. There are often buskers there, for one. They could do with a bit more originality (is there anyone in the world who still wants to hear some guy with an acoustic guitar sing Wonderwall?), but usually they are a fairly pleasant addition.

On top of that though, there are usually a group of christian street evangelists. Makes me think of the line from Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – “Jesus freaks on the street, handing tickets out to God”. King George Square isn’t Los Angeles circa 1970 though, and these guys aren’t long-haired hippies who’ve been turned on to Jesus. They are a small group of committed but fairly intense people who hand out business card sized tracts and ready-made arguments to convince people of their need to pray the prayer of repentance (since I’m there holding protest signs, the one I have gotten is why human rights don’t make sense unless we believe in God).

I’d like to think of these guys as allies in what we are doing on the street; but unfortunately there are significant differences in our conception of what God’s liberation of the world looks like, as well as the means of communicating it. For these guys, preaching the gospel is a matter of such urgency that there is no time for getting to know the people they approach in the street, or for really listening to what they have to say. They offer suggestions for how to avoid eternal damnation, but not many glimpses of what a kingdom of God based on radical love for our neighbours might look like.

Also frequent denizens here are the street fundraisers, aka charity muggers. Now I know they hate being called that, and I know they are just trying to do their (quite difficult) job and raise some money for good causes in the process. I’ll admit they must be fairly effective at raising money for charities too, otherwise there surely wouldn’t be so many of them around. But again, the street fundraisers aren’t quite the friends on the street they could be.

For one, recently one fundraiser came up to our vigil. Rather than showing an interest in the plight of Papuan people, it was to tell us he had booked this stretch of public footpath and threaten he would have us removed. But also, the street fundraisers in my opinion don’t offer many enticing visions of a better world. And not only because the whole thing is based on private companies profiting from desperate backpackers struggling through a miserable day’s work and still being able to claim moral virtue because they’ve raised money for charity. The exaggerated smiles, cheesy compliments and 30 second pitches come straight out of a sales textbook. At times they are literally as misleading as the proverbial used car salesman; like when they say “we’re not asking for any money” (by which they mean they’re not asking for cash at this very moment. They are in fact only asking for money). The street fundraiser looks at the pedestrians and sees only dollar signs, potential sales to meet their quota.

When it works it still promotes a compartmentalised view of social progress where we give money to someone else to cure cancer/save the reef/be a clown doctor; rather than assess our own lives to consider how our gifts can be best used and how our day to day actions can best align with our values and dreams. But worse than that; as the public face of social causes, they represent us as only interested in you for what money you have. They have turned the noble act of generosity into something you cross the street to avoid.

Also competing for the attention of city-goers are another army of salesmen. These ones are mostly silent (though King George Square features a large tv screen that plays obnoxiously loud to willing and unwilling viewers alike) and mostly stationary (though sometimes they move around on the sides of buses or on trailers towed by tiny little cars). They are the ubiquitous and inescapable advertisements that bombard us wherever we go in the city, showering us with false promises and needling away at our insecurities.

The commonly quoted figure is 3000 ads a day the average person is exposed to. We become accustomed to shutting them out (the hidden cost of which is what else we might subconsciously shut out as part of this survival technique), but who could measure the impact they have on us? These images that surround us are designed to manufacture desires; while the things we really need – loving and understanding relationships, a meaningful way to actually better the world around us, the freedom to chart our own course in life – have no space on our walls and billboards.

Add to this the subtle unspoken messages of things like security cameras and guards; expanses of concrete; the Greek-style columns of City Hall. As each person walks through the city they pick their way through not just all these suitors; they dodge the other pedestrians, sift through all the noise of the city. In their pocket are electronic devices that carry not just every person they know but also all the collected knowledge and entertainment in the world. The many stimuli fight for our attention.

I wonder whether in the midst of all this there is still space for what we were promised by so many books and movies – the chance encounter that changes our life. In their own ways the ads and the evangelists offer it, but I wonder how many people are truly satisfied by their encounters with either. Mind you, I’m not claiming my own efforts on the street like our West Papua vigil necessarily provide those experiences either. Maybe I’m some kind of hopeless romantic, but I’ve always somehow kept believing in this. Which is probably why so much of my life has been spent on the street holding banners, serving food or just sitting around reading. Believing that maybe I could be that serendipitous encounter that changes someone’s life, or who knows, maybe they could be that for me.

Do those moments exist? It’s hard to measure the consequences of any single action, but surely they must in some form. The city is not really designed to provide really radical ideas or moments to threaten our equilibrium. But if we’re honest, neither are our lives; ensconced in our safe bubbles of predictability and reinforcement. If we want streets alive with new possibilities, we somehow have to create them.

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Anarchy means DIY

Upon discovering that I call myself an anarchist, people give me different reactions. Many are curious about what that means. To which I say it means I’m against any person having control over another; whether that is physically, economically or socially. It means I want to work towards a world where people have more control over their own lives and less over others’.

Maybe unsurprisingly, the conversation then often turns to what an anarchist society would look like. How would decisions be made? What would you do about crime? Would there be any borders or private property?

This is all fair enough. I mean, you want to interrogate ideas by asking questions, plus visions of an alternative society help stimulate our imaginations as to what is possible and what we want to work towards.

But in a way these questions are a bit annoying because I think they miss the point on why anarchism is relevant as an ideology. Because anarchy (“without rulers”) doesn’t begin on some distant day when we somehow manage to convince everyone who currently holds power over others to give it up. Anarchy is a philosophy relevant and revolutionary to our lives right now.

“I learned a new phrase,” an elderly activist friend said to me recently. “‘Prefigurative politics’. But I think it’s just a new term for the old idea of being the change you want to see. Right?”

Prefigurativism (or whatever name you want to give it) is a helpful idea in a world of wars for peace and control to protect freedom. It’s also useful to how we inspire imaginations and conversations about the kind of world we want. It’s a good concept; and yet with its eyes still firmly planted on a prospective future society, it also doesn’t quite grasp what is for me the value of anarchism.

Because to me anarchism is neither locked up in a future dimension, nor is it prefigurative. Never mind what the dictionary says; to me anarchy is a verb in the present tense.

The idea of anarchy at its most basic – “without rulers” – leads us intuitively to the conclusion that no one can give it to us or do it for us. No one is in a better position than us to put it into practice. So this means to start living it out we don’t need to wait for anyone’s directions or consent.

But more than that, it means why would we want to? The minute we cede the terms of anarchy to anyone else we might as well give up on it.

Now you might point out here that it’s not as easy as just announcing a personal state of anarchy while there are vast structures of power held in place by the forces of the state. You might also say that as a white male in one of the world’s richest countries I have to be conscious that even the freedoms available to me are not necessarily there for everyone. And in saying that you would be correct. To really struggle for a world of more level power structures means working to dissemble the inequalities that currently exist – especially the ones that consciously or not give me power over others. To do this is undoubtedly hard work and means real reflection on what our world is really like and how we can change it.

But still, when I first met anarchists and decided I was one too, it was not at all a theory that inspired me. It was the praxis (what a wonderful word that is) of anarchism – radical social centres, food not bombs, squatting, DIY culture. I already knew there was something wrong with our society and believed a better one was possible; these guys helped me believe it was possible right now.

These things of course are not everyone’s vision of an ideal society, and in fact the sentiments I’ve just described are often derided as “lifestyle anarchism” or self-centred pap. But the truth is, I don’t know whether I really believe in an anarchist society. The urge for power is very elusive and amorphous – its very difficult to eliminate. If the rest of the world wasn’t evidence enough of that then consider those organisations that openly identify as anarchists – they constantly have to deal with struggles for and abuses of power. I’m not convinced that bringing an end to capitalism would tame these impulses either.

I definitely believe a better society is possible, and an anarchist revolution may be a way of bringing that about. But to me anarchism is not a static situation one day to be realised – it is a constant motion that moves towards the levelling of power imbalances. After the revolution the need for that motion would be just as much as now.

