Let’s Begin Again: Conversing Beyond the Gender War

I often think if I was to give Tim that ill-fated apple back in the garden of Eden, he’d very likely have refused it. Politely, of course.

This hypothesis has something to do with my husband’s resistance to peer pressure, the particular dynamics of our marriage relationship, and his general dislike of receiving food prepared by me. That might say a little too much, I’m not sure. But I’ve often thought that with one polite decline on that apple, things might have gone quite differently.

Although I laugh about it privately, the truth is, as a Christian, this joke masks a genuine underlying pain. Those who choose to worship the Christ (in the biblical text a gentle man funded mostly by women, who was willing to let a scorned prostitute wash his feet in public with her precious dowry) must, ironically, navigate a truly tangled mess of belief about women. The misguided Eve and the virginal Mary, the aggressive Deborah, and the deceptive Jezebel all remain living biblical archetypes ready to be designated upon women who dare accept leadership in the church.

For those of you who are not Christians, I should just say that the religion also provides a way through this maze. Christianity can be oppressive for women. But it can also be life-giving and sustaining for women. In other words, it’s complicated.

Rather than choosing to make Genesis a historical or scientific account of the beginning of the world, I’ve always found reading this biblical story most helpful in the genre it is written, as a narrative. Within it, I find solace. There is a famous saying probably by W. H. Auden that “a real book is not one that we read but one that reads us.” As I review the third chapter of the ancient Scriptures, I can’t help but acknowledge that it “reads” the state of things as they are today. There is an undeniable power struggle between men and women. (For what it’s worth, I also feel a very real “enmity” or active hostility towards Australian snakes, but that’s a less universally accepted biblical application).

I’ve written several online pieces throughout the years on theology and relationships across the gender divide, but only when I felt forced or compelled to do so.

A recent driver for me was writing something that may assist younger single women in thinking through their choice of spouse… You know, ideally, one that doesn’t kill them. Unfortunately, that’s a serious consideration for Australian women. Because although domestic violence is not limited to gender, one Australian woman a week is killed by her partner. It seems to make no difference to these statistics whether you are religious or not.

The online platform “Fixing Her Eyes” gave me space and the encouragement to write about the need for Christian marriage to be embedded in a community. I wrote this piece in desperate hopes of putting more content into Christian marriage than prevalent popular theology at the time, which just seemed to mandate “innie” and “outie” pink bits. To me, this seemed a terrible way of thinking through what a marriage was, or could be.

Then, I wrote about the four Christian THEOLOGIES of marriage. As in, I spoke out about the difference between Patriarchy, Complementarianism, Egalitarianism, and Deconstructionism. I hoped that this would help end the straw-man arguments that “complementarian” and “egalitarian” Christians commonly used against each other. There are better (or more progressive) ways to read things now. But at that time, it wasn’t even possible to speak explicitly about it. And I honestly think it helped a lot of women. At least, I got a lot of mail that suggested it did.

Of course, what I didn’t know at the time was that if you mention the gender wars online, you risk opening up the depths of the earth and releasing the trolls.

I was young, and it was 2016.

It’s not that I consider every man who responds or disagrees with me to be a troll. But I was having so many Facebook discussions online with men who all disagreed with me on various levels for so many reasons – and receiving hundreds of private messages of support from people who were telling me these interactions weren’t healthy. As in, these types of conversations would never occur in person or face-to-face.

When there is one person who disagrees with you over a beverage, that’s friendly banter.

When there is a woman with her back against the wall typing furiously to fend off hundreds of men who ALL disagree with her in friendly ways, well… that’s exhausting. And these individuals and their characteristics blur into a mass of online entities repeatedly clashing against each other, in a gendered shape.

Recently, after reading some of my Facebook threads, a friend of mine, Isaac Soon, sent me an article about “the reply guys.”

If we think about our online interaction as a ritual, then we can notice some patterns. And women who try to lead any public conversation find that there are some predictable responses from men, nine types of which you can read about in the reply guy thread.

As the author of the article notes, all nine share a common goal: to control the conversation.

Given the hundreds of dominating voices, there is also a predictable general silence from women. I found out that trouble only really came when I tried to redress any gender imbalance in the conversation. To allow women to share opinions on my wall (rather than only in private messages), I had to address the men who were acting as “the reply guys.” I had to turn down the power of one group to create the space for another less powerful group to speak. Which I did.

But after years of trying to encourage men while simultaneously asking them to respect the women on my threads, I realised I was incredibly tired.

I decided to “quit,” so to speak.

I wasn’t going to just respond nicely with facts when I replied in public. Instead, I was going to act my age and education level. In other words, I was going to speak the same way I believed men did. I was going to stop speaking women’s business language.

For those of us not clued in, this is the way women tend to speak when they are in meetings… like this:

“Look, I’m so sorry, Lauren here. I hate to butt in… I just think perhaps the last idea might take us off track from the goal we’re trying to achieve in coming together? I don’t know… what do you think about that, Dave*? Do you also have concerns? I mean, we can’t really predict the future, but maybe this is something we can think about as we consider the options at hand.”

Whereas Dave says:

“Yeah, it won’t work Scott.”

And inevitably, everyone walks out of the room thinking “Gee Dave is great. He really led that meeting.”

I wanted to play the role of Dave, not Lauren. So, I decided just to be the Dave I’ve always wanted to be. In many ways, it was great. I certainly felt better about myself and my interactions.

“You’re trolling me,” I told men.

“Stop that,” I instructed. “You’re only saying it to me because I’m a woman. If you respected me, you’d listen to what I just said.”

“No, I don’t need to answer that question,” I retorted. “That’s not the focus of my discussion today. Please read the post and respond accordingly.”

But speaking like a Dave actually opens up a whole new pattern, of men who want to be spoken to by a-Dave-who-is-a-woman.

It’s like there’s a whole new level of interaction with men who like “conversing rough.” Dominant talking results in a deep shame that is assumed by the person who has been publicly dressed down. And this I find sickening.

Additionally, some men will deliberately bite at a woman leading a discussion in order to be placed back into a type of pecking order. They will test the boundaries of the conversation to find out where they fit in it. And some of them are used to and even like the shame patterns that result from this behaviour.

I’ve realised that men become dominant talkers only because they have been talked to like this by other men. It starts with the hierarchies and patterns in the playground, which are created by fists, and then ricochets across the internet in continuing ways via words. So I’m calling a stop to it.

