A Letter to America,
which is really an Australian talking to Australia.
Gospel: Mark 8:27-38
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ [the Christ] 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, [Other ancient authorities read: lose their life for the sake of the gospel] will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words [Other ancient authorities read and of mine] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
My Lenten Discipline has been a long bike ride. (here) The 1200km Audax is the cyclist's equivalent of the marathon. Younger folk can do it in 90 hours, but I'm too old, and was always a plodder, so I've just spent four and a half days with maybe 3 hours sleep each, riding nonstop through country South Australia.
My evening companion has been Carrie Newcomer. I immersed myself in her music, and I've learned some songs by heart. Her spirituality could be summed up as finding God— I do not know its name… elusive and subtle… in the common and ordinary things of life. At first, to my bloke-ish Australian ears, Carrie Newcomer sounded shallow and schamltz. She triggered a lot of my anti American prejudices; we hate you, deep down, because we envy you deeply. Yet I discovered a profound and alluring sense of God which rang true in the harshness of Australian nights.
I woke up this morning with bits of Newcomer echoing in my ears and found the preaching list to which I subscribe full of posts about another school shooting in America. And then looked at the Gospel for the week.
And so, America, I write about what my theology has taught me about you and me, America and Australia.
In this post I am writing about the mythologies of our respective nations. And I am abandoning politeness, for nothing exposes our mythologies— the stories by we live our lives, and which therefore hugely control and direct us— nothing exposes our mythologies like our prejudices. They are windows into the powers which control, or seek to control, our souls
I write with an understanding of Mark as a gospel which is deeply cynical about Empire— the kingdom of heaven is at hand— and yet full of hope in Christ. America: You are the Empire. You are the Rome of our day. Us Australians? Well, we're the little empire that couldn't. We often used to call Prime Minister John Howard "Deputy Sherriff" to George Bush! We are the wannabes that never will be. We are the classic vassal state, full of envy and self-disgust.
Someone on the preaching list suggested that the problem in American society is deeper than the guns. We are a declining society, she said. I think that's the place to start. Both our societies are falling apart. Except, I want to say we are not in decline; we have failed.
We have failed. Both of us. And, deep down, increasingly, I think we know this is true.
So guns are not the problem for you, America: The problem is that your whole platform for being a people— the mythology of the nation— has failed. Like us, you are discovering that your foundations are rotten.
Guns are merely the boil-over, the place where the rage and the fear is flowing. In Australia, not quite in lock-step with you, we are travelling the same path. We are beginning to realise that things haven't worked. I read or viewed American media almost every day of my life past primary school. I watch with absolute admiration: your commitment to human rights and justice, your community activism, and your public intellectual life, shames us. And I watch with bemusement and fear— all those parades and flag waving; how you cannot see the insecurity beyond all that trumpeted self belief amazes us on this side of the Pacific. You are our object lesson about how, and how not, to be a nation. We are not learning well, but tending, more and more, merely to copy you.
Both of our countries have failed because we have bought into the dream of mammon, supported by violence.
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6:24)
The American Dream is the worship of mammon. We in Australia have served mammon within the mythology of "a fair go" and "mateship." Coming from Britain, in the beginning, we had a hatred of class superiority: you have a problem with guns; we hate difference, and envy success.
On Friday night, I rode past the land of the rich farmers of my childhood home. The district, envious of their good fortune— how could they not be rich, given those well-watered river flats— hated them. It rarely, if ever, came out in physical action, but there was a deep envy. We despised ostentation, and we took their big American cars as a sacrament of arrogance. They were different. As visibly rich anglo farmers they confounded us. They were like us, but those big cars and easy affluence made them, in another part of our minds, not much above the Japanese war bride in the town, or the Italian market gardeners and fishermen over on the coast. You keep these things hidden, of course, but in a dark night…
I get the impression that in the USA, your mythology is not so much to hate such folk, as to admire them. As to imagine that you could all be like them, that this is your right, and that with hard work, you can get there— anyone could be in the White House, if they wanted.
