The Virtue of Civility

I am heading down to Canberra for this weekend to attend the conference, Voices for Justice 2012. its purpose is to remind politicians of their commitment to the millennium development goals, and to challenge them with the fact that they have not lived up to their promised foreign aid spending.

the voices for justice website states the following about the participants:

At Voices for Justice 2010 gathering, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd referred to Micah Challenge supporters as “nagging prophets” for our persistent effort lobbying politicians to care about global poverty, and he urged us to continue.

the conference is an exercise in what is sometimes called public theology. We are attempting to outwork the values of our faith in the realm of politics and culture. the term “nagging” started me thinking about the lost virtue of civility, and the difference between firmly and respectfully communicating an argument and rudeness. A person who embodies the virtue of civility is respectful to everyone, and treats even those with whom she disagrees with respect and dignity. Civility is a social virtue, contributing to the health of relationships, to the progress of ideas and to wise decision making. Civility goes hand-in-hand with some other virtues. the civil person is:
• humble, recognising that they have something to learn from others;
• curious, open to fresh insight
• respectful, recognising the dignity of others, especially those with whom you disagree

Now, the truth is that civility is hard. I have studied 16 years after finishing my HSC, published books and articles and I am absolutely certain that my theological opinions are better than yours. Or so the arrogant, close minded, rude and untamed part of my character presumes. some of my recent dealings with the issue of Christians who support the submission of women to men evidence my own tendency to the vice of rudeness.

I was reading an article by Anne Summers during the week entitled “her rights at work” (see here), which explored the obnoxious and sexist way in which the Australian media, the opposition and the general public have attacked Australia’s first female prime minister; terms like “Juliar”; “Bob Brown’s bitch”; “ditch the witch.” And that is only the start. In his book, Hope (see here), Tim Costello, describes an address he once gave to parliamentarians (including Kevin Rudd) noting that good people, enmeshed in an increasingly rude environment, have lost the public virtue of civility. the consequence is that Parliament is no longer a forum for rational discussion and wise decision making. Instead it is an ongoing brawl. the tendency to attack political opponents ends up undermining the very purpose of Parliamentary discussion.

like politicians, protest its can also be horribly uncivil. And because that is so they undermine their own message, abrogating the right to be heard. Our challenge, in the face of parliamentarians whose politics we might fundamentally oppose, is to embody a different spirit. Costello notes that “Civility has to be cultivated; it is a learned art. Australians can do a lot better at it in all contexts.” If the theological virtues of faith, hope and love really do colour our moral life, then the virtue of civility must be part of the habits of our character.

Reply from Andrew Paine

As I noted in my previous post, Andrew’s active faith is a challenge to us all. He sent me this very thoughtful reply that is well worth sharing with you all:

Hey Shane, thanks for writing this and I appreciate your views. I think that there should be discussion on these issues, so I love to hear reasoned debate from people even when they disagree with me. Just to clear things up, I actually was involved in the chapel squat in spirit only. I’m squatting in Brisbane though for similar reasons (although that is another issue that could be discussed elsewhere in more detail).

Firstly, while I don’t claim to be a greater theologian than Thomas Aquinas, I disagree with the theory of just war. Well I don’t necessarily like to make absolute statements but I will say that I certainly don’t believe there has been anything just about the wars Australia has been involved in recently. While I’m aware and constantly trying to grapple with the more bloody parts of the Old Testament, I find it hard to justify war from the message of Jesus (after all, he did say we are to love our enemies). Instead, we find in Matthew 5 Jesus advocating forms of non-violent resistance to an oppressive imperial power at the time (there is lots written about this in a lot of detail, especially by Walter Wink, for anybody interested in checking it out).

Your second point though is something I am always conscious of and still trying to work out. I don’t really enjoy confrontation or abuse and I definitely don’t want to alienate people. I have always tried (probably not always successfully) to show as much respect as I can for military personnel and everyone else I have come into contact with while doing these kind of actions. But I think it is worthwhile here to explain why I believe in direct action as a method of protest and have taken the actions that I have.

I think it’s great that groups like Voices For Justice are lobbying the government, and I definitely agree that our politicians need to be faced with these issues more than the troops. But I also think that politely asking politicians to change their minds is not necessarily the best way to bring about social change. Even in theory, in our democracy politicians are in power because they were voted in by a numerical majority. Because a majority of the population believes something, does that make it right? Like if the majority of people in one nation believes it is right to destroy the Earth to perpetuate our lifestyles? Or that it is right to go to war in another country?

But the reality is that our politicians do not represent a true majority. When our policies affect other nations, where is their voice? On trade, on climate justice, on war? Do they even represent a majority in Australia? (It’s worth remembering that the majority of Australians have never been in support of the Afghanistan war.) Large corporations certainly seem to hold a disproportionate amount of power compared to most Australians, either through corporate political donations or just brute economic strength. If I pay a visit to my local MP, they might listen to me (or at least, someone will pass on the message), but will they pay as much heed to my concerns as they will to the company that is funding their party?

