Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

In 2009 there was a lengthy enquiry in the NSW Parliament into the issue of same sex adoption. The conclusions of that report were that same sex adoptions should be made legal, but that conclusion was reached only after the chair of that committee cast her vote to break a three-all deadlock. Now this week, with the distraction of the debate in Canberra about who will be the next Federal Government, the NSW Government seems determined to rush this debate and bring about a change that will probably guarantee them Green preferences at the next state election in 2011 - not that it will help!

If that is not cynical enough, I noticed in the Sydney Morning Herald this week a very 'warm' story about a movie that will be released in Australia on Thursday called "The Kids Are Alright”. The story is about two Lesbian parents and their two children who are growing into adulthood. The children apparently decide that they want to know and meet their biological father, so they mount a search for the sperm donor used by their mother. I have not seen the movie but judging by the promotion it seems that Hollywood is again being our moral guide, using entertainment as a visually pleasing form of preaching. Again, I have not seen the movie, but from the shorts I fear the normal Hollywood pattern is obvious: everyone is very attractive; family problems are really just an excuse for comedy; everyone is rich (one of the mums is a doctor); the anonymous sperm donor is charming, handsome and witty; and my guess is that all the problems will be resolved with a happy ending in a little under two hours. Very subtly, anyone who thinks our world has lost the plot in this whole area will be seen as an out of touch, rather irrelevant bigot - because after all 'the kids are alright'.

Forgetting the disciplines of biology, theology, ethics and the behavioural sciences, we will make history, in this State at least, by allowing two women or two men to adopt a child, because the 'rights' of people to adopt should not be discriminated against in any way. Of course the rights of the most vulnerable, the children, will get a little trampled in the process.

Christians are criticized for having an ancient book as their moral guide, but an argument can be made that having the glossy pictures and soppy endings of a Hollywood comedy will not produce better outcomes, especially for children.

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119: 105

Monday, August 23, 2010

Faced With Uncertainty

After a five week campaign and a phony war for months before, the Australian political landscape is now faced with more uncertainty, meaning …

1. 1. A hung parliament, which will either be a complete disaster in terms of governing the country, or a pleasant change from rigid party discipline with the hope of real parliamentary debates and negotiation.

2. The prospect of the Greens controlling the balance of power in the Senate, which could mean the most radical economic, environmental and moral revolution our country has ever experienced, or the Greens might have to compromise like every other group now their votes actually count.

3. We might be forced back to a another poll in just months, or the Independents might just realize they will never get it this good again and be determined to deliver stable government for a full term.

4. The media might respond to all this uncertainty and present more balanced, fair reporting in the interests of building up our great country, or they might smell disagreement and conflict and gorge on every whiff of blood or scent of disunity.

5. The pollies might all learn from this mess, so that integrity with promises and vision with policies may make a comeback, or we may be in for a bleak period where the sectional interests of three or four local members might override the needs of a nation.

Uncertainty is certain! But then again, is that so different from what we normally experience? Health will remain a political football, but at a personal level health is one of our most uncertain companions. For some, their near perfect health is an insecure blessing that can change with an accident or with the unexpected onset of disease, while others ride the roundabout of health struggles as a daily part of life. For many, personal finances balance between the security, or not, of our jobs and the risks of our debts. So many who look wealthy could be exposed quickly by the loss of a job or the drop of an asset price. Our national economic security, that to many is assured by the minerals boom, could face unexpected trade winds from a drop in commodity prices, a temporary slowdown in China, or a double dip recession in the US and Europe. Our most secure and precious personal relationships can be threatened by our ever-resilient selfishness, our inability to be satisfied and our untamable lusts. Even the climate, in small or large ways, can determine our destiny with the speed of a lightning strike. Having said all that, it needs to be balanced with the surprising fact that often the wheel of life turns unexpectedly in our favour.