Ostentation is good in your story, whereas we have, until recently, strived to be "middle class." We want the money, too, but only in more recent years have we begun to flash it around. Despite the differences, our national and mythological commonality has been that we all knew and expected that life would be better than it had been, and that it would keep improving. More things would make us happier and better people.
But it is not true. And we mourn the discovery at those times we can bear to see it.
Four Corners is the archetypal public interest TV show in Australia. It's our longest running television show. As a mid-teen I saw the interview of some Aussie war brides who'd gone to you, America; women who'd married a GI and never come back. There was something sad and empty about the families they interviewed. Had it been worth it? A woman answered by saying they had soft shut kitchen drawers on rollers. In a masterful piece of cinema they showed her shutting the drawer several times. I was appalled and shocked. She was so sad and depressed— So empty! Things don't work as a purpose for life. They are a poor God, indeed.
We knew we Australians were above that sort of shallowness. But we still believed in progress. We thought we could all have a fair go. Yet the squatters and politicians are winning again in Australia. Holdens have closed. Adani won't stop trying to buy its way in, while the Government counts votes rather than principles. People are afraid for their jobs; they are seeing their friends become impoverished. The ordinary Australian is beginning to see that soft shut kitchen drawers don't work, and they are beginning to realise that they can't have them anyway.
Eisenhower said in 1959 that
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. (Eisenhower)
Australia has just decided to become a major arms supplier. God have mercy. The squatters are the robber barons of old, and are the business interests who claim to be building up the economy but who are rorting the rest of us. Coal is failing despite the government pandering to the colliers. Solar power is making money for the newly rich who are able to see past their nose. So we fall back on the surest way to make money: armaments. But the empire has fallen. This is good money after bad, a more frantic repetition of pointless prayers to an all devouring God.
And with the discovery, half seen, half repressed, that the place has fallen apart, we have two things happening:
We are really angry. How will we live now? On the Barkly tablelands in 2016, as I battled the yearly east winds on my pushbike, I saw numbers of grey nomads camped on the roadside because they couldn't afford the fuel to drive into the winds: living the dream is becoming unaffordable.
Around age 45, I realised I was not going to retire and travel like my parents. I'll be a full pensioner in a time when the government is, deep down, seeking to reduce the old age pension.This is not the future we imagined, or had sold to us. And, second,
We are terrified. How will we live now? Where will we get food? How will we pay the bills? In the Great Depression, the farmers could at least eat rabbit, wheat meal porridge, and even prickly pear. You can still see the remains of bush camps around Adelaide. Happy Valley was so called because it was a camp for indigent people. Now there are too many people for this to work. There is not enough bushland left, and we don't know how to live off the land, anyway. I wonder if we are more afraid for the future than our grandparents were.
What do we live for? I think our terror comes because we don't know what to live for. What is life about? What is my purpose? In Australia, we have successfully ignored those questions since World War II, at least. We have absolutely no idea what life is about beyond some pieties about family, a fair go, and being materially secure. And the cricket.
No one wants to believe that this collapse of our nations is what is happening to us. A friend who lived for some years in the states, recently posted some video of the street camps of L.A. Australians exploded back at him about fake news! Read the subtext: The Empire can't be failing, because that would mean our little dream of security was also failing.
With apologies to your Mr Rumsfeld, there are also things we know that we don't want to know.
This has been a long boil coming. Your shootings are the pot beginning to boil over. The making of the burning stew we are in, has been several generations, at least, and there will be a generation or two of boilover and consequence.
I do not mention recovery, because the empire is not in decline, and is not in trouble. The empire has fallen. We are, in fact, sorting out what will happen next. The kingdom of heaven is at hand if only we would trust it.