Who is actually represented in our parliament? A quick scan of our politicians seems to represent a limited sphere of ethnicities and of socio-economic backgrounds. Both our major parties represent also a pretty limited range of policies. It’s hard to find much difference in their ideology when it comes to issues like military, asylum seekers, aboriginal issues or the environment.

So what is left for the rest of us? Those who represent the minority? Who stand for values that are not held by either major party? And remember the kingdom of God is based on very different values to earthly kingdoms. Do we wait until a majority of people believe the things we do? Do we exercise our power once every four years when we vote, or once a year when we travel to Canberra to meet with politicians? Because those whose values are wealth and power don’t seem to wait around.

Direct action is an ideology that says that we can stand for the things that we believe in now, and try to build a movement that will influence those in power. That we can demand our voice be heard, by acting on the things that we believe. Non-violent direct action was used by Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King in the USA, and countless others over the years, as a way of expressing views that were contrary to those in power, until their voice could no longer be resisted.

Of course, direct action should not be read just as protest marches, or blockading military vehicles. True direct action is about creating the world that we want to live in, making our lives our picket lines. It’s about not accepting that this is just the way it is, but instead searching for creative alternatives. So in my personal relationships and by my personal choices I attempt to create a better world. But my personal lifestyle choices are not enough to stop innocent people dying in Afghanistan, or stop the elite minority destroying the Earth. In these instances we must use whatever means we can to get our message heard. By breaking the law we make it impossible for the state to ignore our dissent. When powerful people around the world put a lot of effort into war and the preparation for war, those of us who believe in peace need to recognise that just believing in peace without action is not going to be enough.

Of course, the other reason that we take actions that may end in us being arrested is that creating controversy is a way of trying to bring attention to this issue, which mainstream media refuses to touch and most Australians would rather not think about. The fact that you have written this post says to me than in a small way we have succeeded. May the conversations continue. Go in peace.

War, peace and protests

A former student of mine, Andrew Paine, has been blogging about his recent experiences protesting against the Australian military in North Queensland:

Andrew has become what might be labelled a radical disciple of Jesus. Describing his faith he notes “This is why despite everything I’m still proud to call myself a Christian. Because the incarnation of Jesus, and his message of a kingdom where power and wealth are rejected for love and service; where the weak and broken are lifted up; is still completely radical and counter-cultural. In a world so broken and so unjust; and I include in this the trouble I have in my own life trying to live out this kingdom; the message of Jesus gives me hope.” From what I can gather in following his Facebook profile he has taken to squatting in St Michael’s College at Sydney Uni – a vacant building and by the Catholic Church – in protest against a lack of affordable housing, the high rate of homelessness and unjust “capitalist” systems of property ownership (see news story here). He recalls his recent experience of activism against war, “It was a pretty busy couple of weeks, full of demonstrations, blockading roads (getting arrested), trespassing on US military property (getting arrested again), court cases (my own and my friends), peace concerts, vigils and marches, talking to locals about war, trying (and occasionally succeeding) to talk to soldiers about war, doing media duties, facing the wrath of people with opposing viewpoints both”.

Andrew (“Mudgee” as I used to know him) is a great guy and in many ways his lifestyle presents a challenge to the unthinking passive faith of too many of us Christians. But while I don’t want to be one of those spewing “wrath” against his heartfelt convictions, I do not think I can endorse his current approach. I will leave aside his analysis of capitalism for the present (an economics degree biases me in any event), and concern myself with his active pacifism. My difficulty is twofold.

First, he seems to presume that the military is simply about unfettered violence – “those guns are for killing people and nothing else.” This is extremely simplistic. There is such a thing as a just war – the wielding of the sword for Justice – and to deny this (those guns are just for killing) is to allow evil regimes their victories. It is Thomas Aquinas who first sets out the principles of just war, grounding them in principles of virtue ethics. At the least a just war requires legitimate authority, a just cause, a right intention, proportionality, a reasonable hope of success and it must be a last resort. These are complex principles that require explanation beyond what is possible in this brief blog. It is true, however, that a strong case can be made that some of the current wars Australia is engaged in do not meet these just war principles: is there legitimate authority in Iraq when the UN did not endorse the invasion (but is the UN, with all its foibles, a place of meaningful authority)? Is the ’cause’ and ‘intention’ for going to war the protection of Western oil interests (or is it justice for the Kurds who had experienced the genocide under Saddam Hussein or the liberation for those oppressed by the Taliban in Afghanistan)? Is a military response proportional when our weapons so greatly outweigh the opposition’s (or does this military superiority facilitate proportionality)? Was there a reasonable hope of success when war seems to be interminable (or did the military might of the West imply the likelihood of success)? Was there other ways of confronting injustice (or were oppressive regimes likely to resist calls to change other than those at the end of the sword)? And beyond all of these questions, having gone to war (since we cannot go back in time), it is not as simple as saying “take our troops home.” To leave now might well create a power vacuum that would be very unlikely to bring the peace that we all hope for. All of this to note that the ethics of war are complex, and it is a complexity that the sort of direct action undertaken by Andrew does not and cannot address.

