Category Archives: Culture
SPOILER ALERT. I went to see the latest Spider-man film during the week. The Amazing Spider-man is the Spider-man story ‘re-booted’: a new version of the original Spider-man rather than a fourth instalment of the Spider-man series which starred Tobey Maguire.
It seems to me that identity is always a central theme of the entire superhero genre, because the story hinges on the alter ego of the main character: who is Peter Parker? Spider-man or a geeky kid? Who is Superman? A titan from another planet or mild-mannered Clark Kent? And so on. Out of all the superhero cartoons and their movie spin-offs, the identity theme has been most strongly explored in the Spider-man series because Peter Parker is a teenager, and so his discovery of his super-powers coincides with his adolescent search to discover who he is.
Critics would probably dispute about whether the latest installment plays down the identity theme or actually treats it more subtly than in the earlier trilogy of Spider-man films. I am inclined to think the latter. While it underlies the whole of the film, it is only in the last scene that this theme becomes absolutely explicit when one of Peter’s teachers says that some people argue that there are ten plots in all of fiction. She then says that there is really only one plot line: Who am I?
Peter’s quest to find out what happened to his parents is a crucial part of his search to discover who he really is. And the scenes of Peter trying out his newly acquired spidey abilities like climbing up walls, testing his super-fast reflexes or utilising his superior strength serve as a sort of parable for the journey of adolescent self-discovery of one’s gifts and talents that all teenagers must negotiate. When Peter fails to remember his familial responsibilities to his aunt and uncle as he pursues his own ambitions and plans we get a glimpse into the frequently bumpy process of individuation that a young person undertakes in order to discover who they are beyond their family dynamics and patterns of behaviour. Yet another part of the theme of identity is explored as Peter painfully discovers that his moral failures can have catastrophic effects when he fails to stop a burglary.
All of the strands outlined above can also be found in the earlier films. The novel contribution of The Amazing Spider-man to the theme of identity is found in the character of Dr Curt Connors, Spider-man’s nemesis in the new film. We are told several times that the goal of Connors’s scientific research is to ‘eliminate weakness’, a goal born of his desire to re-grow his amputated arm. Connors makes it clear that he wants to transcend humanity’s limits… with tragic consequences.
Peter’s relationship to his weaknesses is different. His deepest wound – the loss of his parents – can and does cripple him relationally at times, such as when he storms out of the house after an altercation with his uncle Ben about his father. And his grief at Ben’s death sends him on a vigilante-style quest to avenge him. Significantly, it is his encounter with a child that brings about a moment of ‘conversion’ for Peter: as he plucks the child from a burning car he realises that Spider-man’s mission cannot be simply about revenge. After this encounter it seems to me that Peter’s weaknesses no longer cripple him, but are now the wellspring of creative, life-giving energy that now motivates him. His purpose is now to do good and not to simply find his uncle’s killer. Paradoxically, while his superpowers make him in some sense more than human, Peter’s true humanity is found in his desire to use his gifts in the service of others. And Peter’s true power lies not in the elimination of his weakness, but in the desire to allow those wounds to be life-giving rather than destructive. Contrast this with Dr Connors whose mission to eliminate weakness results in him becoming far more profoundly crippled than his amputation ever did.
This motif of power in weakness is deeply biblical of course. In 2 Corinthians Paul tells us that his thorn in the flesh is the locus for the Lord’s power to be made manifest, in his life, and for the sake of others (2 Cor 12:9). We don’t know what Paul’s ‘thorn’ was, but it became the place of grace for him, the place where the creative power of God was made visible in his life. We all have wounds, weaknesses, and Paul’s point is that they can cripple or create us. For Paul, the answer to the question, ‘who am I?’ is most profoundly answered by the God who is strangely more profoundly present in our wounds rather than in our triumphs. I think The Amazing Spider-man makes more or less the same point… with spandex, spider-webs and spectacular stunts of course.
Last night I gave a talk at the young adults event Theology at the Pub in Melbourne, which was more or less a repeat of a talk I had given in May at Guinness and God in Canberra. The talk was called ‘Faith in a Postmodern World: Insights from Benedict XVI’. The talk looks at modernity, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s critique of modernity’s concept of knowledge, and some of Benedict XVI’s seminal ideas about the narrative structure of faith, beauty and the encounter with the God of love.
I was trying to offer a logic for faith in a world that remains suspicious of claims to knowledge that lie beyond the scientific method.