All this may sound self-defeating from someone who has for so many years now (metaphorically) flown the black flag. But the anarchism I believe in is powerful and active. I see in it the ability to inspire, provoke, liberate and transform lives, communities and societies. This simple idea can radically change the way we relate to people around us and society as a whole; the way we assess our values and priorities; the way we structure our communities.

And by its very nature, I see these changes taking place right now, by ordinary people willing to take up anarchism’s challenge of not deferring responsibility to anyone else, but rather doing it ourselves.

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Two Masters – Where is the Christian campaign against wealth?

As social media overflowed with Christian commentary on the same-sex marriage postal survey, a thought crossed my mind. Well many thoughts actually, but we’ll just focus on one for this article. I thought; I’m sure there’s something missing here. Like a conspicuously empty chair in the room. Where was the mass Christian response earlier this year when the federal Productivity Commission recommended Sunday penalty rates be scrapped?

In case you’ve forgotten or missed it the first time around, in February the Productivity Commission announced its findings that the extra loading hospitality and retail employees get for working on a Sunday should be removed and made the same as Saturday. The reasons were varied – from the idea that more hospitality venues would be able to open, that prices could come down, that consumer expectations have changed along with the way we relate to Sundays.

Not specifically mentioned, though surely implied in this, is the fact that religious beliefs which once defended Sunday as a holy day for rest and worship have declined in adherence and influence.

Now you’d have to say that’s true. But the question to be asked in the light of the current political climate is: where was the indignant Christian response? While unions and the Labor party very vocally opposed the changes, the church was deafening in its silence.

To be fair, the church wasn’t completely silent. The Australian Christian Lobby did make a well articulated statement against the changes, as did the social justice departments of the Catholic and Anglican churches. But I can say from experience that these statements would have hardly been heard by anyone who wasn’t looking for them. And why was the issue relegated to “social justice” anyway? Isn’t this a fairly serious attack on our “Christian society”? Where were the posters, facebook memes, the editorials in church newspapers? The sermons warning about the dire wider consequences? How can it be that Christians who believe the “safe schools” program is an attack on christian morality, or that Muslims are trying to take away Christmas; find no issue with a government body dismissing the ancient tradition of the Sabbath and saying just “for many workers Sunday work has a higher level of disutility than Saturday work, though the extent of the disutility is much less than in times past.”?

Now I should say here I don’t really believe in a legalistic definition of the Sabbath or other Old Testament laws. Nor does Jesus, who several times intentionally broke Sabbath laws to challenge that kind of thinking. Nor do I really believe in Christian religious beliefs being enforced on everyone by state power. But still, for reasons of Christian morality I oppose the cuts – because I believe that time spent on family, community and rest on Sundays is an important part of a balanced life and family; and should be the right of everyone. Because I believe hospitality and retail workers, already among the lowest earners, should be compensated for missing out on the social life high paid 9-5 workers are entitled to; and because I belief work and shopping are not supposed to be the things that run our life.

But also, a Christian approach to the issue should really go deeper than that. Because when it comes to greed and money; the bible doesn’t really take the moderate, balanced critique approach.

In fact, the great bogeymen of contemporary Christianity – secularism, sexual immorality, other religions – would hardly even when combined match the amount the bible comes out against money; either in frequency or stridency of criticism. Let’s dip in for a quick sample. From the words of Jesus there is

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.” (Luke 6);

Luke 18: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”;

Matthew 6: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Luke 12: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.

Luke 16’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man gives no reason for the rich man’s “torment” after death other than that “in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things“.

The parable of the sower (Matthew 13) contains this: “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.

That’s honestly just the beginning rather than a definitive overview; but let’s move on so we can hear from some other biblical voices, like Paul. Many would say Paul shifts the focus from the social reality of the gospels to a more Gnostic, spiritual idea of following God. Yet he is vocally critical of wealth: “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Phillipians 3) or famously; “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Tim 6).

To the same effect, but with a bit more rhetorical flourish, there is James: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” (James 5)

Not to mention Revelation’s depiction of the evil empire of Babylon (Revelation 17): “For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” As Revelation depicts a victory of the kingdom of God over this empire of greed and power, we are told “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore… ‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’”

Most emphatic of all, and one that is impossible for Christians to ignore, is Jesus’ extraordinarily blunt statement in Matthew 6: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

The biblical picture is pretty clear . Not only are the dictates of wealth dangerous and seductive; they are the opposite of the values of God. It is impossible to read it any other way. And yet one can’t help but think that at times Christians confuse God and Mammon. While the early church took Jesus at his word and gave away and collectivised all their wealth; these days we have a church that preaches the prosperity gospel – God wants you to be rich. Despite Jesus’ instructions in Luke 14 to specifically give money to those who can’t pay you back; the church has developed a doctrine of “sowing” into the offering plate – giving money believing it will return you more, as if God is some kind of divine stock market.

We have christian bookstores stuffed with books offering business advice. We have Christians believing that somehow Donald Trump represents the values of Jesus; that opposing healthcare for poor people is the duty of believers. We have committed Christian and former NSW Premier Mike Baird earning the nickname “Casino Mike” by defending the rights of casinos not to be subject to the lockout laws. The church, despite all the biblical warnings, has developed a dollar sign shaped blind-spot.

While unions are still campaigning against the changes to penalty rates, I can’t help but think the church could be the most powerful voice in reversing that law. And this is because the church can argue more than just economics or the right of a worker to enjoy a Sunday off. The church, equipped with the gospel of Jesus, can articulate an alternative society where it is love, not money, that is the guiding force – the kingdom of God.

That is, if we actually want to stop the changes to penalty rates. Plenty of people of people defend them. They say it’s good for the economy. They say society’s changed and the old rules of Monday-Friday 9-5 no longer apply. To be honest, I think a lot of people probably can’t conceive of Sunday leisure time that doesn’t involve there being hospitality and retail businesses open.

Which if you ask me, just goes to show that despite the claims of hopeful secularists and concerned Christians; society is not getting less religious. There are still two masters, we are just choosing one over the other.

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Peace Pilgrims – a Pine Gap tour diary

Friday September 16 2016 was a busy day for me. I began it preparing a radio show about Pine Gap, the secretive US military base near Alice Springs in central Australia. I had interviewed an academic who has studied Pine Gap and what it does; an activist who has opposed it; and an Arrernte traditional owner who says it has no right to be there. Then I rushed off to Griffith University, where I gave a guest talk to an ethics class about civil disobedience – the practice of intentionally and openly breaking unjust laws.

But I am not purely a journalist who reports on what’s happening, nor an academic who explains theories. So after completing these two tasks, I got into a car and headed for Alice Springs to attempt to resist Pine Gap and the US wars it facilitates.

So I guess before we go on, a quick primer about Pine Gap and what it does. There’s a lot more information out there if you’re interested, but basically Pine Gap is one of three satelite communication bases the US has planted strategically around the globe to enable it to spy on the whole world. The lease for it was signed in 1966, the base built in 1970. At first, it was never publicly admitted that it was a military facility – it was described as a “space research station” until academic Des Ball uncovered what it actually did. Rumours abound that the sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had something to do with his wanting more control over the base and getting on the wrong side of the CIA.

For most of its life, while Pine Gap has always attracted porotests from anti-war activists, its purpose has been just basic surveillance. In the last ten years though, this purpose has changed. These days the mobile phone and radio signals that Pine Gap recieves via satelite are used for drone strikes or other targetted bombings – enabling the US to kill people in the Middle East without the risk of having a soldier killed – or the risk of the empathy that comes from interacting with an actual human being.

As I said, Pine Gap has been the subject of numerous protests over the years. This one was to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the lease – though for what exact purpose everyone was going out to the desert wasn’t quite made clear. More on that later.