Okay, so we disagree on the theory of war – pacifism versus the possibility of a just war. In fact, this disagreement might not be as massive as one might assume, since I would like to be a pacifist (if I could) and generally I am not an advocate of American military aggression, nor of Australian support therein. But my second and more serious difficulty with Andrew’s action is the discourtesy it displays to our service people and their families. To join the army and fight for one’s country involves a certain fortitude or courage, apparent when a soldier risks harm to themselves, even death, for the sake of the defence of their community and for what they believe to be a just cause. Fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues (the principal virtues upon which other virtues depend). A courageous person does not seek danger for dangers sake but nor do they remain passive in the face of injustice and the threat of death. Instead, they stand firm, rising above fear, for the sake of others. So while Andrew has faced the wrath of those with opposing views (as well as a police force and a court case) the people he pickets face death. He was especially concerned about the family opening day for a three-week event of military training. He was shattered by “the spectacle of war being promoted as a fun family activity, with camouflage face paint and kids sitting in the driver’s seat of a tank”. What this misses is the fact that this event enables families to appreciate something of the experience of their loved one – yes, even to celebrate their achievements: the virtue of their courage in travelling away from their families and friends at the command of their parliament.

Whether any particular battle is “just” is beside the point. These people do not deserve protests and pickets, and so it is not surprising that Andrew and his “comrades” (his term) were subject to abuse. If there are concerns about the wars currently being waged, these are better directed at our parliamentarians. As I write this post Micah challenge is gathering in Canberra for the Voices for Justice 2011 gathering (see here). This involves “hundreds of passionate advocates in Canberra for four days of action, to call for MORE and BETTER aid – Using their voice to ensure environmental sustainability for the poor and to help save the lives of thousands of women and children in the world’s poorest communities.” It is a legal protest properly aimed, targeting our politicians who decide where and how to spend our government’s budget. And precisely because it is legal and properly organised and, most importantly of all, civilly conducted, it is more effective – or at least more likely to be effective then trouble making at military family days and training exercises.

Andrew, let me say again that I applaud your passion and conviction. I am challenged about my own passivity. But perhaps in reflecting on your own experiences you might also have something to learn from the more deliberate wisdom of groups like voices for Justice. In any event, as you might remember me saying to end my class, “go in peace.”

Does Julia Gillard Have Balls?

The day after her election as the first Australian Prime Minister, all the talk is about the nature of gender and its relationship to power.  On the one hand, people on the left are celebrating the rise to power of a women who is strong, independent, unmarried and has no children (and is apparently an athiest).  On the other hand, people on the right are lamenting the thought that a women has to become like a man to get the top job.

This latter assumption, however, is based on a false premise.  The principal of Alphacrucis College, Steven Fogarty (his colloquium presentation on this topic at this link), has recently been doing doctoral research in the relationship between gender and leadership.  It has sometimes been assumed that men are more likely to take hierarchical and power based approaches to leadership, and women relational and participative approaches – in formal terms, that men are more likely to lead transactionally, and women transformationally. Yet Fogarty’s research, along with other sociological studies, has rejected these gender based assertions.  In fact, what he has concluded is that the style of leadership is determined not by gender but, rather, by the requirements of the role.

Fogarty’s point can be illustrated by Gillard’s ascendancy.  To become Prime Minister, a person needs to be able to exercises power, to manipulate political situations, and to do so decisively and sometimes brutally (just ask Kim Beasley about Kevin Rudd’s skills in this regard).  No doubt there are other characteristics necessary for the job, but these are the ones that are traditionally described as “masculine” and that will be used to disparage the femininity of our new Prime Minister.  Fogarty’s research, however, reminds us that Gillard’s skills as a leader (and as someone capable of stabbing a colleague in the back) are no indication of gender but, sadly, are just the prerequisites needed for anyone who wants to get the top job in politics.

Aside from the research, i should also say that, as a man, i take offense to the suggestion that such capacities are necessarily or exclusively male – as do my female colleagues at the assertion that women cannot be feminine AND powerful, decisive (and unmarried and childless).  Just because all previous  decisive Prime Ministers have been men, it does not mean that strength, determination, ruthlessness etc. are male characteristics – that is a non sequiter (a leap in logic).

So does Julia Gillard have balls?  Only her partner can answer that question, but i think we can safely presume the answer is no.