My analysis of Lyotard owes a lot to James K. A. Smith’s clever book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. Thanks to everyone who came out for the talks, and thanks especially to Daniel who allowed me to quote part of our email conversation about atheism in the talk. Here’s the video of the Canberra talk (with thanks to CatholicLIFE and ACU):
I would have really liked to have gone to the recent Catholic Media Conference which took place in Sydney last week, but a few different commitments made that impossible. I’ve heard a few reports from friends who went, which were largely very positive. And it got me thinking…
As a Catholic priest who blogs regularly (well, semi-regularly) I am clearly an advocate of the Church’s presence in the new(-ish) world of social media. To say that the Church shouldn’t be a presence on the Web is to turn our back on one of the key places that people gather today. As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, the new means of social communication are one of the new areopagi – one of the new sectors of society – that ought to be the focus of the Church’s new evangelisation. We don’t want to disregard the potential of a wonderful tool for the communication of the Gospel. In fact, the Church simply cannot ignore these new means of communication, because like it or not, this is the way people today will want to communicate with us.
At the same time, we cannot afford to be naive about the various concerns and questions raised by the new media, including matters of privacy and safety and the narrowing sources of our information as we are increasingly selective about what and who we read. I’d also like to highlight a different concern.
In a world where everyone is always online and always connected, the Church may be, in fact needs to be, a ‘place’ where people are able to experience community ‘unplugged’. I’m reminded of a comment by Thomas Merton, who suggested that watching television was the antithesis of contemplation. The gaze that the television produces is the polar opposite of the contemplative gaze. What would Merton have made of Facebook? I cannot help think that he would have thought that it was an ersatz form of the community that is produced by the contemplative gaze. Connecting all the time with friends on Facebook is like people forced to drink chicory in deprived, post-World War Europe. Sure it’s a drink, but it isn’t really coffee. Facebook isn’t a substitute for embodied relationship, or what we simply used to call friendship and community before the advent of ‘friends’ whom you never see face to face.
The link between contemplation and genuine community is critical, and being online for hours on end militates against both. And without wanting to deny the human being’s virtually endless capacity for distraction (I’m recalling Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death here) I truly believe that the ersatz form of community to be found online will ultimately prove to be as unsatisfying for people as chicory substitutes for coffee. Which brings us to a magnificent opportunity for the Church… to be the Church. To be a ‘place’ which provides a space for genuine contemplation and which produces genuine community. Our necessary presence on the web can and must meet people in their ‘world’, but it needs to invite them into a different one: the world that is opened up by the Gospel, that is incarnated especially in liturgy, and which produces an alternative and distinctive way of being human. I’m completely aware of the apparent irony of using a blog to make this argument, but it is only an apparent irony. It actually reinforces my point that we should make extensive use of the new media in order to connect with people, but we will do that in order to direct them to the contemplative and embodied community of the Church.
In particular, this means that we need to be careful of uncritically importing the practices of the new media into our lives and into the Church’s life. Let me offer one example: the Facebook timeline encourages us to offer a chronology of our lives online in words and pictures going right back to the moment of our birth. I am sure there are parents who are even now diligently adding to their infant’s Facebook page, getting them ready to present to their child when they are old enough to read or even see the pictures. The timeline concept clearly raises questions about privacy, but the deeper reality is that it is also a liturgical practice in which we tell ourselves who we are – we form our own identity – through what we post about ourselves. The Church offers another kind of liturgy, which cannot compete with the Facebook timeline for being slick, glossy or initially attractive. But the liturgy of the Church and the other practices of faith like contemplative prayer offer a different account of who we are: that our deepest identity is that we are the beloved of God.
This does not mean dispensing with the exciting avenues that the new media offer for proclaiming the Gospel. It means recognising that these avenues are subordinate to the Gospel and not the other way round. The evangelical task for the Church is not to mimic the practices of the new media, but to be authentic to her own identity as the community that is formed by gazing at the face of Christ, who is the face of God.
So last night we had the so-called great debate between Cardinal Pell and Dr Richard Dawkins, and of course today the social media has been atwitter with the postmortems. I don’t intend to offer such a post- QandA analysis, but rather would like to direct you to Nikki Gemmell’s latest column from the Weekend Australian’s magazine (p14, April 7-8, 2012). It’s obviously not an analysis of last night’s debate, but it might better serve people who would like to genuinely explore some of the issues around belief and unbelief today.