The easiest way would be to stop allowing all men I don’t actually know to join my social media platforms, and then drawing upon each personal relationship to moderate the conversation. Lord knows, my trust has been broken a million times.

But I’m not going to do that.

To those men with whom I have tousled, I’m sorry.

I’m going to try something else entirely, and I invite you to do the same. I’m going to do my best to live from the sustenance I find in this ancient Scripture (here in the very poetic Message paraphrase) of Lamentations:

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
He’s all I’ve got left.

Anyways I’ve decided that every single day I’m going just to reset the clock beginning with the great, Divine, Love.

I’m going to be straight-forward, but kind. As kind as possible.

I’m not going to take the rituals (whether bad or good) from yesterday’s conversations into today.

I run the risk, of course, of looking like Dory from Finding Nemo. Which is a possibility. And I hope that you will forgive me if I do.

But it’s time to try and begin again. Every single day we get the chance to rewrite the script that we use to talk across the gender divide.

And I hold hope that we can create a way forward together.

If I forget, please remind me.

We have to continue to help each other be human.

——

* The name Dave was chosen at random, but also kind of not, because Australian Research Council (ARC) grants are largely won by Daves. But who can blame the people? Daves are awesome.

Grappling with US Poverty: Continuing to Listen to Flint, Michigan (with Dr Shannon Polk).

In March 2017, I attended the Society for Pentecostal Studies’ annual scholar’s conference themed “The Good News of the Kingdom and the Poor in the Land.” Set in Appalachia, Tennessee the delegates gathered together to think about how Christianity intersects with poverty and marginalization.

As a representative of Hillsong College, Sydney Australia, I’d prepared a paper on some recent work I’d done in the Pacific in my (other!) disability role at the Centre for Disability Studies, The University of Sydney. Sponsored by UNICEF, we had worked with an indigenous-led organisation in Papua New Guinea. At the conference, I talked about a Pentecostal church I had encountered. The way these Pentecostals negotiated disability and poverty made me wonder perhaps we also could reframe how we think about the Spirit and healing in our Australian churches.

But the real beauty of academic conferences is hearing from people that you might otherwise never meet. And the standout presentation for me at this conference was from Dr Shannon Polk. We have stayed in contact since then, with her giving me permission to tell you a little about her and her world.

Shannon is an African American woman, a distinguished lawyer, and a licensed Assemblies of God pastor in Flint, Michigan, USA. She is involved in a host of philanthropic endeavors, as a board member but also a leadership consultant. She is a brilliant, compelling speaker. She spoke about the challenges to Flint, Michigan from the perspective of a resident, and the organizations she works with.

The issues in Flint Michigan were broadcast globally in 2017-2018. For a summary of the news reports that ensued, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/us/flint-water-bottles.html . A timeline of the crisis is also here: https://edition.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html. But then most media coverage stopped.

To give a basic explanation, after some financial issues, in 2014, the city officials decided to start piping Flint River water into the city, rather than the more expensive, and treated, water from Detroit.

Following this decision to use the river water, it was found that children in Flint had high levels of lead in their blood, and there were also two spikes in Legionnaire’s bacteria. To date there have been ninety local cases of Legionnaire’s disease, with thirteen leading to fatalities. The residents’ own pictures showed orange water which was clearly undrinkable. But City officials did not warn residents about the various health dangers.

Things got worse for the residents of Flint. In April 2018 the government announced it would stop providing free bottled water to residents, despite the high levels of lead still in the water. The problem as residents described it was that lead could still be acquired through any of the city’s old pipes, and so therefore some areas and houses were more affected than others. Contractors estimated at the time that about half of the city’s pipes had been replaced.

What did this mean? Well, those who could not afford to buy bottled water were essentially being asked to drink whatever water was coming out of their house tap. This meant that poorer neighborhoods were more likely to display higher levels of lead poisoning.

But surely this is all now fixed? No. The reality is, although the media attention has died down, the situation continues for the residents of Flint. In February of 2019, 30-year old Jassmine McBride died.

It is considered by many to be America’s largest health disaster in recent decades.

We can think that clean water is a fundamental basic human right in a rich, Western, nation like the United States . But it turns out, it’s not so basic. In Australia, various Aboriginal communities have also had their water cut off by the state due to “financial” reasons, with undrinkable water found in various towns (see: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-19/families-plead-for-action-over-uranium-in-drinking-water/9879748) . In other words, it is increasingly possible to live in a third world conditions within a wealthy country.

It’s easy to mischaracterize people facing challenges in life. We particularly like to think of them as powerless and needing help. What I’ve learned from Shannon was that there are strong, educated people in this city who have been working hard to change things. The church in the city is engaged.

And so, I thought it would be good to listen to a woman who is doing incredible things. I asked her to do an interview (below!) so Christians could become more socially aware.

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Tanya Riches:         First up, what would you want us to know about you?

Shannon Polk:        My passion has always focused on bearing witness with those who are marginalized and bringing light and justice to their situation.  I see the single woman, the childless couple, the African-American and I work to make sure the church and the community sees them too.

The best work I’ve ever done is being a mom and I couldn’t have done that with without a great husband.

Tanya Riches: What do you think that people need to know about poverty in the USA?

Shannon Polk:  Poverty in the US is increasing at an alarming rate – more than 1 in 8 citizens live in poverty. The UN sent Philip Alston, an Australian law professor, to report on the depth of poverty in the US and he was startled at what this visit revealed.  Almost 20% of all children in the US live in poverty and that rate is 30% in some states. Mr. Alston’s report revealed that poverty is not limited to the stereotype of Black and Brown folks who are lazy and uninterested in work. There are 8 million more white people living in poverty than Black folks and many people find themselves in need of government assistance because of automation and downsizing in their industry.[1]

Tanya Riches:         What do you love about Flint, Michigan? What is your town like?

Shannon Polk:        Tanya, I love the people of my city. We are so resilient and optimistic despite the challenges the city faces. Our city sits at the crossroads of two extremes, not unlike many cities across America. The wealth divide is real and is very visible in my community.

Flint, Michigan is a community of 90,000 people. We are home to 3 major hospitals, 3 colleges and universities. We are culturally rich – art museum, orchestra, theaters, and other performing arts.