The trip to Alice was in my friend Jim’s van. Jim is a veteran of numerous actions and court cases out at Alice – he was well acquainted with the route. The van runs off the biodeisel Jim makes out of used fish and chip oil; so all available car space was taken up with drums full of fuel. Other travel companions were my housemates Franz and Tim. Franz is Jim’s son so grew up going to protests though he is still a teenager. Tim is from New Zealand; his previous act of anti-war civil disobedience in Australia led to him being assaulted, stripped naked and threatened by SAS soldiers at Swan Island in Victoria. Undeterred, he was coming back for more.

For us housemates (and in fact Jim as well, who has for decades lived in similar Catholic Worker houses), travelling 3000km to protest was only part of our attempts to create a more just and peacefu world. Living together; we try to live communally and sustainably, to open our doors to friends and strangers needing somewhere to visit or stay, and to publicly agitate for the world we believe in.

The other travelling companion was a guy we’d never met but who got in contact looking for a lift. He was a talkative fellow, and didn’t necessarily share the same taste in conversation or the same values as the rest of us. Which is fine, but just gets a bit testing over a four day trip.

And for four days we drove. For a desert, it sure rained a lot. At Mt Isa we slept under the cover of a church’s back verandah and showered under an overflowing drain pipe. There we also briefly met up with the convoy from Cairns who were also heading out to Alice. They had had a torrid time with the weather and were drying out their stuff at the laundromat. Included in that group was our friend Margaret; another long-time peace activist who had been trying to organise an action for quite some time. We talked strategy for a bit then got back on the road.

Even in rain, the desert drive is of course spectacular. We watched the scenery change as we drove – the trees thinner and samller, the pastures from lush to patchy, the dominant colour from green to red. We stopped at the Devil’s Marbles to climb on those extraordinary gravity defying rocks. We stared out the windows at the beautiful colours and vast horizons of central Australia. Even in our cramped car, it felt like we were stretching out from the claustrophobia and stress of the city.

We got into Alice on Monday afternoon. We drove through the town to the Claypans just on the south side, the site of the Healing Camp. There was a camp of probably 40-50 people set up; including another old peace activist Graeme, who put the kettle on and welcomed us all with cups of tea.

At this point I should probably digress from the narrative to explain how this convergence on Pine Gap was composed. As often seems to be the case in the peace movement, it wasn’t entirely peaceful. I had first heard the idea of a convergence discussed a couple of years earlier, at the annual Independent and Peaceful Australia Network gathering. IPAN is a coalition of peace groups who each year organise a conference where mostly academics and activists give talks on various topics relating to war and militarism. It’s quite good but doesn’t involve much of the disruptive troublemaking that is more fun and commands more media attention. So to that end, a group called Disarm was formed with the idea of setting up a campsite and a space for people to do actions that might disrupt the smooth running of Pine Gap.

In addition to these two callouts, Arrernte man Chris Tomlins decided there had been enough killing done from his traditional land. His hoped response though was not so much a protest as a “healing camp” – it seems his vision of this was an indefinite intentional community that included everything from traditional aboriginal culture to permaculture and meditation. He went around the country sharing the idea – mostly at hippy events like Confest and Nimbin’s Mardi Grass.

It was the healing camp that started first. The call for this camp appealed to the kind of people who believe in spiritual healing and attach special significance to the idea of traditional aboriginal rituals. Funnily enough though, people who place a lot of stock in the internal politics of indigenous culture were turned off by what seemed to be a dispute within the Arrernte as to whether Chris Tomlins had the right to speak for them or use the land at the Claypans. A somewhat messy business.

Turning up at the camp, it quickly became apparent that it was full of the kind of people you might find living in Northern NSW (where I think most people actually came from) or at a Rainbow Gathering – into alternative medicine, reading energy and living in harmony with nature. Unfortunately they are also the kind of people prone to heavy dope use, awkward cultural appropriation and a lack of awareness of their privilege that allows them to believe that peace and prosperity can come from sitting around meditating. This may sound harsh, but I have spent a fair bit of time around this kind of culture and don’t think it’s very helpful for trying to create social change or even for having enriching social interactions. I quickly surmised this was the kind of situation we were facing here.

Still, for a couple of days we hung out at the camp and tried to contribute. It was a strange group but there were some good people there. As others started to come in too we began talking strategy for actions and media.

The action that had been proposed by Margaret was a “lament” on site at Pine Gap to mourn all the dead caused by this place. She had suggested creative interpretation – music, dance, art. I personally felt I wanted an image more directly linked to halting the operations of Pine Gap. I had heard there was a depot in town where the buses leave from to take all the workers out to the base. I envisioned locking it down and being in the middle of town near media and passers by.

So as the others looked at potential routes to walk on the base, I went into town to suss out the depot. Turned out it has four gates – a bit much for one person and his lock-on device to shut down. I would need a plan B.

Still, going into town for the reconnoiter had its advantages – it got me out of the healing camp which was starting to appeal less and less. Coming to Alice I had known there were a couple of old friends there it would be nice to see. But a welcome surprise on getting into town was discovering that actually there were a whole heap of familiar faces from around the country – some of whom I hadn’t seen in years (hardly surprising since they were in the middle of the desert – I had last come to Alice five years previously).

Some of these people weren’t much more than acquaintances, but you get a special kind of bond through doing political activism with people. For one, working on a project or action with people, even briefly, is very different to running into someone a few times. Secondly, sometimes these situations can be kinda tense or towards the extremes of the emotional spectrum. That can have the effect of very quickly building strong bonds. Thirdly, the knowledge that you share the same values and that the other person has probably been working on things you support means there is an instinctive trust and solidarity.

Maybe it was these reasons or maybe they would have been no matter what; but one household was very welcoming when I asked if I could crash there while I planned an action. In fact, the question was answered emphatically in a way that implied shock at the thought I wouldn’t have been welcome. This kind of total hospitality is what I try to offer to others, and have often been on the receiving end of. Every time is just as appreciated.

So I stayed for days, camping out in the backyard and finding things to do in town since I didn’t especially feel like going back to the camp. I hung out, helped around the house, worked for a day painting walls and constructing a basketball hoop at a drop-in centre for local kids some friends run, cooked and cleaned for Food Not Bombs (the free street meals that are one of my favourite things and have been a constant part of my life for about six years now).

The combination of welcoming people and things I could contribute to made it very easy to feel at home in Alice and I really enjoyed my time there. There’s a funny kind of contrast there – it’s such a transitory town and there is rightly a lot of cynicism towards people who come claiming to want to help aboriginal people only to stay a couple of years, earn a lot of money and then head back to the coast. At one point I sat down for a cuppa with two people I had just met. We talked about our proclivity to move around, a trait we all interpreted as a form of weakness. But it doesn’t have to be. Some people live their whole life in one place but never really commit to the people around them. To be a drifter, and to do it well, is not to never be at home, it’s to always be at home.

While I had been in town, my companions (as well as enduring the healing camp) had been preparing for their lament. On the Sunday night they set off. It was a diverse group – six people, one each in different decades of age from teens to 70’s. They walked through the bush for several hours in the middle of the night, their intention to walk on to Pine Gap territory and perform their lament at dawn. They arrived at the exterior gate (the base itself is well secured and lit up, but the actual Pine Gap property is very large and comprised mostly of empty scrub) while it was still dark and took a break to have a snooze and wait till dawn. Amazingly, they awoke to police headlights – they had somehow been detected and were now surrounded. They had not broken any laws, and in any case the police weren’t too keen to have too many arrests and free publicity. So they were all put into the cop cars and driven back to the camp.

The next morning three elderly Quaker grandmothers temporarily and partially blocked the front entrance to Pine Gap by having a tea party. It was a refrain of an action they had done a year earlier during US-Australia joint military exercises at Shoalwater Bay; and the site of friendly old women drinking tea and blocking a road always gets a bit of attention. They had been prepared to be arrested, but again it seemed the cops didn’t want to – traffic was diverted around them and eventually they picked up the teapot and went home. It was the first public action of the convergence though.