In the column Gemmell traces something of her own quest for faith, for meaning. She begins by describing herself in her 20s as “one of those pitbull atheists, a sneerer a la Dawkins”, but she nonetheless would occasionally slip into a church service, a practice which slowly developed into a semi-regular habit in her early thirties. Gemmell no longer goes to church, and now identifies more with the atheism of Alain de Botton, “tipping a hat to the graces within organised religion but not be sucked in by it. I’ll never be with Dawkins, thumping that believers are deluded, stupid; I’ve too much respect for the mysterious in life, can’t turn my back on wonder”.
Gemmell’s article concludes with a summation of her sense of spirituality:
My spirituality is private, bound by no institution, carved from years of bitsy church-going and from the land and giving birth, carved from the shock of kindness I see again and again in people and am deeply moved by. These attacks of Dawkins and his ilk feel like a violation in some way, but I can’t explain why. Because my head’s telling me they’re right, it’s true. Yet, yet…
Dawkins surely has his supporters in Australia, but I can’t help thinking that Gemmell has articulated far more successfully what many Australians feel about the possibility of belief and the seeming inevitability of unbelief. She has clearly experienced the power of some of the practices of religious faith and the power of sacred sites to engender a sense of peace and invite a return to wholeness. She is drawn to the values of religious faith: “generosity, compassion and quiet”, as she names them. And yet her article concludes with her “head”, her reason telling her that the atheists are right; her intellect or reason precludes her from believing, as much as she might in some way like to.
There’s possibly (indeed probably) a whole bunch of reasons running around inside Gemmell’s head making religious belief within an institutional setting implausible for her. And so there is more that could be said than is possible in a single blog from me. But in response to her insightful column, I would simply point out this: in the last lines of her article it would appear that Gemmell has articulated a fundamental belief of the age in which we live, namely that the only “reasons” that count are the one’s that belong to her “head”. As a product of modernity she believes that empirical proof is the only valid form of knowledge. But every paragraph of her article points to another mode of knowing that she is not prepared to trust and yet feels so intensely: a mode that has several different names in the Christian tradition, but is probably best known as the way of the heart. As Blaise Pascal so famously expressed it, “the heart has reasons that reason knows not of”. The heart’s knowledge is more than emotion or feeling; in fact Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both described this kind of knowledge as a higher part of the mind or a higher reason, distinguishable from the normal processes of discursive thought that we commonly call reason.
Now when the atheist looks in vain for proof of God’s existence, and when Nikki Gemmell’s “head” tells her that the atheist’s arguments are right, they are looking for reasons at the level of discursive thought, at the level of what we usually call reason. In part that’s because modern epistemology (the philosophy of how we know) has said that such empirical reasoning is the only real way of knowing anything. But it stands to reason (pun intended) that if God is not a thing in the world, not an object that can be found in the world, but is rather the very foundation of all things and is thus utterly beyond the world, then he is not to be found or discovered by discursive reason at all. Which is why the Christian tradition has maintained, over and against this modern epistemology, that God is known and encountered by the heart, by the higher form of reason that modern epistemology has excluded or forgotten. I would contend that Dawkins doesn’t get this. He is totally convinced that the only form of trustworthy knowledge comes from empirical reason, from the scientific method. But Gemmell does get it. She needs to trust her heart, trust the mystery that she intuits within her life experience, the “tugging” that she feels. Because the heart has reasons that reason knows not of. And they are valid reasons to believe.
Over the summer I read Paul Kelly’s ‘mongrel memoir’, How to Make Gravy. It was a lot more insightful than many rock autobiographies, mainly because Kelly is a very intelligent and thoughtful man. I found it particularly interesting because he was raised a Catholic, but like other artists such as Martin Scorsese who have also jettisoned the faith of their childhood, Paul Kelly’s imagination remains baptised, forever shaped as it were by the faith he no longer holds. That is, perhaps even despite himself, he still sees the world through the prism of the practices and doctrines of Catholic Christianity, even though he no longer practices his faith or describes himself as a believer. And then this Catholic imagination is given expression in his music.
