What makes us who we are?

In response the post The Handing Over of Kopika and Tharnicaa, which was linked on Facebook, someone said: 

Where does our so called man of God [He means the Prime Minister] fit into this if at all? For the life of me I cannot see how this person can stand up in front of a church conference with which he is associated with and ask them to pray for him and then turns around and acts no differently to some thug on the street. As someone who has spent many years within a Pentecostal environment, this bloke is far removed from what I have experienced.

This is my response to that question.

The Prime Minister fascinates me and frightens me. Here’s why: He is clearly genuine about his faith. But doesn’t it have such a blind spot from our point of view‒ well, several!? What frightens me is that I have learned just how easy it is to have these blind spots, and how quickly they can develop.

How did he get there? And how did I end up where I am? 

I found the material I quote below quite confronting when I first read it, even though I knew the theory behind it.  It completely contradicts the idea that we rational human beings consider the evidence and make up our own minds about things. I’m quoting directly from my book’s introduction: 

We do not know who we are. We learn how to be from other people. Specifically, we learn to desire what they desire. James Alison sums this up with a conciseness which our pretention to be free agents finds brutal: "We always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen" (Alison, On Being Liked, pp1). Other people are our models for how to be a human being. We are a "hyper-imitative" species (Alison, We didn't invent sacrifice…). Kierkegaard saw this.

For it seems indeed as if, in order to be themselves, a person must first be expertly informed about what the others are, and thereby learn to know what they themselves are—in order then to be that. However, if they walk into the snare of this optical illusion, they never reach the point of being themselves... For from "the others," naturally, one properly only learns to know what the others are—it is in this way the world would beguile a person from being themselves. "The others" in turn do not know at all what they themselves are, but only what the others are. (Christian Discourses  pp42, quoted by Bellinger. I have modified the original to be gender inclusive.)

Charles Bellinger, who quotes the previous lines, says

When human beings are looking to each other as models of being, the pathway of life is a treadmill or squirrel cage rather than an actual road (From Finding Life and Being)...

This all suggests we are profoundly influenced, if not formed, by our environment, and that  freedom of choice is very hard won. I don’t like this conclusion, but having lived in a number of quite different environments, I’m all too aware of how much they influenced the person I was at the tim.  This morning we went back to the fairly impoverished area in which we lived for some 18 years. We shifted out to much more upmarket Mitcham just over three months ago, and already I was having to pull myself up over little bits of anti-northern suburbs prejudice. 

So when Mark  talks about following Jesus on the road or on the way (cf Mark 10:52), and so being off the treadmill kind of life Bellinger warns us about, he is claiming, I think, that the Jesus traditions provide a much healthier person to copy than the bloke next door. And that when we imitate Jesus we can get to a certain freedom of being, and a new way of being human. It’s a new culture which he (and Jesus) felt we could begin to live in and be shaped by. Jesus called it the kingdom of heaven. 

From this perspective, what I’m seeing is that it’s not a case that if we are going to be a Liberal Party Prime Minister then we have to become like the Liberal Party. Rather, the Liberal Party‒ just being in the Liberal Party, makes us into a certain kind of person, because we copy the other Liberals all around us. And it’s incredibly difficult to resist that moulding.  The creatures that we are copy and imitate so unconsciously, and so thoroughly, that we are not aware of our surroundings changing us, and especially the people surrounding us changing us, unless we make a serious effort to remain conscious of who we were to begin with. And conscious and deliberate about what kind of person it is that we want to be. If we are in a high pressure job with lots of vested interests lobbying us, it is harder again; there is no time for reflection. Perhaps the hardest place to be a compassionate, reflective human being is if we are the Prime Minister or the head of a major corporation. 

Indeed, James Alison suggests somewhere that if we seek to assist or be compassionate towards any group of people, we will inevitably become like them to some extent! 

What we can have in our favour is another group of people to copy, who will help anchor us as the kind of person we are, as it were.  Or, indeed, we might seek to copy Jesus himself.  The problem for us here is that Jesus himself is largely mediated to us, or filtered to us, by the traditions of the church, and particularly by the church in which we worship, and through the people we love and have as friends. We never quite copy him, only a copy of a copy of a copy, so to speak. 

The current Prime Minister is in a good position compared to some other politicians because he actually goes to church. He’s not just a nominal Christian for the sake of votes (like Trump), or one who has let his faith reflection be squeezed out of what shapes and guides him by being too busy to go to church. 

But I would suggest his denominational allegiance has not helped him here.  What I read about Hillsong, and this is common to many churches, suggests to me that much of what is taught and prayed, and acted out, is steeped in what I call Deuteronomic Theology. This gets its name from the theology of that OT book of the bible, which you could sum up as saying that if you treat God right, God will treat you right. And if you don’t do right by God, well that’s going to get you into trouble. Deuteronomy 28 provides an example: 

1If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; 2all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God: … 13The Lord will make you the head, and not the tail; you shall be only at the top, and not at the bottom—if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I am commanding you today, by diligently observing them, 14and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I am commanding you today, either to the right or to the left, following other gods to serve them. 15But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you: 16Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading-bowl.