In America, your mythology is to solve the too-hard problem by killing. Our mythological method is to shun and hate. The end result is the same, we will kill you in the end. We are perhaps more deadly. Australian soldiers of World War 1 appalled the English with their savagery. (Here and here and here and here. We don't like to believe this about ourselves.) I say this to point out that I am talking about us all. We are the same. Only the way we live out our sameness is different.
Solving too-hard problems by killing is the real reason you have so many guns and massacres, not the NRA politicking. Finland and Switzerland have an assault weapon in every house, but their mythology does not preach that you can create peace and goodness by killing, so massacres are uncommon. Every American film kills. In America, you have a gun called The Peacemaker.
We don't kill; we are xenophobes. We hate difference. In the failure of our nation the rage is boiling over nearly as much as yours is. It's terrifying. Deep hatred of refugees— especially of Muslims, of aboriginal people, of greenies… We solve our fear and rage with scapegoating: shit on door handles, painted slogans on buildings, road rage… there is a deep, visceral-to-the-point-of-incoherent rage, hatred of women who demand equality, hatred of gays… I see nothing here that is less enraged and hate filled than the kid at school with a gun.
We hate: We lived in a regional city where the economy was always a pen stroke away from collapse. It was a place of broken dreams. The people of the town coped in part by targetting the schoolies, the cops, and the clergy. It dawned on me, one day, that we had to be destroyed, not that the folk doing it were conscious of what drove them!
There is a deep hatred of politicians. I wonder if anyone really cares about Barnaby Joyce's infidelity. (Google it, America.) Half the place is shagging other people's wives. It's the hypocrisy, the press says, not the infidelity. This is true, but it's also a cover for hate. You can hate with purity, when it's a Barnaby Joyce that you hate.
I camped in a donga one night. There was me, and three young blokes wasting their lives and boozing away most of what they earned that day. They abused me because I was riding across Queensland on a bike! We hate difference. It terrifies us.
The bright light in all this is that a national plebiscite recently shamed the politicians to vote in favour of same sex marriage. But it's not what it seems. There are now too many LGBTI people to scapegoat; the secret is out— in the cities, anyway— because we all have a family member, or friend, touched by the inequality and injustice of the old marriage laws.
Instead, the plebiscite was a great opportunity to strike back at the churches (Read: authority) at a time when the national shame of child abuse had us questioning our decency, and was almost too much to bear. It was a moment we could indulge in a pure hatred of politicians and authority. Tony Abbot and Corey Bernardi and the Australian Christian Lobby— so called— epitomised the hypocrisy of religion and self-interested politics. They gave us a way to feel good and cleaner, while becoming meaner in another area: as we liberalise the marriage laws, prejudice against Muslims and the poor grows. For LGBTI folk, I suspect the victory is worrisome: much of the embrace is merely about the hatred of another other.
[The reader will observe that I am well versed in this hatred! As I am on my second draft of this post, my better self screams at me to tone it down, to be more measured. But what we are seeing from this tired cyclist is that we really do need to repent; the sickness we call original sin is what has formed us. We are made of this stuff, built in this environment, and steeped in it more than we know. We cannot talk about the mythologies of our nations sensibly, unless we realise that we too, are deeply formed by them. I gave up guns long ago; they appal me, but the violence and hatred is still there, despite my best efforts.]
If you feel like you are a loser, you can take being made to feel like shit for so long. And then it boils over. Here in Australia, you have to beat the crap out of a woman, or burn down a school, or light a bush fire. Decent, law abiding folk who are enraged, have no idea, for the most part, where to even get a gun; assault weapons and semi-automatics are banned. In the USA I imagine you sometimes find the things in the trash, rather the way you can pick up a good phone or TV off the street here.
But there is something about massacres that just doesn't work for us Australians. What would killing a lot of folk do, anyway? (Maybe this is changing in younger folk who spend too much time in movies and video games.) But something in you, America, thinks it is manly to walk the school corridors with a gun, despite all the national revulsion. "All your movies" have good guys with guns, a clearly obvious fantasy in our eyes. We all think— apart from a few young men— that you are idiots.