My town resembles so many of the Midwestern rust belt towns whose legacy of major art museums, orchestras, libraries, and universities are juxtaposed against [its] infrastructure disinvestment, aging schools, and a disappearing middle class and increased poverty and illiteracy. We are simultaneously asset-rich and economically poor.  At one point, Flint had the highest per-capita income of any city in the USA. Now, we consistently rank in the top three poorest cities in America according to the US Census.

Tanya Riches:         How long has the water been bad?

Shannon Polk:        Since 2014.  For over four years, the residents of Flint have dealt with unpotable (or undrinkable) water.  The contamination has included dangerous levels of lead and Legionella. A dozen people died from Legionnaire’s disease during that time; those deaths have been scientifically linked to the water crisis.

Tanya Riches: What did you do to get attention on this issue?

Shannon Polk:        I used the power of social media to spread the story on Twitter and Facebook in addition to reaching out to my denominational relief arm, Convoy of Hope to ensure on the ground support.  Also, I volunteered with local organizations like Jack and Jill of America and The Links, Inc and my church, Riverside Tabernacle to assist with the distribution of water and other supplies like water filters and lead-mitigating food.

Tanya Riches:         When did people outside start realizing there was a problem?

Shannon Polk:        When the US national media began to cover the story.  The New York Times article really captured the severity of the problem: the fact that the problem was man-made, originated with the state government, and that there had been a cover-up at the local, state, and national level (EPA).

Most people still don’t fully understand that the state took over the city government and the Governor of Michigan made the decision to switch the water source as a cost-saving measure. Lives were sacrificed for dollars. Also, the state government officials told people after the water source was switched that it was safe to drink the water. Residents were intentionally misled by the government.

After months of ingesting contaminated water, Flint citizens started posting pictures of the water on Facebook and Instagram and major media outlets picked up the story.

Tanya Riches:         There’s been a lot of media attention on the issues with water. What has been the city’s response?

Shannon Polk:        Many of the pipes have been replaced. However, Mayor Karen Weaver had an impasse with the Governor over the excavation process.  Mayor Weaver preferred a process where the pipe is excavated completely so workers can identify if the pipe is lead or copper.  The governor’s approach, hydro-excavation, looks at a portion of the water line, which could possibly lead to pipes being misidentified as copper when it is actually lead.  According to news reports, there are still 14,000 lead pipe lines that still need to be replaced.

The Mayor also mentioned the need for fixture support.  Items in residents’ homes have been damaged from the corrosive water such as hot water heaters, ice makers, etc.  These items were not included in replacement costs.  How can a widow on a fixed income pay to have her home’s internal pipes replaced in addition to her damaged fixtures.

The State of Michigan closed the bottled water distribution sites, even though all of the pipes have not yet been replaced.

However, local churches stepped up to provide alternative sites. These sites need water but also volunteers to help get the water to senior citizens and other people who need physical assistance getting the water in their homes. Based on public outrage, 3 of the sites were reopened for 4 hours weekly.

Tanya Riches:         What is it like living in Flint? How do people feel?

Shannon Polk:        The water crisis is just the latest crisis to hit the community but it is not the first.  People are tired of being tired but we are also hopeful.

People are living with trauma.  The whole community has learned to function through intense social and psychological trauma around a natural resource that poisoned the community. Dr. Mona Attisha has described it as a multiplicity of toxicities. Having lived in the community by whole life, I share her belief.  When I was in high school, Flint was the murder capital of the nation.  Now we are the poorest city in the nation.  How do you survive growing up with such high levels of crime, violence, poverty and now a major public health crisis.

People are fatigued and beleaguered, but yet we remain hopeful.  Dr. Michael Eric Dyson was speaking about the nation recently and he stated that Black folks had seen worse times in America and that gives us the resiliency to push on a little further each day despite the challenges.  I think the fact that Flint is a predominately African American city means that the residents possess that same resiliency about the outcome and direction of our city.  We’ve seen economic downturns, major job losses, environmental injustice, and racial disparities before.  The same help that brought us through the last time and every other time will bring us through again. We are a people of faith and we know our God is faithful.

Tanya Riches:         How have the local churches gotten involved?… and what do you think the role of churches is in Flint, Michigan?

Shannon Polk:        The churches have been the backbone of the residents during the crisis.  Pastors and their congregations have been volunteering to host and distribute water, filters, and testing kits.  Churches have opened their doors for community meetings, answered calls from residents seeking accurate information, provided food and other supplies to people regardless of their immigration status, provided shelter to families and preached the good news to hurting residents.  When the state of Michigan closed the water distribution sites, the churches opened their doors and told the residents come to us, we will assist you. Recently, First Trinity Church has partnered with Jaden Smith to provide clean water to residents.  People are donating bottled water as well as providing water jugs (firsttrinitywater.org)

Tanya Riches:         What is it like to take the pulpit at your church on the weekend? What things do you think about when you step up to lead the community?

Shannon Polk:        When I take the pulpit, I know that I am ministering to folks in the city and suburbs, those who are very well off and those who barely surviving.  Our church is in downtown Flint, and our congregation represents a wide variety of the residents in our city and county. I know that my words need to bring hope and healing to folks who are suffering from compassion fatigue and the trauma of living in sustained crisis.

I think about the kids in the congregation growing up like I did in an impoverished city with few opportunities. I consider the older parishioners who remember the city in its heyday and are baffled at the decimation of the city. I consider the singles and young families who remain committed to the revitalization of the city everyday by choosing to live in the downtown area. I think about what my mommy always said to me, “To whom much is given, much is required.”  God has richly blessed me and serving my community is what I must do.

Tanya Riches:         Did you ever think that the name of your town would be this famous?

Shannon Polk:        Well, there were always prophetic words about a spark coming from our city; however, I don’t think anyone imagined the spark would originate from such an epic crisis. People had heard about the films by Michael Moore (Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine) but those films focuses on the economic devastation due to GM leaving Flint.  No one ever imagined a public health crisis of this magnitude in the USA, regardless of the poverty level or ethnic makeup of the city.

Tanya Riches:         We met at a conference on poverty… what do you think of when you hear that word? And do you think that people in Flint, Michigan are indeed living poverty?

Shannon Polk:        I think of my personal upbringing, being raised by a divorcee who worked every day but made less than 18K annually.  We were spiritually rich but financially poor. My mother made too much to money to qualify for most government support program. She epitomized the definition of the working poor.