This has been “refined” into Prosperity Theology, which says that if we live well by God then we will be rewarded financially in this life. Although the hyperlinked article by Philip Almond which I quote below presents this as a defining aspect of Pentecostalism, I suspect you can be a Pentecostal Christian without being aligned to Prosperity Theology. And Prosperity Theology is also a frequent understanding of God elsewhere in the church.

Almond says prosperity theology

is the view that belief in God leads to material wealth. Salvation too has a connection to material wealth – “Jesus saves those who save”. So the godly become wealthy and the wealthy are godly. And, unfortunately, the ungodly become poor and the poor are ungodly.

This theology aligns perfectly with the neo-liberal economic views espoused by Morrison. The consequence is that it becomes a God-given task to liberate people from reliance on the welfare state.

So there is no sense in Pentecostal economics of a Jesus Christ who was on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Nor is there one of rich men finding it easier to pass through the eyes of needles than to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. On the contrary, God helps those who are able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  (Ibid)

There are three things to say about this. One is that it does align almost perfectly with Liberal Party doctrine, as Almond says! How fortunate.  Re-emphasising that while I am not saying this is true of all Pentecostal expressions, one can see how the PM's choice of congregation/denomination will not challenge the "theology" of the current Liberal Party and act as a compassionate corrective. Indeed, it may well allow Liberal ideology to further subvert his own theology so that a gentler Deuteronomic expression is overwhelmed.

The second is that all of us who are Christian are living in a similar dynamic where the mesh of work, suburb, and socioeconomic status, etc., that is "us" will be challenged by, or will subvert our faith expression.

Thirdly, Deuteronomic Theology and its working out in Prosperity Theology is not Christian; it is pre-Christian.  Jesus was of that prophetic school which had begun to understand that God loves all folk just the same, and that we don’t get God's favour for the right kind of prayers, or for staying away from a locally generated set of “bad sins” as opposed to all the other sins which don’t count so much.  Indeed, following Jesus led the New Testament to suggest “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 5:10) And when Jesus called us to follow him, and also warned us the son of man had “nowhere to lay his head,” which suggests a relative poverty, and might suggest to us that true holiness leads not to accolades as Prime Minister, but more likely to loss of prestige, unpopularity, and sometimes persecution even to death.

But if we are in the wrong church, we won’t hear this. And we won’t see it. We will see a compassion, but only compassion for people like us. Our compassion will be blinkered. A recent Peter Fitzsimons column in the Sydney Morning Herald illustrates this graphically.

In terms of the Indigenous experience in this country – just how appalling it has been in this country – I personally didn’t get it either until I read a book a decade ago on the Myall Creek massacre, which opened my eyes. I knew things had been bad, historically, but I had no idea how bad.

When it came to Goodes’ experience, I certainly didn’t get that until I saw Ian Darling’s documentary The Final Quarter, which allowed us all to see up close for the first time just how appalling his treatment was. The vilification. The nastiness. The mass racism, with whole crowds booing his every touch of the ball. Before seeing it, I guess I felt Goodes might have occasionally come up against racism in his career, but Jesus wept! THAT shocking? I had no clue.

I came away reeling, just from watching it. What was it like for Goodes to be on the receiving end of it, to actually live with that kind of treatment from AFL fans and toxic commentators such as Jones?

I have no clue, genuinely, no clue. I can imagine, but even then I suspect I am not even close to understanding the horror and hurt. None of us with comfortable white lives – starting with Tim Watson and myself – can. Only Goodes can know, together with those who have lived that kind of experience.

If we are in Parliament with a daily travel allowance that exceeds the weekly Jobseeker payment, and if we are in a nice rich suburban church with a big band, and if we have lots of money and had half way decent parents… well, I think it’s just a whole lot easier to think that the Biloela family deserve what they’ve got. We don't know what poor means; we have no idea what it’s like to flee from a war; we have no idea what it’s like to be imprisoned and therefore psychologically tortured as a child, and how our treatment of them will stay with Kopika and Tharnicaa their whole lives long. And that’s all before we face the temptation to be tough on refugees so that we can win the next election.

I hate what the Prime Minister stands for. I am ashamed of us as a country. But I have no idea how come I didn’t end up as a solid Liberal supporter like so many of my friends, much less how I didn’t "swallow the Kool-Aid" like some Christian friends and end up being Trump and Morrison supporters. And I suspect that a good number of people in the wider world would see me as a complacent, rich, hypocrite who lives well at their expense, for my relative comfort is built upon the slavery of others.

The only answer to all that, ultimate, is to depend on the forgiveness of God. And to remember that such forgiveness and compassion is required of me by God towards others.

And to remember that it matters a hell of a lot what church I choose to belong to, and who I choose to have as my friends.

In response to a Facebook comment about this post by a friend, I wrote What makes us who we are?

Andrew Prior June 2021


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