We regrouped to talk backup plans. The lamentors were keen to try again at some point. I shared my plan – I wanted to lock myself to the undercarriage of a bus carrying workers at the front gate of Pine Gap (again, the front gates are a long way from the base and not really walking distance). We set the date for Wednesday morning.

Back in Brisbane, preparing for the trip, I had bought myself a bicycle D-Lock. At $65, it was a cheap lock but still the most expensive single object I had bought in over five years (I’m not making that up). It was to be a single-use item – my plan was to use it to lock myself to something until a police officer was forced to test out its strength with an angle-grinder. On Tuesday night, after fine-tuning my media release, I spent at least an hour practicing locking myself to the axles of different vehicles.

When we had talked about the action, a couple of people had expressed concerns about my safety sliding under a bus. I wasn’t worried about that, or about getting arrested; but I was nervous about whether I would be able to lock myself on in time. Any other lock-ons I’ve been a part of have been done with plenty of time and space – not in front of police officers. Also, because it was the only thing I’d brought, I would be using a D-Lock around my neck rather than the more practical elbow lock with both arms in it. The only choke point in the road (where I could hope to hold up a whole convoy and not just one bus) was right at the front gate, where there was certain to be cops. My only hope was to catch them by surprise.

I couldn’t sleep from nerves. I just kept envisioning what might happen. After finally drifting off for a bit of sleep, my alarm went with the sun still below the horizon and pouring rain hammering on the tent. It was time to go.

There were police already waiting near the gate. We had done a dummy run the previous morning just holding signs, so with my lock hidden under my jumper we pretended we were just doing the same thing. The buses arrived. On cue, my friends walked out in front holding a banner. The bus stopped in front of me. The police were maybe 20 metres away. After all the nerves, it was the perfect opportunity. I slid under the bus, squirmed on my back towards the front axle. I got the lock over the bar, put my neck through and went to click the lock closed. And then there were hands grabbing me. I held onto the axle desperately, but it was no use. Three cops were dragging my body out. They took my lock but let me go, leaving me soaking wet from lying on the road and sheepishly watching the bus drive in.

The cops were also a bit embarrassed. They lined both sides of the road now as the rest of the buses went through. One of them stood a couple of metres in front of me, doing his best intimidating glare. Eventually one came up to me, took my details and told me I would probably be getting a fine.

After all the buses had gone through, we trooped back to the Disarm camp, which had now been set up a few kilometres down the road from the gate. I was soaking wet and a bit disappointed, but still high on the adrenaline. Back at the camp, I had a cup of tea, some breakfast and sat down for the camp meeting, which planned to do a mass blockade of the road that afternoon.

The camp meetings were long and chaotic – too many people who didn’t know each other and had different ideas together in one space. Discussion went round and round. In the end some resolution was reached, but by this point I was cold and the disappointment of the morning’s failure was starting to kick in. We headed back to the healing camp to relax.

I hadn’t really been at the camp for most of a week, and it seems it had gotten a lot stranger in that time. Drug use was high – a lot of weed but also apparently toad body fluids. The theories too had gone way past the usual hippy auras and good vibes. Inexplicably, the camp now mostly seemed to believe that there were aliens planning to come to earth and usher in a new society but they had to wait until the world was peaceful enough for them to come to Pine Gap and sign an inter-galactic treaty. Protesting against Pine Gap was a bad idea (despite it being what we had come out here to do) because it put the treaty at risk.

I never quite grasped all the nuances of the theory, but I swear I am not making this up. One guy came up and told us he had come out to Alice believeing that humans were responsible for wars and we should protest Pine Gap, but had the previous night been convinced of the error of his ways by this theory. What are you supposed to say to that? There were some good people at the Healing Camp, but mostly it was awful. I could write an account just of the Healing Camp and it would be somewhat humourous, but it’s not really the point plus it was hard enough living through it at the time without recounting it now. Every radical political group has its share of wacky ideas, but this was another level. Anyway, after this we didn’t spend much time at the camp and I can’t really say I missed it.

The lamenters meanwhile, minus a couple of members from the first attempt, were planning on trying again to enter the base. Having failed in my Plan A, the obvious solution was to join them that night. It was a bit of a relief really. Compared with the nerve-wracking morning, walking through the bush for a couple of hours in the middle of the night would be relaxing. Plus I would be with my friends!

A few things were to happen before then though. First the afternoon roadblock. It was an interesting action that displayed what the police tactics would be – the police didn’t arrest anyone or even move us on. Traffic to Pine Gap was diverted through the back entrance; and not only were the protesters allowed to stay on the road, the police actually blocked the end of the road themselves, stopping us from getting out. This led to a few jokes about the police having joined us in the blockade, but it did raise a bit of an issue for those of us who needed to get out to plan our next action. The three of us who were there in the end had to walk to the end of the road carrying any stuff we would need and got a lift back to town.

The pre-lament meeting point was Campfire In The Heart, a spiritual retreat on the outskirts of Alice where they have a weekly shared meal and discussion. Tonight the topic was “faith and activism”. People around the group shared different perspectives, but of course what we didn’t mention was the spiritual practice we were about to undertake – a pilgrimage into the eyes of Babylon, risking imprisonment to publicly state resistance to the US military rule of the world. “Put away your sword,” Jesus had said, “For he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” For me, faith and political action are indivisible. The pilgrimage we were about to leave on was a deeply spiritual act.

And so we began preparing. We had a couple of friends who had agreed to drive us out to a point from which we could walk on to Pine Gap. Before then though there was one matter to attend to – not media this time, which had been left in the hands of a couple of other friends.

Following the first failed trespass attempt, there had been much discussion about how the group could have been spotted. One suggestion, seemingly unlikely but all the same taken seriously, was that Pine Gap’s access to heat-sensor satelite tracking of the globe (used to detect missile launches, also apparently to follow climate change) had detected the group of warm-blooded humans waiting at the perimeter fence of the base. The suggestion to mitigate this was to be more spread out this time (so we could plausibly be kangaroos or something), and to wear plastic emergency warmth blankets to trap our body heat in and not radiate it for detection. I had been opposed to wearing the shiny plastic blankets, but as everybody else put one one, I was left with the conclusion that if I refused and we were again detected it would be my fault. So sheepishly I wrapped myself in what looked like an alfoil suit and put my jacket on over the top. The sacrifices we have to make for peace.

We set off walking, in silence (except for the rustling plastic) and by the light of the stars. We had gone less than 500 metres when the first moment of confusion came – we were near a house and dogs were barking. Someone said to stop, but people at the front were speeding ahead. We got separated. It was not the start we had hoped for. We waited a while, trying various attempts to find the others without drawing too much attention to ourselves. In the end we kept walking, figuring (in the end correctly) that the others would wait for us at a conspicuous landmark.

It was a long walk. I had barely slept the night before, and we were now well past midnight. But I trudged on, a little bit sleepy but with enough adrenaline to keep going. The adrenaline, funnily enough, was not nerves over what might happen when we were caught, although I knew we were risking lengthy prison sentences. That hardly crossed my mind. It was more the excitement of sneaking through the desert on a mission for peace with a group of comrades.

For some time now there has been a tradition of “peace pilgrimages” on military bases around the country to witness for peace – mostly christians who combine pacifism with the religious tradition of a sacred journey to publicly stand against militarism. At Pine Gap, at Shoalwater Bay in Queensland where the US and Australian militaries do joint training exercises, at Swan Island where the SAS plans its special missions. I’m a fan of the pilgrimage idea – we are publicly disrupting the war preparations but also the long journey offers a chance for reflection on what it means to live for peace in our own lives, our relationships, our society.