One (and only one) of the ways this Catholic imagination is manifest in his music is Kelly’s frequent recourse to Scripture. In How to Make Gravy Kelly explains that he often opens up the Gideon Bible in a hotel room for inspiration when he is looking for a lyric. One such example of this is the haunting ‘Meet me in the Middle of the Air’, a song he composed for the film Tom White. The lyrics of the song are largely taken from Psalm 23, perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible which begins: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want’. The refrain that runs through the song: ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air, I will meet you in the middle of the air’ is actually an allusion to 1 Thessalonians 4:17 , but when Kelly uses it he is drawing upon a line that he says has been around for a hundred years in blues, Gospels and spirituals. Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Led Zeppelin have all used the line, asking God/Jesus to meet them in the middle of the air. It has become a key phrase in the history of American music for expressing the human being’s desire for God.
This is where Paul Kelly’s use of the line takes a significant twist, because in the past it has been used as an invocation, as as prayer that the singer prays expressing his or her desire for God, his or her desire to be met by Jesus. But in Kelly’s song, the protagonist is not the human person, it’s God. It is God who is saying, ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air’. It is God telling us that he is our true Shepherd, who will lead us home. In this lyrical twist Kelly is being deeply faithful, perhaps more faithful than he realises, to a critical scriptural insight: that our desire for God is superabundantly surpassed and fulfilled in God’s desire for us.
This is because God really does meet us in the middle of the air… he meets us on the Cross, where Jesus is lifted up as the place of union, in his own racked and tortured body, between God and the human race. “When I am lifted up”, Jesus had prophesied, “I will draw all to myself”. This is fulfilled in the middle of the air as he is suspended from the Cross between heaven and earth. This image of the crucifixion as the bridge between heaven and earth is perhaps most powerfully captured by Dali’s famous painting of the Crucifixion, based on the drawing of St John of the Cross. In the painting, we are as it were looking down from above Christ as he hangs upon the cross, down to the earth below. This is the mystery of Good Friday, that our desire for God is surpassed by God’s desire for us, most powerfully manifest in the Crucified.
The cover version of ‘Meet me in the Middle of the Air’, below is by Eddie Perfect and Tripod. Have a listen:
Last night a bunch of my friends got together with an old friend of ours who was visiting from overseas. We had become friends about a dozen years ago, and since then some people married and had children while others have been ordained; some have moved interstate and overseas while some of us have returned to Melbourne. We did what any group of friends does when it gets together after a while: we brought each other up to speed on what life is like now, a wide-ranging conversation of windy career paths, buying houses, study and different ministries in the Church. Of course we also reminisced about times we had shared in years gone by, which by this stage required being reminded of things we had said and done that some of us had long forgotten. For a part of the evening the Indigo Girls provided the accompanying sound-track, conjuring up memories of similar soirées in years gone by. I think most of us realised that there were a few ghosts present too: friends who for various reasons couldn’t be there last night. They were missed. Mostly though, we laughed. A lot.
As I drove home I couldn’t help but reflect upon the significance of those friendships in my life. I had been a pretty lonely kid, wounded by the taunts of school yard bullies, and these were among the first friends that let me feel safe in truly sharing myself. Our friendships have survived mistakes and conflicts and diverging journeys, and in so doing have taught me a great deal about forgiveness, about myself and about friendship itself. While I was driving I was reminded of Yeats’ famous poem, ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, in which the poet reflects upon the portraits of his famous friends hanging in the gallery. My friends will almost certainly never be as famous as Yeats’ friends, but as I revelled in the ordinariness of our gathering, I felt the final lines of Yeats’ poem nevertheless expressed my sentiments too:
Think where man’s glory begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
I have recently had cause to wonder about whether young people find friendship more difficult today than in the past. There seems to be fresh pressures that conspire against deep friendship at work in our culture. Of course, young people desire friendship as much as they ever have; it is their capacity to forge enduring friendships that I am not so sure about. Some young people possess a precarious sense of security and self if they have not experienced the love of their parents that can make the levels of trust required to form friendship problematic. Many voices in our culture are suggesting that the social media can stunt genuine relationships as people spend more and more time online. The pervasive perception of all relationships through the lens of sexuality can also obscure the distinctive form of friendship from other kinds of love. And our culture’s obsession with image and success can combine to produce a fear of being vulnerable and a satisfaction with superficiality that militates against the depth and vulnerability that make friendship possible. Just as the mere sight of a steak by a starving man only intensifies rather than satisfies his hunger, these impediments only increase young people’s desire for friendship. And so E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph may well be the most appropriate epigraph for this generation too: ‘Only connect…’
While friendship is one of life’s chief joys, I think it is possible to fall into a certain idolatry of intimacy that paradoxically punctures the very thing it most desires. Friendship, like all forms of love, needs a little air to breathe, and it can be suffocated when people make it an end in itself. Our passion for connection, for friendship, actually find its fulfilment in God. We’re made for communion with God, and in and through him communion with one another. And so memorable gatherings of friends are signposts to heaven, because they point to the eternal communion we are to enjoy with God and with one another forever. As C.S. Lewis was wont to say, Christians never have to say goodbye, because we know that our friendships here are elevated by grace to the joys of eternal life.