In our usual shallowness, I suspect a lot of us wouldn't go and massacre people because, well, we despise you… what a loser to think that shooting up the school will do anything! (In The Castle, an iconic film about ordinary Australians, someone sends around some hard men to intimidate the family. One of the boys, pulls out the family .22 rifle. His Dad excoriates him. Actually, America, if you want to be mystified, watch The Castle and The Dish. And maybe The Road to Nihil.)
And when they do shoot up a school, they shoot themselves; how absolutely gutless. We despise our only really successful mass murderer, Martin Bryant, as a loser as much as we hate him. But I think that in you there is some kind of admiration, all the same. You glorify the details of the shootings in a way we didn't; all those details, all the TV excitement and live reporting; there is a kind of fascination and, dare I say it… enjoyment. Our media has been copying you for a long time.
The untrammelled Australian in me snorts at you: "You want to get back at school; I understand that. Totally. Well, burn the bloody place down. Do it properly, you gutless wonder." Do you see that the hate is the same; guns are just a different channel.
And into our diverse yet similar national hatreds comes Jesus of Nazareth: the kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:15) He uses the language of empire's triumphs (euangelion) to say empire is at an end. We can't hear the shocking subversion in this, because our churches have forever been servants to king and country— since Constantine, some would say. You have the flag in your sanctuary; we hang the regimental colours in our churches; chaplains come into worship at synod, dressed in war camouflage. I like that one of my colleagues reads The Community of Divine Love instead of Kingdom of Heaven, but this reading does not capture the shock that Jesus' kingdom is against empire, and a total rejection of its mythology of power. Empire is a satanic parody of God's Love, all the more dangerous because it believes in itself.
They are among the villages of Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8. Jesus' question is not testing insight and grace. There is no "‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven," as in Matthew 16. In Mark it is a question of allegiance in the face of power. He said all this quite openly: the opposition to empire is stark and complete.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: Peter is still in the mindset of Empire. This cannot be! We can make it work! You must not die, you must rule!
But empire has fallen. We can see that our countries do not work.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. The gospels have a clear understanding that the Empire will strike back.
So yes, we strive for gun laws. And yes, we strive for justice for refugees, women, LGBTI people… all that. Not to do this is to desert the gospel at its roots.
But the mythology of our selves has to change. We have to abandon the idea that we will gain life through things, through having security, through being safe. Ultimately we have to give up on the idea that we can win. In Mark, Jesus does not win. He refuses to win: Get behind me, Satan.
This is what the gun massacres of America, and the ethnic hatreds of Australia, are about. If I can't have my stuff, if I can't be on top, then neither can you. If I can't live, then neither can you.
We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” he said. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” (Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers)
In the blunt vernacular that he loved to use, LBJ was describing what the television pundits of today would probably call the politics of resentment and divisiveness. It is still very much with us. (Snopes)
The people at the bottom of the pile, the ones who in a moment of grace, if they could only see it as such, realise that they are not better than the best black man, who don't buy the lies of empire anymore, boil over. Your pot is spattering and scalding folk across the nation, America; in Australia we are close to boiling point.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
In the end, mammon is an effort to save our life. Why don't old people massacre schools? They've worked out it doesn't work. They've finally worked out they are dying anyway.
The reason prosperity gospel appeals— we've just had two flashy churches open up in strip malls in my part of Adelaide— is that they say you can have your cake and eat it too. They are part of the lie. For all their cries about worshipping the holiness of God, they have given into the idolatry of mammon.
To die is to abandon mammon. And we don't know how to do that. In my writing you can see how much anger and cynicism and violence is left in me after 40 years of discipleship. You can probably see it better than I can see it! So why would we think we have even a clue just how much we are tuned into possessions and safety?