Yes, I believe many of Flint’s residents are living in poverty.  I see it impacting the families that we serve through our church’s food pantry and the children that attend our youth services.  The poverty is financial, multi-generational, spiritual.  There is a sense of betrayal from the government that leads to an emotional poverty and feelings of despair.  This is why the church must provide a sense of hope in Christ.

Tanya Riches:         You are an incredibly articulate, legally trained leader. What do you think the church has to offer in situations like this?

Shannon Polk:        The church can provide practical support through connecting residents with agencies who assist with healthcare, temporary housing, and emergency financial assistance. Our church allows the agencies to set up information tables at our food distribution to ensure the families we serve have the knowledge they need to survive.

The church must unite against injustice. The pastors of the city publicized the water crisis, led rallies and marches, and initiated lawsuits to uncover the lead poisoning. This type of civil action was appropriate for the church because we were the only institution that the people still trusted.  As church leaders, we could act with integrity and provide accurate information to our parishioners and those who looked to the church for guidance.

By hosting informational forums, creating space for food pantries and water distribution, and meeting with the local, state, and national officials, the church reclaimed our space in the local community as those who rightly divide truth, provide for the widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor, and demand justice for the oppressed.

Tanya Riches:         How do you help the people of Flint, Michigan to see what God is doing in their town?

Shannon Polk:        We remind people that God was not surprised by the crisis, nor was He wringing His hands in disbelief. God used and is still using this crisis to bring His body together in unity.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Nazarenes, Baptists, Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God working side by side to help the residents affected by the water crisis.

We remind people that God uncovered the coverup. He never fails to hear a prayer and He will always answer. We remind people that improvements are happening, even if it’s occurring at a snail’s pace.  Like we say in the Black church, “Trouble don’t last always.  This too shall pass.”

Tanya Riches:         You’re an accomplished, and passionate woman of God. Who mentored you into the leader you now are?

Shannon Polk:        My greatest mentors have been my mother and maternal grandmother. They embodied Christ for me in a consistent, faith-filled way. I often joke that I learned the character of God from my mother because she was the same, yesterday, today, and forever. She walked in great integrity and was beloved for her faithfulness.  My grandmother taught me faith. She would always share her testimonies of God answered her prayers in times of crisis and how she stood firmly on the Word of God. She was always visiting the sick, ministering to her neighbors, and being the hands and feet of God.

There were two other women who also mentored me. My Godmother prayed for me to filled with the Spirit and my paternal grandmother taught me that all I needed in this life was salvation and education.

I often longed for other mentors but they didn’t come. I once heard Dr. David Ireland say that after many years of praying for a spiritual father, God told him not to look for one but to be one.  That resonated with my personal journey and I’ve adopted that advice.

Tanya Riches: Did you ever think you would be doing ministry?

Yes, I received the call to preach as a young girl. However, I was reluctant to pursue the call because I didn’t see any women preachers. Also, my mother firmly expressed her unenthusiastic support for my career in ministry.  Quote “We have too many preachers in this family.  Go get a real job.”  But God has a way of working things out in His timing and I’m grateful for the way He has orchestrated (ie delayed haha) my steps.

Tanya Riches:         How can people show you love, and/or pray for you right now?

Shannon Polk:        People can continue to show up for Flint through volunteerism, financial donations, and prayer. We need volunteers for youth and senior serving programs, medical and mental health support, water filter replacement, and water distributions. We need financial and in-kind donations for replacement fixtures and other items not covered by insurance such as hot water heaters and other home appliances.

Most importantly, we must have intercessors who are praying for restoration, hope, resilience, and resurgence of our faith, justice, and our economy.

———–

[1] Statement on Visit to the USA, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Washington, December 15, 2017, https://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22533&LangID=E

A New Year’s Resolution for Women in Church Leadership

Recently one of my graduating theology students from Hillsong College discerned that God wanted her to continue her studies, and to undertake a leadership degree at Arizona’s Thunderbird School of Management. Over coffee she explained to me that, because her background was Romanian and quite conservative, she had no model to follow. She thought she might be the first woman in her home church to ever imagine herself as an executive level leader. When she was accepted into this course, I was incredibly proud of her.

While reading online about this school and its program, I noticed that one of its distinctives is that each graduating student takes an oath at the ceremony, and promises to be ethical in their leadership. My student Betty was saying yes to pioneering a new type of leadership in two senses – one that was female, and one that was ethical.

I’ve thought about this decision a lot, and about oaths. An oath is a commitment, a formal statement that you decide to keep.

Although in the Bible we are warned against oaths (Matt 5:34), this seems to be not because oaths were bad, but the people were unable to (or chose not to) fulfil the words they promised. In contrast, God made oaths in Genesis (26:3) and kept them. So, it seems that the point is that the Bible affirms them as powerful, not pointless.

Similarly to the Thunderbird leaders, all doctors internationally share an oath probably written in the 4th or 5th century BC. Called the Hippocratic Oath, this statement addresses the way in which healthcare professionals conduct their work.

An oath is something that sets your stance in a situation before it happens. It is a commitment to act in a certain way. It is a promise.

For me, I think an oath speaks of resolve. In Luke 9:51 it states that Jesus “set his face as flint” as he traveled towards Jerusalem to face His crucifixion. In some versions, that verse in Luke is translated as “resolutely” and in others “steadfastly” or “determinedly” or “intently” and “with fixed purpose.”

For Jesus, it must have been incredibly difficult to continue, knowing what was ahead. But He was resolved to carry it out, with fixed purpose. It was a resolution.

Resolve confronts the future with a stance that determines its outcome. It wins the fight before the fight even begins.

The new year is often the time to create resolutions. This is where we resolve to act in certain ways. Many of these resolutions are left forgotten in February. But maybe because they were the wrong resolutions to make.

This has made me think that we need an oath for women in leadership, particularly as we enter a new year. Each new year always comes with a sense of the unimaginable or inconceivable. But it has to be one that we can keep!

Astoundingly, one of the most unjustly-served women of our generation, Anita Hill, recently stood and repeated the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Surely, if she can stand up again and fight for truth, then we can too.

My student Betty was able to imagine herself in leadership because I and my Hillsong colleagues stood up and took our leadership roles. I’ll be honest, it’s not always easy!

But sometimes it helps to remember that, although we might be scared, every single time we take the pulpit; or lead the music; every time we strategise to strengthen the church’s finances; every essay we write for Seminary; every devotional we write for the church newsletter; every time we provide counsel to those behind us, we are providing our world an image of a woman in church leadership.