Over my summer holidays I watched Series 6 of ‘Bones’. The gooey flesh dropping off the skeletons is pretty creepy, but I’m a sucker for a whodunnit and it isn’t usually too tricky to guess the murderer. I’ve also got to confess that it’s the characters that keep me coming back for more: I enjoy the banter between the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel), and her FBI partner Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). The supporting cast is fun too, especially the ‘squint squad’: the lab interns that provide much of the comic amusement in the show.
I think that Brennan’s character is particularly interesting. Bones is a scientist, and she sees the world solely through the lens of her empirical worldview. She thinks that feelings are only chemical emissions in the brain, and that relationships can be completely explained by the cultural constructs of mating rituals and inter-tribal dynamics. She ridicules religious faith as magic and superstition. And while she frequently misses the pop culture references from her colleagues and friends, she is also often oblivious to the other social dynamics that most of us take for granted. This provides part of the humour of the show, and it has been fun to watch her learning from Booth even as she continues to dismiss his intuitive hunches.
She is also dismissive of the insights of Dr Sweets, the psychologist on the team. And it’s through Sweets that we are given a psychological explanation for Brennan’s behaviour. Sweets diagnoses that Bones has retreated into a hyper-scientific rationalism as a protective mechanism against the trauma of being abandoned as a child by her parents, which also serves as a safeguard against her ongoing fear that someone else that she loves will hurt her again by leaving.
There’s a rich irony in the fact that while Bones is an anthropologist, she often doesn’t understand real human beings. She is often depicted alone at the lab staring at human remains where she is clearly more comfortable. And whether Dr Sweets has accurately diagnosed the cause of her troubles or not, it’s clear that the principal issue is that Bones has a myopic vision of the human person. By believing that all human interactions can be explained by biological processes and the insights of (a somewhat outdated) cultural anthropology she has found an explanation of human behaviour that allows her to retain the illusion of control. As a consequence she can not only misunderstand what is going on around her, but she maintains an attitude of superiority over others who do not have her intellectual capacity.
But it all comes unstuck in Series 6 because Bones has realised that she is in love with Booth, and for most of the series he is in love with someone else. And she has stopped explaining that in terms of biological necessity, evolutionary survival of the species or the social dynamics of the tribe. She’s in love, and she’s having to learn some new categories for understanding her emotions and desires.
One of the central metaphors in the Gospels for coming to faith is of the blind receiving their sight. Brennan is not having a religious conversion in Series 6, but she is gradually coming to discover that her empirical worldview has left her blind to some of the deeper realities of life. In some ways she is experiencing an intellectual conversion to a richer, fuller understanding of what it is to be human. This intellectual conversion does not mean that Bones needs to completely jettison her commitment to scientific endeavour. It is only the new atheists and the Christian fundamentalists who require us to completely choose one side or another in the so-called conflict between science and religion. What Bones does need to acknowledge for her intellectual conversion to be complete is the limits of scientific knowledge, and that an all-embracing scientism that excludes the place of faith and love cannot do justice to the mystery of being human.
And (if she wasn’t a character on a prime time tv show), such an insight could also be the precursor to a conversion of heart. As Pascal put it, the heart has its own reasons that reason does not know, and so by acknowledging that this is true Brennan is one step closer to discovering that it is only in the God revealed in Jesus Christ that we can truly be anthropologists – people who are discovering in and through Christ what it is to be truly human. At the end of Series 6 we learn that Bones is pregnant. If the show were real life we might say that here is a providential opportunity for Bones’ conversion to continue.
I’m a Collingwood fan. That surprises many and shocks a few. I have all my teeth, a tertiary degree and do not own a pair of ugg boots. Furthermore, I do not think that any of the aforementioned characteristics make me an atypical supporter. I’m pretty happy that my team has made the Grand Final. For reasons passing understanding I am going to be in far western Queensland for the game, but as the brother in the MGL who was lucky(!) enough to watch the game with me on Friday night will testify, I don’t need to be at the MCG to make a fair bit of noise when the ‘Pies are playing. To be honest, I think we’re up against it next weekend, but then I also think that we don’t do well when we’re favourites. So I’m happy with the underdog tag for next Saturday.