Plus I could reflect on the people I was conducting the pilgrimage with. I was proud to be walking with them. Jim and Margaret were both long term activists – they had been doing this stuff since before I was born. They are both inspirations to me as well as friends – for the dedication they have shown to this cause through defeats and disillusionment; through parenthood and the passing of time. I had been arrested with them both multiple times before for the same cause.

Then there was Tim and Franz – my housemates. We don’t just share space, food and resources; though we do share them. We share values and dreams – we choose to try to live in a way distinct from the culture around us as a little refuge from the self-centred, money-focussed world around us; as a witness of a different way that is possible. And now as an extension of the project we were walking together onto one of the key bases of the world’s military superpower – and doing it together.

Still, the walk could at times be hard going. We walked up and down hills. The rocks and spinifex grass underfoot was all so sharp that even Jim, who never (and I mean never) wears any footwear, was in a pair of joggers he had found at home (they probably belonged to one of his children). Margaret had been seeing a personal trainer in an attempt to get fit for this very walk, but she was also exhausted from all the other work around trying to do this – the meetings, planning, media releases, co-ordination.

For her and the others, it was the second time they’d done this particular late night walk in four days. Margaret was getting tired and losing her balance. As we walked down the hills, she held on to my arm to steady herself.

We took a few stops along the way. In keeping with the heat sensor precautions, we would spread out to stop. I would lie down and look up at the stars, as I mostly do on any night out of the city. Tonight though it wasn’t quite as satisfying as usual. For one, the enormous lights of Pine Gap creates light pollution that makes the stars not as impressive as they normally would be in the desert. And then there was the shooting stars – normally such a joyous sight, but tonight I’m like Billy Bragg reflecting that they are probably satellites. Satellites that Pine Gap uses to kill people on the other side of the world.

Anyway, we walked on. A slight misjudgement of where we were meant we unnecessarily ascended and then descended a very large hill. It wasn’t really ideal, but we kept walking. And then we were in sight of the outer fence. Our joy though was shortlived. We could see spotlights on the hill between us and the actual base. We could hear voices talking to each other on radios. It was hardly surprising, really. The police have access to a lot of surveillance powers, Pine Gap even more. But possibly they didn’t need either. They may just have expected we would try to enter again and been waiting for us.

Either way, our plan of getting to the top of that hill, unpacking the instruments and performing our lament in eyesight of the base was looking shakey. The new plan was to go as fast as we could and hope we could perform some of the piece before we were arrested. We went over the fence.

My role, as I had been delegated that night, was cameraman. For the task I had been equipped with a phone camera and a head torch for lighting. I had hoped I would have a bit of time to get the shot right. That was starting to look unlikely, and as we power-walked up the hill I was turning on the phone and putting the torch on my head.

We were halfway up the hill and amazingly, the cops didn’t seem to have seen us yet. Margaret was exhausted though. She grabbed her viola out of its case. I whisper/shouted to Franz to come back and get his guitar. Miraculously, the instruments were in tune. As they were played and I shone the torch to attempt to get a photo, our game was up. The cops were coming for us now.

We were still moving mind you, racing them to the top of the hill where Pine Gap would be laid out in front of us. Our lament became a procession – Jim holding a picture of a dead child from the war in Iraq, Franz playing the guitar, Tim carrying his amp, Margaret on the viola. I was trying to get it all in the shot despite the fact everyone (including myself) was walking quickly up a very bumpy hill and the only light I had was the pathetic beam of a head torch. Suffice to say, the resulting footage is not my finest work. Knowing we would never get the phone or memory card back, my focus was making sure it would upload. So I would film a bit then hit the upload button.

The practiced lament starts slowly, with a dirgey two note riff played for a while. It gets better from there with some amazing viola playing. But unfortunately, we would not get there. The police were now upon us. They bypassed the musicians, calling “He’s livestreaming!” and heading straight for me. It was 4am and our broadcast, for obvious resons, had not been advertised earlier. But it’s nice to know that at least one person was seeing it live. I ran from the cops, still trying to film and hit the “upload” button. It maybe bought me a couple of seconds, but that was it. As I sidestepped in vain, one cop tackled me into the hard ground. Another instantly dropped on top of me, wrenching the phone out of my hand. They twisted my arms back and cable-tied them together as tight as they could. With one cop on each arm, they dragged me to the top of the hill. Hardly the worst treatment you could expect from the police, but I mention it because when I got to the top I saw my companions all sitting around. Evidently they had been allowed to walk to the top unimpeded and not had a hand laid on them!

In the Northern Territory, the back of the police wagons are just cages. This is done I’m pretty sure to stop police cooking people to death in the heat (a la Mr Ward in 2008), but in the winter desert night it makes for a very cold half hour trip back to Alice. Especially for Franz, who for some reason had his jumper taken off him by the cops. Fortunately me and Tim had by now taken off our ridiculous foil blankets, which Franz wrapped around his shivering body.

The experience in the watch house was pretty normal – sleep, being woken to go to an interview in which you refuse to say anything, being given breakfast (and did our eating requirement shuffle – Tim being the only meat eater got the ham off everyone’s sandwich; Franz being vegan exchanged his sandwich for extra fruit), boredom. Worse than being locked in a cell is being locked in a cell with the TV on at full volume, though we did get some enjoyment at one point from watching people hurt themselves on “Wipeout”. Around the middle of the day we were called in to go to court for what we assumed would be a fairly routine court appearance.

I should at this point note that we were charged not with any of the usual summary offences you get for protest activity. Pine Gap has its own law – the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. Under it, trespass is punishable by a maximum seven years prison. Taking photographs is another seven. The law has been used before only once in history (though many people have walked on to Pine Gap before) – that was after the “citizen’s inspection” for weapons of mass destruction done by a group of four people including our own Jim Dowling and Margaret’s late husband Bryan Law in 2005. They were found guilty and fined, but when the prosecution appealed the sentences (they felt the four should have gone to prison), the high court actually threw out the original charges. The law was for defence facilities, the court said; and by refusing to allow any evidence as to what Pine Gap actually did the court had failed to determine whether Pine Gap actually was a facility related to Australia’s defence.

The government responded by changing the law in 2008 so that argument could not be used again. Something a bit fishy about that whole process really. But that’s not the only unusual thing about this law. Because of the extreme severity of these punishments, you can’t actually charge someone using the act without the expressed consent of the federal attorney-general. And in this case, George Brandis was apparently not answering his phone. So the police had already told us they couldn’t charge us and would be seeking an adjournment. Which was ok with us, we just wanted to get one court appearance out of the way. But then, as we sat in the holding cells at the back of the courthouse, things started to get a bit crazy.

The duty lawyer in Alice Springs that day just happened to be an old activist who knew some of our crew from the last Pine Gap trespass. As we sat in the holding cell, he entered and told us he had heard the prosecution were opposing bail. If they were successful, this would mean we would be held in jail in Alice Springs, at least until they could get George Brandis’ signature. It would also be virtually unprecedented – usually bail is only refused for people who are considered a risk of running away or a danger to society.

We talked about it and agreed it shouldn’t be too hard to argue against that before the magistrate. We had another surprise in store though. When it cam time to go up to the court, we were not all called together. Only one person was let out of the cell and up to the court – Franz. To be fair to the court, Franz was the first in alphabetical order. But he also was the youngest (19) and had no court experience at all. Now he had to take on a hostile prosecution on his own. Apparently inside the court our friend the duty lawyer got up (out of turn in court protocol) to say it was unjust to call Franz on his own. Inside the cell, we gave him frantic legal instructions – “quote the presumption for bail!” Franz left the cell, and the rest of us sat nervously.

He hadn’t come back when the guards summoned me and Jim. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t that we would take the stand and be told the charges were being dropped. And yet that’s what happened – while we had been in the cell, judge Daynor Trigg had been arguing with the prosecution about the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. According to the ABC news report, Trigg had called the law “a nonsense bit of of legislation”. Without the Attorney-General’s consent, we couldn’t be charged. That’s what the law says, so we had been improperly charged and were now free to go.