The old woman had a billy can. He had three spears and a woomera. No clothes. They were happy. Deaconess Win Hilliard used to talk about this elderly Pitjantjatjara couple she had once met on the road. They had affected her profoundly; she often spoke of them.
We were sceptical. We wondered if they were really happy; and rehearsed the situations in that remote desert country, where possession of only a billy can and spears would probably mean death. We reflected that notwithstanding Win’s romantic attachment to this couple, we still had to live in the real world. Money was necessary.
Except it isn’t. This couple were not rich; they had no money. They had few possessions, even by 1950’s Pitjantjatjara standards. We are so enmeshed in our culture of acquisition we dismiss them as an oddity. Instead of seeing them as an example of Jesus’ teaching, we dismiss them. We even feel sorry for them!
We do not understand them. We cannot afford to understand them, for if we did, we would have to give up what we have. (Andrew Prior)
We would have to die. And if we dare to begin to die like that, even a little, we will destabilise the system. Which may then wish to kill us.
… perhaps counter-intuitively, innocence; that is, a consistent living out of the reign of God is deeply destabilising. In his chapter called "Re-Imagining Forgiveness" James Alison quotes Jesus saying
"Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Rather than this being an instruction about prudence, as it is usually made out to be, I suggest that this is what acting out forgiveness in the world looks like. It looks like knowing you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply destabilised by your innocence and because of that seek to lynch you. (On Being Liked p43)
Another way to express forgiveness is to say that a person who forgives refuses to insist on the maintenance of their boundaries and privilege. I mean innocence not in the sense of a naiveté where someone takes advantage of us, but innocence in the sense of the kind of dignity which is so un-invested in our normal human desire to maintain our status and safety, that it frightens people. (Andrew Prior)
So on my long bike ride there were many moments when I was touched by the beauty of the land, by the mystery of Min Min lights, and the glory of desert gums. The Divine is all around. But it is also elusive and subtle. Despite the many words, we can only talk around the point. God remains God, and the kingdom is often a foreign place.
He drove a rental car shuttle to the airport on Sundays
We chatted that gray morning 'bout the choir he sang with Wednesdays
He sang a haunting gospel hymn shameless and clear
With only me a wandering stranger sitting there to hear
I do not know its name
Elusive and subtle
But I believe it must sound like that man singing in the shuttle…
(Songwriters: Carrie Newcomer. I Do Not Know Its Name lyrics © BMG Rights Management US, LLC)
The fundamentalist in me wishes to scorn her. Of course we know! The bible says! Yet to this knowledge we must also die. Certainty is not trust. We have believed in mammon, and a part of its stock has been shelves full of certainty. There can be no certainty. Trust, also known as faith, which means actually living what we say about God, has a utopian foolishness where the only certainty is death.
Immediately after 10 year old Isaiah Roth witnesses a massacre, Newcomer sings
Do no harm, shed no blood,
The only law here is love
We can call the kingdom down here on earth
Beat your swords into plows,
Don't be afraid I'll show how
Lift your eyes to the skies,
All is holy here
The world has aged by 50 years.
The Quakers came and settled near
Old Isaiah Roth still preaches here,
That the greatest law is love
Some people say it's all a scam,
Just the ravings of some old man
But Isaiah Roth says he still can,
See Eden on the hill
Do no harm
Shed no blood
The only law here is love…
(Songwriters: Carrie Newcomer. I Do Not Know Its Name lyrics © BMG Rights Management US, LLC)
The better theologian in me objects that we cannot call the kingdom down… which is true. But if not now, America, tell me when? When do we end the foolishness and begin to live like God's kingdom. You terrify me, for I see the mark of you all over my country. We are following you like sheep…
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Mark 8:31-38 - Life Saving and Losing
Mark 8:27-38 - The pointy end of the gospel
Mark 8:27-38 - Who are you?
Mark 8:27-38 - Will you forget who I am?
Mark 8:31-38 - A Prayer from the Heart