Non-Victorian readers may not believe me, but it really is hard to appreciate just how seriously people take it down here unless you live in Melbourne. And there are some, probably many in the churches who deride the obsession with footy as an idolatrous substitute for faith. They’re probably right. There’s no doubt in my mind that the footy is a secular liturgy. The commentators resort to clichés when they describe the ‘G as a sporting cathedral, the fans converge on the ground like Sunday morning worshipers in suburban parishes, and the game itself is a delicate combination of ritual and pageantry that rival a high Mass in terms of spectacle. And for many, the devotion and adoration for their team, maybe even for the game itself, is surely a substitute for worship of God. The rabid fans who paint their bodies black and white or blue and white next weekend are proof that the the human being is truly homo liturgicus: we make liturgies, rituals in our lives, even when we don’t intend to. The world is not divided into those who worship the divine as they best understand it and those who don’t, into theists of all stripes on the one hand and atheists on the other. We are all worshipers. What distinguishes us is not if we worship or not but what we worship. And in a world where many regard God as far beyond their reach, the Pies or the Cats or some other team will sadly do for some as the focus of their devotion.
Any other week of the year, I would quite possibly be waxing far more lyrically about this, and of the pretty poor substitute that a footy team (even the Magpies!) is for the Lord of all Creation. And for the record, I really do think it is a tragedy when people’s ultimate sense of happiness ebbs and flows with the fortunes of their team. But it’s Grand Final Week, and my team are going to run out on Saturday. So without rejecting the argument above, let me offer a different take on footy and faith.
Some of you will remember the movie Chariots of Fire which tells the story of the sprinter Eric Liddell’s attempt to win gold at the Paris Olympics. Liddell was a missionary, and refused to run on Sunday because he didn’t want to break the Sabbath. My favourite moment in the movie is when his sister, a devout if slightly puritanical woman, asks why he is pursuing his Olympic dream. She reminds him that his calling is to go to China, and tells him that she cannot understand why he is wasting his time with running when it is clear what his real mission in life is. Liddell responds by saying to her that he knows that God has made him to be a missionary. He then pauses and says, ‘but he [God] has also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure’. To believe that a human being excelling physically, or more accurately, that human beings excelling physically together in extraordinary displays of synchronicity that we usually simply call teamwork, gives glory to God ought not be a stretch for the believer. Footy is really a riff on Irenaeus’ much quoted dictum that ‘the glory of God is the human being fully alive’. Think about it. This isn’t about winning; it is about being in what psychologists call ‘the flow’, experiencing the intrinsic joy and even rapture of excellence. Witness Buddy Franklin’s goal last Friday that nearly won the Hawks the match. As a Pies fan I might have been horrified, but as a lover of the game I could not but be in awe. And on a warm September afternoon, as the pill is sent up and down the ground at breakneck speed and as the sheer athleticism of the players leaves us spectators breathless, is this not a scene of great beauty? Couldn’t it be a glimpse of glory? Am I going too far when I suggest that Augustine might have been thinking of footy when he recognised that all created things can be reduced to idols or elevated to sacramental signs of God’s presence? Perhaps, but only just. After all, it is Grand Final week, and my team are running out this Saturday. Carn the ‘Pies.
It’s ten years today since the occupants of the Tampa were denied entry into Australia.
The following is an excerpt from my book of stories about the Australian Journey of the World Youth Day Cross and Icon.
It tells the story of the WYD Cross’ journey to the Woomera Detention Centre. I’m re-posting it today because I don’t think we should forget about the Tampa, or about Woomera and Baxter and places like them as the debate about refugees continues. We are capable of so much more…
The [World Youth Day Cross and Icon] arrived in Woomera on the evening of October 10, 2007. Our team of seven had swelled to fifty for the ‘Great Crossing’ pilgrimage. This special stage of the year-long Journey of the Cross and Icon involved traversing the country from Darwin to Port Augusta over six days with a contingent of young people from all over the country.
Those organising our pilgrimage walk at Woomera…chose the cemetery to speak about the former detention centre, to which we were to process with the Cross and Icon next. Bishop Hurley began and, when he could no longer continue, Fr Jim Monaghan, who had been stationed there when the detention centre first began housing asylum seekers, shared about his experience and the experience of the parishioners.