Outside the court there was jubilation from the big group of supporters. There were also media cameras. We came out, chatted a bit to the cameras. Franz and Margaret got to play their Pine Gap lament uninterrupted. Then we got to sit down and relax for a bit. It had been a crazy couple of days.

The craziness wasn’t quite over yet. Besides the endless work of media (both traditional and social), looming over us was the prospect of the cops getting the go-ahead and coming back to arrest us. With the weekend coming up and the court closed, we were looking at a couple of days in custody – potentially more. Our plan was to leave town in two days and get everyone back to everyday life in Queensland. It was decided we should head to a property out of town and lay low for the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, in Alice Springs, one of my best friends from high school is watching the news and sees me outside the courtroom. We hadn’t been in touch for years, but it’s not every day an old friend comes to the red centre – so Joel (my friend), knowing where the protest camp was located, headed out there to say g’day.

Out of a fairly unusual couple of weeks, this bit might be the strangest part of the whole story. Because when Joel turned up at the camp to see his old buddy, he found only a bunch of activists expecting the police were after me and not intending on helping the search. So as country boy/footy player/steel salesman Joel wandered up to a few people asking my whereabouts, all he got was people saying they had never heard of Andy Paine. He got out his phone and showed them the picture of me that had been in the news. They shrugged.

Eventually, someone took his number and sent it to me. I was delighted to catch up with him, after trying to explain to my somewhat perplexed friend why he had so much trouble getting on to me. It was now our last day in Alice, so after a great time catching up, I went back to the sharehouse I had stayed at to say goodbye there. The IPAN conference on “putting an end to war” was on, but after an exhausting couple of weeks, I passed it up and instead watched the Western Bulldogs win the AFL flag at a packed Todd Hotel. The night ended with a candle-lit “peace procession” from the lookout through town. There (after I improbably ran into another old friend randomly) we said our final goodbyes to old friends, new friends, comrades, crazy hippies and the town of Alice Springs. We got into the van and drove off into the desert’s distant horizons.

The story doesn’t quite end there. After 40 hours straight of rotating drivers, we turned up back in Brisbane just in time to be welcomed to a solidarity anti-Pine Gap action. Several months later, George Brandis finally got around to checking his voicemail and signed the memo. We were sent our charges in the mail,and in November will be heading back out to the desert to argue that the people who kill and destroy in war, not those who resist it, are the real criminals. The next chapter in the long adventure of trying to create a more peaceful world.

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Party and protest (If I can’t dance to it, I don’t want your revolution)

“If I can’t dance to it, I don’t want your revolution”. Supposedly that was said by a young Emma Goldman in the early 20th century (quite possibly she never actually said it, but it’s a good line so I’m sure she doesn’t mind taking credit). Since then, there have been plenty of people claiming the struggle for social change is all work and no play, but there have also been plenty of people who like Emma, believe that protest and party can go together.

The 1960’s is an era commonly associated with both partying and protest, but its not exactly clear how often the two were in a mutually beneficial relationship – Timothy Leary’s “tune in and drop out” proselytising of LSD was often anti-political; while Woodstock, for all its mythology, was a for-profit rock concert – people got in for free only because they tore down the fences erected by festival organisers. One of the points when party and politics met at that festival was when activist Abbie Hoffman bumrushed the stage to inject some radicalism. “I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison!” he yelled. Guitarist of The Who Pete Townshend yelled “fuck off my fucking stage” and hit him over the head with his guitar. The crowd cheered.

John Sinclair and Abbie Hoffman though are two 60’s figures who really tried to combine protest and party. Sinclair formed the White Panther Party, whose propaganda came from heavy rock band the MC5 and whose manifesto was “dope, guns and fucking in the streets”; Hoffman and his group the Yippees staged hippie “be-ins” at the Pentagon and sent Wall St into chaos by showering the stock market floor with dollar bills. In 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war, Sinclair and Hoffman among others organised a protest outside the Democrat convention in Chicago. In response to the “national death party”, they called it “the festival of life” – the invitation said:

“Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball! Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, truth seekers, peacock freaks, poets, barricade jumpers, dancers, lovers and artists… We demand a politics of ecstasy.”

The UK equivalent of Woodstock was the Isle Of Wight festival in 1970. Like Woodstock though there was a tension between party and protest. A group calling itself the British White Panthers broke through the fence, opening it up to all comers. Far from a one-off example though, that festival invasion was part of a “free festival” movement of radical parties. Most free festivals occurred unpermitted and often led to clashes with police – the Windsor Free Festival (which was billed as a “rent strike” and intentionally held “in the Queen’s back garden”) was violently broken up; the Stonehenge festival famously ended in the “battle of Beanfield” between police and partiers in 1985. Free festival organisers saw them as potential not just for great parties, but for radical transformation. One flyer from 1980 said

“Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.”

While some free festivals struggled against violent policing, some were co-opted into the not-free festival world (eg. A little festival you may have heard of called Glastonbury). But the energy lived on and the rise of electronic music led to a revival in the early 90’s. Underground raves (what we in Australia onomatopoeically call “bush doofs”) were so huge in the UK that the Tory government passed the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 – a law that gave police powers to shut down any outdoor event where ‘”music” (inverted commas actually in the law!) includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’.

There were massive protests (and more clashes with police) against the laws. But somewhere between the idealism of the parties and the radicalisation of being criminalised just for being young and having fun; the rave scene built links with the radical squatters scene and the anti-roads campaign against new highways that destroyed forests or communities. The most famous was the weeklong eviction resistance of the Claremont Rd squats in east London set up against the M11 highway. In Harry McIntosh’s very entertaining account of the blockade, he describes how after police turned off power and shut down the sound system on the first day, power was restored via an underground tunnel to the blockade; keeping the party going. “In the face of anti-rave and protest laws techno continues to provide the rebel soundtrack for the British 90’s.”

Out of the anti-roads movement came the idea of Reclaim The Streets – parties that invade and shut down major roads to either protest specific issues or just to open up new spaces (physical and mental) for creative use. Reclaim The Streets became strongly linked with the anti-globalisation movement of the early 2000’s that would attempt to shut down global trade meetings.

Recent documentary Do It Ourselves traced the history of Reclaim The Streets, underground raves and protest partying in Australia. That history is still kept alive in events like recent “protestivals” at the Olympic Dam uranium mine and some of the experiments in “tactical urbanism” by groups like Brisbane’s Right To The City.

Part of that tradition though has also transmuted into commercial raves and bush doofs – scenes that have taken on the music and aesthetic but not the ideals. Many participants would have no idea of the scene’s links with radical politics. It should be said that there’s nothing inherently radical about partying – especially in the hedonistic world of 21st century consumer capitalism. That tension between those want to fight the power and those who just want to fight for the right to party still exists.

To really be revolutionary, our parties and festivals need to in some way build links to movements that can actually change our social conditions or environment; movements that can include people beyond the young white demographic of much of the party attendees. They need to also hold an awareness that while some of us are lucky enough to spend our time partying, others don’t have that luxury – they may in fact be slaving away for long, dangerous and underpaid hours soldering our sound systems or sewing our cool party outfits. For many, partying is something that happens in opposition to protest – people are actively hostile to collective organising for a better world and instead espouse new age/conspiracy ideas.

Partying in itself will never bring about a revolution. And yet I can’t help but feel that neither will endless political rallies and meetings, perfectly formulated theories or campaign strategies. Music, art and partying can change political consciousness – being experiential they can penetrate to where no theory can reach. They can help us to envision alternative possibilities for the future and the present, and in a tiny way can create models of another world.

And you know what? The best parties always have an element of revolution in them, and the best protests always have a bit of partying. The struggle goes on for a revolution we can dance to.