And that can change the lives of the women following.

This year more than ever, it’s time to take back any power we have given to those who  oppose us. Instead, this year when we take our rightful place, all glory will go to God.

It is God’s world, and it is God’s mission. This year, sisters, let’s choose to partner with God in the reign of justice; as we resolutely take our place in the unshakable kingdom. 

So this is my oath, which I speak out, thinking of all my sisters today serving in congregations right around the world. It draws upon the strength of women leaders including Mother Teresa and many other heroes of the faith. Despite what comes this year, this is our oath:

In this new year, we may at times find it difficult to serve the church. But we will serve it anyways

We may receive sexist comments from people in the congregation. But we will love them anyways. 

Somewhat worse, unclear comments may be made, making us very confused. But we will trust God anyways.

We may watch as our girlfriends are overlooked for roles for which they are overqualified. But we will encourage each other to apply for opportunities anyways.

We may hear stories of breakups and miscarriages, and longed-for children that never arrive. We may cry secretly, but light will break through the darkness anyways. 

We may be overwhelmed at times by the amount of work that needs to be done. But we will just do one day at a time, and we will finish impossible tasks anyways.

Sometimes, White women may forget the more difficult battle for women of colour.

Sometimes, the rich may be unable to see others in poverty.

Sometimes, the able-bodied may forget their sisters who are disabled.

These types of intersectionality will remain a heavy burden.

But still sisters will praise together anyways, under the one name, of Jesus. 

We may lay at night and think of younger leaders following us. Some will disappoint us, some will delight us. We will lead them anyways. 

At times, we may be tired or sick. We will contribute anyways. 

Sometimes the cost may feel too high. We will pay it anyways. 

 

We may feel like giving up. But we won’t. Not this year.

Thinking on the Legacy of the Australian Church @ CONNECT17

At the moment, I’m too busy to think! I’m preparing for my graduation ceremonies, and a theology and disability conference… and of course, marking! So I thought I’d just post up my address to the Christian Media & The Arts Australia (CMAA) conference called CONNECT17. Honestly, I wish I had more time to just sit and talk with people, as many of Australia’s leaders were gathered together to think about the future. I was honoured to share the stage with my sister and Kabi Kabi, Gureng Gureng, and Torres Strait Islander woman, Larissa Minnieconn.

Larissa pioneered the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanderjustice team at Common Grace, where I was honoured to serve along side her. She is involved in a number of initiatives regarding globally Indigenous Christians, and she works at the Native Title Tribunal.

We spoke in the plenary midday sessions on Thursday, and then on the panel with Christian author Sheridan Voysey and Social Futurist Mal Fletcher.

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As we did this morning, I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, and their elders past, present and future.

I do this because the Bible in Romans 13 says to give honour where honour is due.

Today I’ll start with a phrase that shouldn’t feel “foreign” to any Sydneysider in the room.

It’s Gi Walawa Nulawala.

You can say it now.

This is a welcome phrase that means “stop and rest here a while” in the Dharug language. And I hope that we can indeed stop here and rest a while to imagine the legacy that one Australian generation could pass on to the next.

But who is the Dharug nation, you might ask? This is the language of the Australian nation in Sydney that stretches from the lower North Shore over to Parramatta through most of the Hills District.

It is the language of the land on which I lived with my family for eighteen years.

I learned a lot of things growing up. I learned about cockatoos that screeched across the blue sky above our house. I learned where to find the waterfalls that ran down the sandstone cliffs in the bush behind our house.

And yet, I had never heard of the Dharug people. I had never heard any of the languages that had been spoken on the land under my house for thousands of years.

The history of Australia and its peoples shouldn’t be kept like a dirty secret.

Some of you will have already heard my story, and how I was praying to God sitting upon a tree that looked very much like this one, when trying to decide if I should undertake a PhD. This led to a five-year journey. I was advised to get a topic that wouldn’t bore me no matter how long I had to study it.

And I found that listening to God speak through the land I was born on, and the people of that land could never bore me.

But now that I’ve finished this project, I do ask myself why? Why was I so interested?

Perhaps it’s because if I could describe my family’s connection to land, it would be with one simple phrase: “Eden Lost.” Let me explain.

When it comes to legacy, the first thing I think of is my only living grandparent, Bettie Sheila Miller.

We call Bettie “the Matriarch” and she really is kind of like the Queen in our family. She doesn’t really like to smile in photographs.

After World War II, at the age of eighteen, Bettie met a kind (and rather eccentric man) called Eric Miller. Eric was a scientist at the CSIRO, and they both met Jesus well into their sixties.

Before that though, Eric liked to hit the Bondi pubs at closing time, and he had a pet carpetsnake he’d take to the bar in order to make sure he got his drinks order in before the final round each Friday.

Grandma is the keeper of the tales of Eric. She is a detective at heart, and her hero is Sherlock Holmes. Half her descendents have gone into the sciences, and half into the Arts, and Bettie keeps pace in conversation on both sides.

But her life didn’t start out with the kind of hope and joy that she carries now. In fact, she believed for much of her life that she was left as a baby on the church doorstep. And she had no idea who her family was. Bettie spent her first fifteen years in and out of foster care and like many children in the system she was badly abused.

It wasn’t until one of my cousins organized a DNA kit that we found out her ancestry.

Which was also the day I learned my heritage, through an SBS article.

It turns out, both Bettie and Eric had Welsh heritage. And Bettie has a little bit of Belgian in there too – and 2% South East Asian that nobody really knows what to do with.

I don’t think I’m alone in having this kind of a story. Many Australians have lost connection to their ancestry beyond their living memory.

But, when you actually find your missing heritage, it makes you think about the pieces of your identity, OR who you think you are… and find yourself asking, is this 8% Belgian why I have such a deep affinity to waffles?

We are a nation of immigrants. Currently, about a quarter of us have a parent who was born overseas. By 2050, it is expected to be about a third. And, of course, the Aussie way is to fit in as soon as possible.

This leaves Australians today unable to point to the land from which they came, or even where they find a meaningful connection.

There are few cultural rituals in Australia that last any longer than one or two generations. While my Italian friends can recognize a great pizza, the truth is, we discourage them from other languages, and we tell them to forget their homelands.
But land is very significant in the Bible. Genealogies are written out in fine detail. And knowing that God was born as little Jewish baby on the edges of the Roman Empire, should say something to us about the way God chooses to reveal truth.