In short, what I am suggesting is that we have much less certainty about the future of almost everything. Such uncertainty can paralyze us with fear or it can compel us to stop worrying and start living. Heeding the call to work hard, remain positive, do our best and hand the rest to God is not a cop out, but a call to concentrate on the parts of life we can control and stop worrying about the rest.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6: 34

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Take Out The Trash Day

In the television program, West Wing, they introduced the idea of 'Take out the Trash Day'. The idea was that all the stories the White House wanted ignored were delivered to the press on a Friday, so they were overwhelmed with bad stories. Added to this was the assumption that less people read the papers on the weekend. Our politicians have perfected the art and dump all sorts of things they don’t want us to notice when an alternatively huge event occurs that consumes all the oxygen of the public’s attention.

Few will remember what was released about 11am on the day that Kevin Rudd lost the leadership of the ALP and his keys to the Lodge. A report was released by the Productivity Commission on the social impact of gambling. The report was scathing and made a series of recommendations that by and large the Government has ignored. Here are a few of the sad statistics:

1. Australia has upwards of 350,000 mild or series problem gamblers.

2. 40% of all revenue from poker machines comes from problem gamblers.

3. Poker machine users can currently lose thousands of dollars a day. One gambler reported to the commission had lost $16,000 in less than 10 hours while another lost over $800,000 in a month.

4. The social cost of problem gambling in Australia is close to $5 billion a year.

The report made a few simple recommendations, like reducing the size of an individual bet on a poker machine to one dollar, with a maximum hourly betting ability being $120. This seems such a modest proposal but alas it was too hard for governments who are frightened of the powerful clubs and pubs lobby. Of course our State Government is also deeply addicted to the pokie revenue, so a widespread social problem is ignored because the profits are so great.

We hear all the time that we are the beneficiaries of an economy which is the envy of all the world, but at the same time 'working families' (whatever that means) are doing it tough. Part of this struggle is self inflicted, as gambling sacrifices today’s resources in the vain hope of a better gain. Tragically for so many the gambling industry is one of the greatest causes of poverty in our society and politicians of all parties, both state and federal, seem to universally ignore the issue. At least there is one independent Senator in South Australia, Nick Xenephon, who is willing to speak up, but he is too often a lone voice.

There is an old saying that gambling is a tax on the foolish. While there is truth in this, we ought to demand our leaders do all they can to protect the vulnerable, the weak and those easily led. Surely the modest recommendations of an extensive Productivity Commission Report deserve more than being lost on a Take out the Trash Day.

Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the LORD delivers him in times of trouble. (Psalm 41: 1)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Disunity Is Death"

The Deputy replaces the Leader in a calculated, bloodless coup. Most are taken by surprise at the speed of the Leader's fall. The new Leader's initial popularity is eroded by the fact that the old Leader will just not gracefully leave the stage. As the old Leader dallies with the press, many wondered if his willingness to serve disguises his utter contempt for the one who has stolen his birthright. In the midst of a Federal election campaign such disunity is seen by many as terminal. In fact the new Leader is quoted as saying that “disunity is death.” Of course, if you are student of Australian politics, you will know I am talking about the winter election of 1987 when John Howard, Leader of the Opposition, had rolled his colleague, Andrew Peacock, some 18 months previously. But the 'soufflĂ©' (Mr Peacock - as he was once called by an opponent) was determined to rise twice.

In 2006 Federal Labor was an untidy rebellious mess, but with the change of Leader in late 2006, Kevin Rudd and his Deputy, Julia Gillard, (dubbed the 'Dream Team') unified their party and won government in 2007. Within three more years the Dream Team has now had the untidiest of divorces. After a long period of stability in the Liberal National Coalition, the election loss in 2007 sent them into a panic. The next obvious leader, Peter Costello, passed and the team elected Brendon Nelson. His popularity never soared and his backers only slightly outnumbered his enemies. He lasted what, a year? He was replaced by an impressive, rich, but not very conservative Leader, who discovered too quickly that the climate was changing and he would, within another year, earn the title 'Malcolm in the Middle'. Last December, just 7 months ago, this Coalition fought a bitter internal policy dispute that resulted in a farce of meetings, leaks and recriminations. In the end the Leader was deposed by a majority of one vote. But now this disunity has evaporated, as the stench of dysfunction from the other side has dissipated the ambition and mistrust that threatened the Coalition's survival only two seasons ago.