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Cognitive Dissonance – reconciling our experience, the bible and homosexuality

Over the last year or so, public debate around Christian morality has been dominated by a couple of things – the “Safe Schools” program of gender inclusive education and the plebiscite on marriage equality. These topics have raised a number of issues for Christians about how to respond. One question is about how Christians should relate to state power and legislation. Another question is how to truly love our neighbours when they are different from us. But another is a question about how we read the bible.

As society has changed to allow more people to come out as being of non-heterosexual orientation, many Christians (including myself) have had their biblical interpretation challenged by our experience. This experience of getting to know people who are gay, lesbian or trans; and recognising that these friends did not do anything to choose this “sin” and in pursuing loving relationships they hardly seemed to be committing some great wrong.

There are several responses that I have seen to this dilemma. One is to weasel around the words in the bible – saying things like “Jesus never mentioned homosexuality”, or “the homosexuality strongly condemned in the bible was not the same as the mutually consensual relationships of today”. Another response is to just discard the bible, or at least parts of it, as something written in another time and not relevant for today. Another is to carry on in a state of cognitive dissonance – on one level affirming the words of the bible but in practice loving and accepting people whose lives don’t quite fit into a biblical idea of sexual morality.

All of these I’d say are fairly understandable ways of dealing with our predicament, and I would certainly recommend our interactions with others are dictated by love rather than any particular interpretation. An interesting thing about these three responses is that they all are premised, at least as a starting point, on the idea that there is one coherent, “inerrant” line through the bible that we should obey.

The historical context of Christianity in a way dictates this view of scripture more so than other religions. While a formal doctrine of “biblical inneracy” is a very recent phenomenon; the early Christian church developed its creeds out of theological arguments aimed at articulating one true doctrine. The dominance of Greek thought and its emphasis on rationality and reason would have been very influential on this. Protestant Christianity meanwhile, emerged contemporaneously with the Enlightenment, the “age of reason”. In these contexts Christianity was seen as needing to make logical sense. Jewish religion (the people who wrote most of the bible!) as a counter-example is much less strict on dogma; interpretation is perpetually fluid and open to debate.

If you take a step outside of these cultural dictates, it is no great stretch to say that the bible contains numerous contradictions that are hard to reconcile – just to name a few you could say the violent, vengeful God vs the forgiving “love your enemies” of Jesus, salvation by faith alone vs judgement for actions, God’s sovereignty vs human free will. The New Testament interpretation of Old Testament passages too would rarely pass today’s standards of contextualisation.

To use one (topical) example, the question of homosexuality has challenged for many Christians how we read the bible. I already mentioned some of the responses I have noticed. But I think this challenge is also an opportunity to reassess how we use the bible.

I don’t especially like to say this, but it is pretty hard to read the bible and find a pro-homosexuality message. It is our experience that makes us want to. To say that Jesus doesn’t mention it is hardly sufficient (since there are plenty of other things he doesn’t mention which we can all still agree are morally wrong), and to say these verses are bound in the context of the time is fair enough, but where does that leave the rest of the bible? And who gets to choose which bits are for today and which aren’t?

To re-examine a biblical view on homosexuality, I’m going to look at all the biblical references to it, but only in depth analyse a couple of them. There are six references to homosexuality in the bible. This of course is worth remembering – many many other things are given more airtime in the bible yet this issue has come to be commonly seen as the most definitively “Christian” political issue.

The first is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. It’s a pretty well known story, so I won’t go into the details. But it paints a picture of a very depraved society, though as many have pointed out the actions of a city full of men demanding access to rape two strangers is hardly the same thing as a consensual homosexual relationship. Interestingly, when Sodom is later used as an allegory for sin in Ezekiel 16, homosexuality is not mentioned. Instead, it says “Sodom.. was arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

The Old Testament law has two references to homosexuality – Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Both of these are strongly worded (calling it “detestable”) and come amongst a set of sexual guidelines that mostly still resemble our society’s parameters of sexual morality. Much of Leviticus though is full of laws relating to food and clothing that very few Christians today would consider keeping – it is in fact Christian orthodoxy to not see these laws as essential to be kept. Much of the New Testament is dedicated to arguing why these laws should not be kept (though to be fair, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 does still ask the non-Jewish Christians to “abstain from sexual immorality”).

Moving to the New Testament and there are several references in the letters of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, homosexuals are listed among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Timothy 1:10 is a similar list, though the word here sometimes translated as homosexuals is disputed – in my NIV bible it is translated as “perverts”. Of more direct reference to homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27, which we will come back to in a second.

Actually the bible passage mostly used by Christian opponents of same-sex marriage is none of these – it is Genesis 2:24, the part in the creation story where it says “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This passage, it is claimed, is a description of God’s intended order, and is reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19 when he is asked a question about divorce by the Pharisees.

Now this is where I want to really dig into our interpretation of this. There are several interesting things to note here. One is that neither Genesis nor Matthew is about gay marriage. Matthew 19 is in fact about divorce – and very strongly prohibits it. Most churches, at least in the Western world, no longer hold to the line Jesus says here that “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” I would suggest the reason for that is our experience that not every marriage is healthy and that actually sometimes the most loving and just thing is divorce.

Secondly, Jesus’ affirmation of Genesis here is a funny kind of affirmation. He starts with “at the beginning the Creator made them male and female”, but in this very same passage he somewhat cryptically says “some are eunuchs because they were born that way” (which I think at the very least is an acknowledgement that sexual and gender binaries are not as clear as many would claim from the bible). And he quotes “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”, but again says “some have renounced marriage for the kingdom of heaven”. In saying this, he seems to be affirming the disciples’ assertion that “it is better not to marry”. Paul echoes this at length in 1 Corinthians 7, a chapter that starts with “it is good for a man not to marry”. So much for God’s “intended order”.

In fact, the Christian loyalty to the nuclear family which leads many to oppose same-sex marriage for the sake of children’s right to a mother and a father doesn’t really seem to come from the bible. Jesus in fact repeatedly criticises the primacy of the family –

in Luke 8:19-21 “Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.’”;

Luke 9:59-62 “He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”;

and Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.”

None of these verses, of course, are referring to same-sex marriage. But Jesus is against a love for those close to us that excludes others – “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:46-47); and for a radical kingdom of God that transcends human barriers and includes the marginalised. To sum up the Christian message as a defence of the nuclear family is to do the exact opposite of the verses I have just quoted.

Let’s move back to Romans 1. It is the opening statement of Paul’s long exposition of why humans are unable to be justified by law and instead require faith. And it says “Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

The basis of Paul’s objection to homosexuality here would seem to be that it’s not natural. It’s interesting then to venture to another of Paul’s letters – one which we’ve already seen also mentions homosexuality – 1 Corinthians.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul gives the church at Corinth some guidelines for worship. It’s a strange and convoluted passage with the main thrust being that women should cover their head in church and men should not. Paul uses the same terminology as Romans 1 (“para phusin” in the Greek, if you’re interested) to say that it is natural for men to have short hair and women to have long. There are a couple of noteworthy things about this.

Firstly, it’s another biblical instruction that most Christians disregard with no guilty conscience – because contrary to what the bible says, our experience teaches us that it makes no difference to prayers whether a man’s head is covered or a woman has short hair. Secondly, there is no definition of “nature” I can think of that would indicate it is natural for men to have short hair and women long. Men have short hair because they cut it with scissors. So we’re forced to conclude that Paul’s definition of “nature” can at times be kinda questionable; and that his gendered distinctions of headwear here would seem to contradict his assertion in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free.

So where does this leave us? Probably further from a definite position on anything than we were at the start. But doctrinal rigidity can be a problem because once we dig around we may find it’s on shakier ground than we first thought. But more than that, it could lead us to miss out on what the holy spirit is actually doing.