So, in my PhD research, I wanted to know for myself whether Jesus was similarly turning up on the edges of Australian cities. Was He where society least expected Him to be found – and indeed He was.

My research took me to three Australian cities, in order to interview 88 people attending churches with Aboriginal senior pastors. I wanted find out what God was doing through these leaders in our nation, and I found out that they had some amazing insights to share.

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I learned that the different Australian nations cross our continent just like in Europe. I found that Aboriginal peoples from the mainland share much culture, while Torres Strait Islanders are honoured as a distinct group.

But most of my PhD education has actually been an unlearning. For example, when I began my program I believed that the most intelligent person in the room is the one that speaks the most, and the loudest. But I quickly learned that leadership doesn’t always present in skinny jeans and with a latte.

That’s not to say, however, that Bundjalung leaders such as Pastor Will Dumas from Ganggalah Church wouldn’t wear skinny jeans and hold a latte.

But I had to unlearn some of the things that I had been taught by the media about who Aboriginal people were, and what they contributed to our nation.

The most important astounding was that the Australian Bureau of Statistics report that 73% of our Australian Aboriginal population self-identify as Christian, although many would have mixed feeling towards the church, and the missions. 98% of Torres Strait Islanders self-identify with Christianity.

I suspect that our generation will have to unlearn many things in order to participate in building an Australian story that is greater than the one that we have at the moment.

There are two very important things that I unlearned and I believe are crucial to understanding what God is doing in Australia.

  1. I had to unlearn all of my Christian foyer conversations.

You know, the one where you’re trying to get past the person and into your seat before pre-roll ends and you can join the worship song?

Or the one where you say “it’s nice to see you” and you mean exactly that. “It’s nice to SEE you today?

After a couple of emails with Pastor Will and Sandra Dumas from Ganggalah, I turned up in The Tweed, and the very first thing that I was taught was “to yarn.”

“Yarn” is the Aboriginal lingo word for conversation.

I had to relearn how to have a conversation.

Some Aboriginal leaders say that there is nothing really unusual about yarning, which might be true, but I haven’t had a church leader organize eighteen hours of conversation for me before.

What I learned in those yarns is that the stories that we tell about ourselves are the ones that we end up believing.

And the stories I was telling about Australia weren’t old enough. They weren’t vivid enough. And they weren’t always completely true. They were the stories that I was telling to help me survive until I found Eden again — in my next life.

 

2) I had to unlearn what I knew about Australia, and I had to be welcomed into my own nation.

 We have been selling a message that church is a really important place to be on weekends. But these Australian Christians welcomed me into the land that I had been living on for all these years.

Suddenly, it became clear that God considers land very important.

There are many Christians who believe strange things about Welcome to Country. Some refuse to be present when it is performed. I know people who have pulled their kids out of public school over Acknowledgement.

But for me, a girl who has no memory of anything further back than a little house in Epping, Sydney, what welcome means to me is that we can start to live the kingdom of God now, in Australia. Not when we get to heaven. It means that we can include land in our telling of the gospel story.

The biblical scholar N.T. Wright comments upon how often humans fall short of their potential. He says this:

“Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection.
Made for joy, we settle for pleasure.
Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance.
Made for relationship, we insist on our own way.
Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment.

But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world … quite simply… what it means to be Christian [is] to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.”

The earth and all of the people within it are a part of God’s new world.

When I was invited to address this conference, I said yes because I knew that in this room were the story-tellers of our nation.

The stories we are telling are more about selling than they are about telling.

They are tweetable, they are simple, but they aren’t life-changing. They are behavior changing.

So, I stand here before you a movement of storytellers, and I ask, what stories are you telling about Australia?

But even more importantly I ask

WHAT IS THE STORY GOD IS WRITING IN AUSTRALIA?

And I think maybe that we have to be willing to listen to hear God’s story.

Which is why I asked one of the most inspiring young Australian Christian leaders to join with me here today in imagining a legacy for our generation.

Because the story that I believe God wants us to tell is of togetherness.

It takes into account all the ways that we have profited from the history of our nation, and it seeks true justice.

Larissa Minnieconn has been proven in the secret place of worship, and in prayer and has a deep understanding of Jesus.

The Bible suggests that we are living epistles, transcribed with the glory of God, so that all who read us can see. And the letter Larissa is writing is one of pure grace, and courage.

And if I on my deathbed am only known for amplifying the Australian voices found around us, then I will know in my heart that I told the truth about our nation. And that is a legacy I would be entirely proud of leaving for the next generation.

 

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Dr. Tanya Riches and Larissa Minnieconn. Photo credit – Rachel Chow

 

 

Faith in the Marketplace: 1 Peter 1.

[This blog is from a sermon preached on the 30th April 2017 at St George’s Anglican Church Paddington in Sydney. The text for the day was 1 Peter 1:13-25.
Thanks to my St George’s friends for their hospitality.]

I will begin with a famous passage published by John Bunyon in 1678.

… Then I saw in my dream, when they were got out of the wilderness, they presently saw a town before them, and the name of that town is “Vanity”; and at the town there is a fair kept, called “Vanity Fair”; it is kept all the year long. It bears the name of Vanity Fair, because the town where ’tis kept is lighter than vanity; and also because all that is there sold, or that comes thither is vanity…

This fair is no new erected business; but a thing of ancient standing. I will show you the original of it.

Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are; and BEELZEBUB, APOLLYON, and LEGION, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the City lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein should be sold of all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long.

… at this fair are all such merchandise sold: as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms; lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts – as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.

… moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be deceivers, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues and that of every kind.

Within the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, as the two central characters named Christian and Faithful journey to the Celestial city,  they meet characters set to waylay them at every turn.

Here in chapter six, they come upon a corrupt city, a place of crooked dealing, with an evil marketplace.

This passage can be read in a number of different ways, each of them showing us a little of what Christians tend to think about the marketplace, and the world.

  1. The Evangelical Individual: Resisting the Market

Although this book was written hundreds of years ago, still today Christians can feel beset in the marketplace on every side; overwhelmed by the amount of worldly enticements or temptations that must be overcome.

The evangelical church was born from protest, and has focused upon resisting the evil that is constantly offered, the “lives, blood, bodies, souls” that are being sold by the world.