Fr Jim asked us to look around and ask ourselves why an Australian Government would put people, other human beings, here, in the desert. He spoke laconically of people with mental illness, of people with sewn-up mouths, of suicide attempts by guard and guarded alike, and of children standing at the barbed wire, looking out into the surrounding desert. He spoke without rancour or bitterness, but with a quiet passion, stating that what had happened there was wrong. ‘It dehumanised everyone who came into contact with it’, he said. ‘The refugees, the Australian guards, everyone.’ It was his clear appraisal that all the people in this situation were human beings made in the image and likeness of God, who, therefore, possessed a dignity that this situation simply stripped from them.
Fr Jim then went on to describe briefly what the parishioners of Woomera did to restore and nurture the dignity of those behind the fences. They visited people who had no-one to visit them. When they weren’t allowed to visit, they wrote letters and gave clothes. Bishop Hurley told the story of a woman who had written to a Muslim woman who had been incarcerated in Woomera. When they were finally able to meet, they instinctively knew who the other was. ‘They were both mothers, and so they could recognise each other’, he said. Both the bishop and Fr Jim made it clear that they did not try to distinguish between those who were subsequently found to be genuine refugees and those who weren’t. It was their conviction that even those who were illegal immigrants still possessed a dignity that demanded a more humane treatment of them. They did also point out however that, officially, eighty per cent of all those imprisoned in Woomera were judged to be genuine refugees.
As I listened, I cast my mind back to the time which these men were describing. I had been living in Canberra, where conversations about asylum seekers swirled around with questions of policy and how to protect borders. The conversations I recalled were such a contrast with the direct response of the people of Woomera and the Diocese of Port Pirie. Their response was not born of ideology, politics, or fear. It came from the Gospel. It came from listening to Jesus’ words: ‘I was naked and you gave me clothing … in prison and you visited me’ (Matt 25:36). In a modern state, conversations in Canberra about border control and illegal immigration may well be necessary. However, in a country such as Australia, it is also not too much to hope that such conversations will be tempered with justice and compassion.
Australia is capable of better. In 1977, one of the many boats from Vietnam that made it onto Australian shores was captained by twenty-three-year-old Hieu Van Le. He wrote that: My first sight of Australia was through the dawn light and an early morning mist across Darwin Harbour … We chugged clumsily into the harbour, and saw coming towards us a small boat with its outboard motor showing all the speed and agility that our boat lacked. There were a couple of blokes in it, just dressed in singlets and shorts, fishing rods sticking out in the air. This was nothing special for them, they were having a normal day – out to do a bit of fishing. As they came past they waved and called out ‘G’day mate … Welcome to Australia!’ and then just sped on past to get on with the fishing they had set out to do.
Hieu Van Le went on to describe what he learnt from that first experience of Australians: ‘I learnt … that deep down “G’day mate” meant something about a society that fundamentally believed in helping, in shared responsibility, that if we are not actually all in the same boat, we are all in the same harbour’. Hieu Van Le is now Lieutenant Governor of South Australia. The empty detention centres at Woomera, Baxter and Port Hedland all stand as mute witnesses to a period when newcomers to our country did not receive the G’day that Hieu and his companions did. At the same time, I think we can be proud of our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Port Pirie who demonstrated, with others around the country, that Australians still believe in a G’day that denotes a genuine welcome and real care, especially for those most deeply in need.
The Woomera detention centre closed some time before we arrived there and so we were there now to pray. Our prayer included an act of memory: to remember and acknowledge what had happened there in our very recent history. The WYD Cross stood before the detention centre as a sign of the depths of inhumanity that we are capable of, and it tells of an innocent man imprisoned, tortured and murdered. The Cross stood as a sign of solidarity with all those who had suffered and been demeaned in this chapter in our history – asylum seeker, prison guard, and nation.
Our prayer concluded with the planting of a tree outside the detention centre.
As a hole was made in the hard red soil, it seemed very much like an act of hope
to be planting in such a barren landscape. The parishioners assured us that they would water the tree. Fr Tom Rosica’s words echoed in my mind as he recalled the WYD Cross’s journey to Ground Zero in 2002: the visit of the Cross and Icon to Woomera and the planting of this tree were also acts of defiance, because they were acts of hope. The Cross is the Tree of Life because it proclaims that in the darkest moments of the human story, acts of love, peace and compassion can also grow…