The point of this is that human relations are less stable than most of us care to admit. At best, political parties are unified for convenience. In the corporate world, the pretence of stability, unity and purpose is often maintained by strong leadership and the profit motive, but the rivalry between divisions, departments and colleagues often resembles an undeclared war. Walk into a school staff room, or worse, a huddle (or is that a gaggle?) of academics at a university and you will find fiefdoms, intrigue and plain old bitchiness. Even in the best of families tensions simmer below most Christmas celebrations, while many families can become nothing short of a curse. I used to think that churches were different, but corruption, disunity and petty ambition more than occasionally are unwelcome fellow travelers.

Before we pass judgment on those who lead us, we ought to examine our own mess. Peace and unity are rarely secure features in human relationships.

“Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.” Ecclesiastes 9: 18

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Would You Vote For An Atheist?

I have been surprised at the number of times in the last few weeks I have been asked if I would vote for someone who does not believe in God. Of course, this is far from an academic question. In what is probably a fairly recent phenomenon, a journalist asked Julia Gillard whether she believed in God. Her answer was an unequivocal 'No!' What has surprised me is the fervour of concern that this has raised amongst people I know, whose own faith in God ranges from a deep commitment to the most superficial. I am surprised that it matters so much to so many people, though I am delighted that for whatever reason people think God is an important topic.

On the one hand, Julia Gillard is far from the first person to be Prime Minister who does not have a living faith in God. We have had Prime Ministers who have described themselves as agnostics (meaning I don’t know) and who, in recent times, have admitted that their lifestyle has been quite extreme. We have had nominal Anglicans and Roman Catholics (from different political sides) who have paid lip service to belief, but whose political and at times social policies paid no attention to their supposed faith backgrounds. We have had adulterers, liars and caustically abusive PMs, whose supposed belief in God had no impact on their behaviour. So does it matter? Is it better or worse for a person to be honest and refuse to swear allegiance on the Bible? And should it matter?

Well again this is complicated. When it comes to economic policy, foreign affairs, educational policy, health, and defence, not believing in God may make no difference at all. But what of social policies that one-day may be decided on a conscience vote? What about the promotion of defacto relationships, gay marriage, euthanasia, bio-ethics, and the support of a fairly new initiative, chaplains in schools? The Christian email world is awash with accusations that a vote for 'the atheist' will threaten all these and much more. But is that just Christian hysteria and paranoia? What are we left to do?

In Australia’s democracy we are left with a judgment call based on a range of factors. We are called to first choose locally a person who is usually a member of a political party. We need to judge that person and then include in that judgment the party of our local aspirant. Though these elections are increasingly presidential, it is helpful to be reminded that the parties elect their leaders, not us. The parties are made up of members of all sorts of religious belief and disbelief. Somehow we then have to work out how much we can believe any politician, in a flood of core and non-core promises, policy back flips, compromises and plain old lies. Confused?

Let me then answer the question in a slightly politically sensitive way. It makes no difference what a person believes and it makes every difference what a person believes. Voting for a believer is always, to say the least, a compromise of things we like and things we don’t. Whenever we get the perfect candidate, she or he has a habit of disappointing us the most. Politics, they say, is the art of compromise and maybe voting is too.

We live in a fallen world. Our politicians reflect the strengths and weaknesses, the conflicting loyalties and the inconsistent political philosophies of each one of us.

My vote is for less bigotry, simplistic name-calling and illogical fear mongering. However my problem is that this view is not represented by any of the parties in this election.

When they kept on questioning Jesus, He straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone……...”

John 8: 7