Within this paradigm, the passage of 1 Peter can be read a certain way,

“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed”

There are many relics of this kind of thinking. In January, we happened to be travelling through the rolling countryside of New South Wales, when we came upon the town of Spring Hill near Orange. In this tiny village, was a Temperance Hall, established in 1883.

The temperance movement was strengthened by a group of Christians who drew upon this type of reading of “the world” as found in Bunyon’s passage. Prohibitionists in the United States also saw the world this way.

Individuals, such movements argue, are susceptible to the corruption of the marketplace and likely to make bad decisions. Ordinary people will only abstain from an action if it is prohibited, and the consequences enforced by the state.

In particular, these Christians argued that alcohol clouds our judgment, and must be prohibited.

But the argument goes much deeper, and is based upon the thought that left to our own devices, we tend to be unable to make good choices.

Any market in which all options are available, is a test. Each of us must be continually exhorted to stay true to Christ, just as Faithful and Christian do in Pilgrim’s Progress.

2. (Mis)recognised Metaphors: Embracing the Market

Unfortunately, these strong metaphors Christians have drawn upon for the world and its influence can be easily turned around or misused, in the sense that “the world” can refuse this characterisation.

The first editor of the American magazine Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, happily drew upon the influence of Bunyon’s allegory. He declared his magazine a celebration of America’s “increased devotion to pleasure, to happiness, to dancing, to sport, to the delights of the country, to laughter, and all forms of cheerfulness.”

Surely, he seems to say, Christian and Faithful just saw the marketplace wrongly. Vanity Fair is not a place to be feared. The market creates new opportunities, and facilitates desires that are fundamentally good.

Individuals are only really unable to resist temptation if they are flawed. But, this argument goes – why resist at all? Why not truly enjoy what is good?

And thus, some Christians (maybe Pentecostal Christians shhhh!) would place the emphasis upon the passage in Peter upon the hope in Jesus Christ, and the possibilities of the Lord revealed.

This argument continues that, rather than making us boring people, Christians should be intriguing, and invoke questions because of the hope they profess and the possibilities of their future.

3. The Corrupt System of the Market

Interestingly, experts in literature often read the famous chapter six of Pilgrim’s Progress differently, not as a direct condemnation upon “paganism” or the ancient English markets where impulsive purchasing occurred, but instead as an indictment upon Roman Catholicism which commercialised the Christian religion.

Bunyon’s picture of Vanity Fair, they claim, echoes another market depicted in the gospels, in which Jesus turns over the tables. This market was only corrupt because it was selling objects of worship. In this reading, the moral of the story is that true religion is not to be sold, but must be free.

This reading emphasizes the corrupt systems of the world as they extract a fee from all those who engage in them. Buyer or sellers, we all are implicated as the market forces control the setting. No matter the choices we make as individuals, we are corrupted simply by because Vanity Fair exists.

Buyer or sellers, we all are implicated as the market forces control the setting. No matter the choices we make as individuals, we are corrupted simply by because Vanity Fair exists.

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4. A Modern Vanity Fair

Bunyon’s actual meaning is left uncertain. But many of these ideas continue to influence the way we see ourselves as Christians in the urban context, and thus how we interpret the passage of 1 Peter. The apostle Peter continues,

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.

In the modern environment, of course, many of us work for corporations. So, we may decide, this text indicates that we should live in our cities with sober judgment, making good decisions. As obedient children, we should grow up and make good choices. The passage continues,

18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.

Christians are reminded by Peter’s words that they were bought, and not with an ordinary price, or at an ordinary market. He continues,

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart

Often scriptures such as 1 Peter are cited in church in order to help us see that Christians must work hard for the corporations we work for, and as the Beatles sang, “all you need is love.”

But, the question is, can we see more here in this particular scripture than just the formation of good citizens for transnational corporations and the state?

Is there perhaps something more we can learn from the church in Asia Minor, as it to read aloud the words of Peter aloud?

Something more profound, and deeply resonant than simply what our context today allows?

“Be Holy, for I am Holy

Perhaps what we must learn is held within the saying “be holy, because I am holy.”

In Peter’s epistle, God is not asking the church to be formed to serve the marketplace.

God is asking the church to be formed, indeed to be con-formed, to Him.

Peter exhorts the Christians to follow the lead of Jesus.

What He is, they must become. And God is holy. So the question is, what does this strange word “holy” actually mean?

Within the Bible there are 34 direct commandments to “be holy.”

  • Leviticus, (11:44): “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by [eating] any creature that moves along the ground
  • Numbers (6 v 5): sets out rules around the temple Nazirites and holiness is demonstrated through growing hair.
  • Deuteronomy, (23): “For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away.”
  • Jeremiah (31:40): God even stakes a claim upon the rubbish tip, saying “The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”

These things may seem very ordinary.

Eating. Cutting hair. The way Israel acts while camping. The rubbish tip. In each case, Israel must “be holy.”

But the passage most relevant for us today in relation to 1 Peter, is I suspect, found in Leviticus 20. It states,

“You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

1 Peter: A Letter Written From the Imperial City

You see, Peter writes his epistle to the church in Asia Minor from a place he identifies as “Babylon.” Most scholars believe that he is writing from Rome, the Imperial city and the seat of Emperor Nero.

John Calvin noted that its audience is largely the early Christians of modern day Turkey, many converted Gentiles. Perhaps some are even Roman citizens.

Taking into account the date and region, it is highly likely that those in modern day Turkey were struggling with fear regarding the way the Christian faith was perceived by  Roman leaders.

And perhaps, as is often the case, those Peter writes to could feel public sentiment swirling against them, as they gathered to worship and eat together. Perhaps they feared for Peter’s life. Perhaps they feared for their own.

But Peter, after witnessing firsthand what happened to Jesus, is no stranger to this kind of atmosphere. Surely the disciple who denied his rabbi three times before the rooster crowed, knows how it feels to be afraid, and also to give in to fear. He knows how it feels to deny Christ. And from his words we can detect little chance of that even happening again.

If these Christian were, in fact, struggling with fear, it would not be completely unfounded.

History tells us that in the year 67AD, Rome burned with a great fire. Some historians suggest that Nero lit the fire himself. Thousands burned to death, as this blaze raged for nine days.