I mentioned earlier the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. It’s a very interesting piece of scripture because it actually documents how the early Christians dealt with their theology being challenged. Barnabas and Paul return from their travels telling of Gentiles converting to Christianity. For us reading now, this seems obvious as part of the message of Jesus. But for the church at the time this would have seemed much more of a crisis of belief. The Old Testament; from the laws, the history of wars and invasions, the post-exile books where the prophet Ezra condemns the Jews for inter-breeding (Nehemiah 9), and the prophetic books which frequently condemn the surrounding nations and speak of Israel’s resurgence; continually asserts a picture of Israel as the exclusive people of God.

The New Testament interactions with Gentiles; from Jesus’ argument with the Syro-Pheonecian woman (Matthew 15), to Peter’s dream from God (Acts 10); show even for the positive encounters with Gentiles it was far from a given. And yet, at the Council of Jerusalem the apostles take the experience of seeing the holy spirit move among Gentiles and decide on a massive theological shift.

James’ quoting of scripture to support this decision is really interesting. He picks up a verse from Amos 9:

‘“After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things” –
things known from long ago.”

But if you actually go and look up that reference, you’ll find that’s not quite what Amos said – Amos 9:11-12 goes

“‘I will restore David’s fallen shelter –
I will repair its broken walls
and restore its ruins –
and will rebuild it as it used to be,
so that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations that bear my name,’
declares the Lord, who will do these things.”

“All mankind seeking the Lord” would seem quite different from the Jews “possessing the remnant of Edom and all nations”. If you look into it more you’ll find that James’ quote is actually tacked together from three different prophecies made by three different people in three different contexts – the line about all mankind seeking the lord comes from Zechariah 8, while the Lord doing these things known from long ago is from Isaiah 45. James is effectively rewriting the bible to suit their new experience of the Holy Spirit. Adding to the feeling that they are just making it up as they go along is the statement from the apostles to the Gentiles – where the instructions about the disregarding most of the Old Testament are justified because they “seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 15:28).

In the end, the church won out from the apostles’ willingness to have their doctrine challenged. It expanded to new places and people; most of the most influential figures in Christian history have been non-Jews. More than that, it enabled the church to actually live out the inclusive vision of God and the Holy Spirit to act.

It’s worth remembering Jesus’ many repudiations of the Pharisees’ legalism and his very concise summary of the Old Testament laws (Matt 22:34-40). Paul in the end says the same thing (Galatians 5:14). St Augustine’s answer to the debates of christian morality? “Love and do what you will”. Christianity should never be reduced to a set of rules (something New Testament writers struggled against); it is a living thing – the quest to radically love and to bring about the kingdom of God. The bible only really works in this context.

But where does this leave us in regards to the bible? In the classic words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” I hope the bible is not useless (for one it would make all the time I spent writing this redundant), but I believe it only makes sense in the context of love in action.

In the end the bible is an amazing book, and one passage in isolation can still be very powerful. It is also an undeniably counter-cultural text (though it has much more to critique about our current society than just sexuality, which would be nice to see more Christians acknowledge). But to use this book as a guideline for how we will base our life, or how we will relate to public policy that can affect other people’s lives; we need to view any one passage in the context of the whole book, of history and the wider body of knowledge; and of our own experiences. A lot has changed in the 2000 years since it was written, just like a lot changed over the centuries that the Bible was written in and a lot will change from our time into the future. The trick is to be open to the light our new experiences will shine on the word of God, and to love boldly and radically.

I’ll admit that my own experience has led me to reject verses that see homosexuality as innately wrong. I even go to the rallies in support of marriage equality, to churches that explicitly affirm diverse gender and sexualities, and support in any way I can the struggle of people of all sexualities to authentically live out a life of freedom and fulfillingness. And having put a lot of time and thought into it, I can also say that I do so not in spite of my faith in Jesus and the bible, but because of it.

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Life goes on (playing football for the Mudgee Black Swans)

It was the kind of news you don’t want to hear when you call your parents for a catch up. The Mudgee Black Swans – the club where I played my first games of aussie rules football – are close to folding, according to an article in the local paper.

Hearing the news took me back to my first ever game of aussie rules. I was 16, and had been playing soccer for a local club. While soccer paused for the school holidays, the footy kept going; and the club took advantage of the fact by recruiting some much needed playing numbers.

It was pouring rain – turning the field into a mudheap and testing the skills of the seasoned players, let alone the rookies. One of my teammates went to take a mark; the wet and heavy ball slipped through his hands and broke his nose. We lost by some margin, but I had the time of my life. The next week I was up before the sun and on the bus for the three hour road trip to Parkes; where we lost by roughly 100 points.

I was hooked though. I played the rest of the year when I could – playing footy in the morning then soccer in the afternoon for home games, even having my first taste of men’s footy late in the season (of which my only memory is being welcomed to seniors with a massive late hit by a hefty country player).

The Black Swans started with the kind of mythology every sporting club should have – the sporting culture of the town is dominated by rugby league and union, but one day after watching the AFL grand final, a group of friends decided Mudgee needed an AFL club and resolved to start one. That day one of the group spotted a black swan on his dam. It was fate.

The first few years were a success – playing in the CWAFL reserve grade, the Black Swans lost two grand finals in a row. Life was harder after a short stint moving up to first grade though, and the club was struggling when I started playing.

That first year I played I never once heard the club song for a victory. So it wasn’t until halfway through the next season, as our under-17s group gradually improved together, that I won my first game of aussie rules. I stood silently satisfied as a few of the club stalwarts belted out, to the tune of John Mellencamp’s Jack and Dianne;

“Oh yeah, life goes on; playing football for the Mudgee Black Swans
Oh yeah, the game goes on; we never give in ’til the final siren’s gone.”

Sadly that season the under-17s were the only team singing. The seniors lost every game and morale was definitely not at a high point.

It’s funny though how things can change. As we gathered again for pre-season in 2005; there was a new coach, some new players. Half a dozen of us had graduated from the juniors, where we had learned how to play together and to win. There was a new feeling around the place.

In the Black Swans’ finest moment, we went through the season winning nearly every game. Our star full-forward kicked 100 goals. In a year when the local rugby league and union teams both failed to make the finals, the back page of the local paper was solidly AFL for all of September. The week before the grand final there was a double page spread profiling each player individually – we were even asked to describe for readers our best playing attributes (I was a handy player off the half back flank, but found the question way too awkward so answered, as an in-joke, “fiery red hair”). That newspaper is probably saved at my parents’ house somewhere.

On grand final day we went to Bathurst and came home with the Black Swans’ first and only flag. It was the last game I ever played for the club though – by the time the next season started I was playing for the Southern Sharks in the Sydney AFL.

A couple of years ago the club held a fancy dinner to commemorate the 10th anniversary of that premiership. I didn’t make the journey down for it, though I had a twinge of regret when I heard that the Black Swans, who barely won a game that season, had a stunning win over the eventual premiers aided by some of the weekend ring-ins.

The news of the club’s impending demise gave me a kind of nostalgia for those few years of teenage footy. It’s funny though because I can remember virtually nothing that happened on the field in those years. The memories that make me smile are everything else that comes from a footy club – the impromptu community that developed among the friends, family and randoms who would come and watch the game. The kids we would help coach during the week who on game days would hang around and work the scoreboard for the seniors games. The unlikely mix of people, from tree-change yuppies to outback shearers and teenage schoolkids, who would get together on freezing winter nights in singlets and shorts to run around a field.

The grand final? I remember precisely nothing of the game, but I can vividly recall an exchange at training two days before. One of the players suggested we all wear shirts and ties to the game. Another, our huge and heavily tattooed forward pocket, said he had never worn a tie. The statement was greeted incredulously. “You don’t wear ties in jail,” he replied with a shrug.

Those few years I spent at the Mudgee Black Swans taught me a lot about how to play football, but they taught me a lot else too.

2005 gf

Grand final celebrations. I think you can spot a tuft of red hair up the back as the only evidence of me. I never have liked photos.

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