‘Tacitus’ a young boy writes this Roman history down. He speaks of the followers of Christus, the founder of a group put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate. He says,

“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities.

… Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.”

In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle, [mingled] with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot.

For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers… because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.”

Tacitus suggests that Nero’s persecution caused some Roman Christians to forsake their faith and their love for one another, and to testify against each other.

We are left wondering what how they felt, as they faced their death. We don’t know the answer. We don’t know for sure what happened, or to whom.

But we do know that shortly before this, Peter tells the Christians of Asia Minor in his letter,

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Peter sets the holiness of Christ as the church’s model and guide.

Within this letter Peter warns them,

“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

You might right ask … if this is Peter’s final manifesto, why doesn’t he invoke intelligent and subversive political maneuvers? Why doesn’t he write a manual on non-violent direct action? Why does he not encourage Christians in Asia Minor to advocate to Rome on his behalf?

Eusebius later claims that it is, in fact, Nero who orders Paul’s death.

And that it is Nero who commands Peter crucified, in his chosen position, upside down in order to honour his Lord, Jesus.

Despite this, Peter’s message in his letter is not radical.

So how do we reconcile this – that an apostle senses disquiet, and yet, there is no call to arms. There is no overthrow of the market. There is no request for political solidarity or even asylum. There is only the declaration to “be holy in all you do.”

Miroslav Volf suggests that perhaps this is the profound moment that many scholars of Peter search for. He says,

“The call to follow the crucified Messiah was, in the long run, much more effective in changing the unjust political, economic, and familial structures than direct exhortations to revolutionize them would ever have been. For an allegiance to the crucified Messiah—indeed, worship of a crucified God—is an eminently political act that subverts a politics of dominion at its very core.”

The message of 1 Peter can arguably be misread. It may even perhaps be misused by the powers that be, just as Bunyon’s text has been read in many ways, likely different from his original intention.

But the truth is that the powers that be are no match for the risen Christ.

Indeed, Volf suggests that it is within the very act of refusing to be defined by their enemy that Christians have indeed been able to live free. He says,

But how can people give up violence in the midst of a life-threatening conflict if their identity is wrapped up in rejecting the beliefs and practices of their enemies? Only those who refuse to be defined by their enemies can bless them.

Peter’s call to the church in Asia Minor is to be defined only by Christ.

And, this is indeed a radical call.

Christ and him crucified.

In the words of another ancient Christian, St Patrick, who was able to forgive his enemies. I will finish with this as a prayer for us today:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Is the Australian Church NDIS-Ready?

Australia is currently in the midst of a reform called the National Disability Insurance Scheme or NDIS. This reflects a widespread national recognition that change is necessary for the way that we care for and support those with disabilities. This scheme rolls out in 2017 in New South Wales.

Under the NDIS, Australia’s funding will now be allocated to and controlled by the individual with a disability rather than by service organizations, which traditionally provided programs that individuals had to fit or miss out. This change will enable eligible people to structure their income and their activities around their goals.

This potentially opens new opportunities for people with disability, as they gain voice and control and are able to decide what matters to them as a person.

In recent years, there has been increasing recognition that “disability” is not a medical diagnosis, but a bio-psycho-social one, as in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Functioning (ICF). This just means that our understanding of what disability often reflects our social environment. Advocates suggest that the word “dis-ability” indicates a limitation on the abilities of a person whom it describes.

With the technology we now have available and use today, many physical limitations can be now overcome – for example, people who wear reading glasses probably don’t see themselves as “disabled” while those of us who use wheelchairs and are unable to get access to the places where we do ordinary life are likely to identify themselves as having a “disability.”

The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or UNCRPD (http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml) has now been signed by approximately one hundred and forty nations, including Australia. The UNCRPD is a commitment from governments to change the way they provide support to citizens with disability. This is of particular importance because many studies link disability to low socioeconomic status or poverty.

The Centre for Disability Studies, an affiliate of The University of Sydney, has been involved in some of the preparatory work for the NDIS.

And one of the interesting findings is that Australia’s NDIS may mark the potential reappearance (or more regular appearance) of many people with lifelong disabilities into Australia’s religious communities.*

In 2015 at the L’Arche 50-year Symposium conference hosted by The Centre for Theology & Ministry at Melbourne University, Dr Vivienne Riches and Dr Tanya Riches presented their research, outlining the self-reported religious affiliation of 246 Australians with disability during a trial assessment. This was the basis for a scholarly article for AlphaCrucis’ AustralAsian Pentecostal Studies (APS).

Of our respondents, 14 (5.7%) replied that they had ‘no religious affiliation’. The majority of others (92.5%) identified themselves as ‘Christian’, with many specified denominational affiliations.

There was another theme in the interviews with people with disability – staff was largely unable (or, occasionally unwilling) to take people with disability to church. Support for religious activities on the weekends within group homes has been patchy at best.

Now under the new funding arrangements, a person with a disability could articulate their goals as involvement in a faith community, and receive adequate support in order to attend church every weekend, visit the venue each week for music rehearsals, or regularly attend youth or discipleship meetings.

In most Australian cities, this finally marks the arrival of a real weekend for many people with moderate to profound disabilities. The weekend is the time when most people do social things. But until now, support staff structured support around their schedules – and most carers worked midweek.

Interestingly, however, within much of the Christian church, the massive impending social changes that are possible with the NDIS have not even raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this highlights a disconnect with the needs of our community, How much do we really love our neighbour with a disability?

Jesus was highly interested in people with disability – especially those who were dis-abled by their society. Jesus did not see disability as a curse (John 9:1-3). He often healed symptoms, of course, but his main contribution was in solving the wider social problems related to the stigmatisation of people.

Paul wrote several times of his physical weakness (e.g. 2 Cor 12:7-10). The great leader Moses had a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10- 16). Elijah was depressed to the point of suicidality in 1 Kings 19. And one of the most beautiful stories of hospitality in the Bible is the way King David treated Mephibosheth, the son of his friend Jonathan, who had a physical impairment (in 2 Sam 9).

Perhaps the church needs to be more open and connected to the needs of the people within it? …. Is your church community ready to wholeheartedly say “Welcome home” to those rolling over to the NDIS in 2017? new-year-2017-diary-9-2

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*It’s worth saying that service provision is more difficult in Australia’s remote and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where services are often further away. In many of these communities, however, there are also different conceptions of what “disability” is, and also different views about social responsibilities to kin.