Tuesday, August 09, 2011

... more on yesterday

i had a rather wide-ranging conversation with a fellow zinester yesterday afternoon, covering such topics as hypocrisy in religious faith and practice, violent crime in australia, and smelly people in portland. t. is training to become a unitarian minister, is currently a social worker and worked as a divorce lawyer for a while. i asked if all three were connected and she admitted that they probably were but given her heart for social justice, it's something of a chicken-and-egg question to ask.

it got me thinking about violent crime in australia and how much of it is gun-related. i tried hard to think about all those people we seem to feel ought to be able to own a gun or need it for their work - police, the military (former and active), farmers, some security professionals - and then think about the number of violent crimes committed with illegally acquired guns. bank robberies always seem to take place with sawn-off shotguns but i realised that i probably have a better idea of how guns move around the united states than in australia. we've always had guns here but there's always seemed to be this idea that you only need a gun if you actually need one. there is very little sense of needing one "just in case".

i wonder if maybe it's the high place of sports culture in australia that funnels our propensity for violence into a non-violent or otherwise-channelled fashion. it's not quite bread and circuses... or is it? we make such mighty contests of the trivial things that sports are - who can run faster than someone else, swim faster than someone else, lift a heavier object and put it down again than somebody else, plus variations - imbuing them with all manner of honourable virtues - leadership, teamwork, success in the face of personal struggle, and (that perennially australian favourite) seeing the underdog prevail. what's the quote? the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong... but that's the way to bet.

we do seem to have a strong bias towards domestic violence, though. it may be as "mild" as the "tough love" family of a smack on the bottom when children misbehave or the stern, urination-inspiring phrase "wait until your father comes home"; through to the life-draining and changing climate of emotional neglect by parents withholding love from one child or ignoring internecine conflict among children in a family or favouring one child over others; through to the ongoing tragedy of physical and sexual abuse by family members or close family friends; to the horrifying conclusion of a mother drowning her children, leaving an unwanted baby to die by exposure, or a father throwing his children from a bridge.

i can only compare it to my own upbringing, which i felt was always fairly normal, although i can probably point to a few things that i feel have made a lasting impact on my life for the worse and that i have struggled to overcome. it never occurred to me that physical discipline, in the form of a smack on the bum or maybe a pinched ear to accompany a scolding, could be a bad or unwarranted thing. i remember plenty of kids at school for whom a scolding would have made about as much impact as a bag of fairy floss on a freight train. by the time i reached high school, different kids would have been at the point where no kind of chastisement from an authority figure would have made much of a difference in our immediate circles of parents and teachers and coaches - when such figures are viewed with contempt, what kind of discipline can they impose? it is ceases to be discipline and becomes a battle of wills instead.

perhaps it is because i always felt that i was loved by my parents that it never occurred to me that physical discipline might be a bad thing. i don't think i was ever disciplined on the off chance that i needed it (like some people i know were) and i'm sure i was never disciplined because my parents took any kind of delight in it. i knew people who were made to stay out of the house after their mother had cleaned the house because she didn't want it dirtied or messed up again. others had a boisterous house filled with yelling at one another, a stormy exterior that despite everything concealed a very strong us-against-the-world feeling.

so how does discipline in love become abuse? why would parents neglect one child among several, or turn a blind eye to the abuse of one child by another, or actively abuse one or more children themselves? is it because they themselves were so abused or neglected? is it because they feel disconnected from other parents of a similar generation, such that there is no mutual accountability for how they raise their children, be they friends or family? (how true here would be the saying, "it takes a village to raise a child"?) is it because life demands so much from parents in terms of work that they have no energy left to put into the (highly) energy-costly effort of loving children that sometimes you might wish in exasperation to give back? is it because exasperation finally becomes some kind of poisonous envy and parents then inflict their own internal pains upon their children?

i don't understand it but i have my suspicions. i feel very sure that the cost of living today, coupled with the sense of responsibility to provide materially for family in a manner superior to that which parents themselves received as children, can easily produce a family environment skewed towards prizing (academic or sporting) achievement over inherent worth as part of the family. in a western world world paradigm where the family has shifted from being a source of value to the state to being a source of value to industry, i suppose this is a natural suspicion to have. my concern, however, is what will replace this corporate-rule paradigm? and will it treat family as valuable in itself or continue to see it as fuel for some bigger fire?

talking with t. about these things has really switched my brain into thinking a lot more about it. she has achieved a tremendous amount with her life, given her struggles. she has managed to turn the (what shouldn't be but still practically are) drawbacks of being a woman, coming from an immigrant background, and being physically disabled, into strengths and incentives to drive her to work harder and more solidly than others might without such issues to deal with. her family background seems to be one where she was solidly valued, even when her parents were given every opportunity to divest themselves of an infant who would clearly struggle in life and who would be a greater burden on family for a long time. she is a vibrant, humourous, intelligent woman who seems to be held back by others far more than she holds herself back.

her involvement with the unitarian church she admits stems much from their deliberate inclusiveness. without researching it more, it seems that their touchstone of practice is to deliberately and actively sharing the love of God, which seems to work itself out in a very public social justice position. it reminds me quite a bit of the uniting church in australia, to be honest, at least as far as its social justice stance.

even here, however, human fallibility and pride (in terms of saying, "we are right" and "it's not my fault" and "it's not my problem") continue to resurface. t. was selected as a delegate to the church's national assembly, held at some convention centre interstate. she was not the only delegate using a kind of wheelchair or scooter - almost five dozen others were in a similar boat - but a lack of foresight and planning meant that the main hall used for the assembly's discussion had only one elevator to provide disabled access. that's a tight bottleneck for the amount of traffic.

she continues to confront these issues as she seeks formal training to become a unitarian minister. the colleges that are specifically associated with the unitarian church remain disabled-unfriendly and while the unitarian church has passed resolutions to make every effort to make church institutions fully accessible to all church members wanting to use them, the funds needed to make those resolutions a reality have not yet eventuated. i am assured that this is not a poor denomination; its very inclusiveness means that groups who feel shunned or ignored by other denominations (theologically liberal; disabled; sexually alternative) bring a great deal of energy and resources to grow and energise a church that accepts them as they are.

t. is seeking to pursue theological studies at another institution which will meet the criteria laid down by the unitarian church for their ministers. from what she says, it's not usual but it's allowable. another small barrier which she rolls over (leaping isn't really an option) with much aplomb. it sounds like the places t. is considering studying at are all theologically more conservative than the unitarian seminaries and i can't help but feel that this is not such a bad thing. t. sees clearly the limitations of taking a social justice stance without the will to make that stance a stride and now is wrestling with the question of how to inspire the flesh of her church to work the will of its spirit.

t. remarked that she knows many unitarian ministers who do not use the Bible in their ministries. she recognises that this is deeply flawed and incongruous in a denomination that associates itself with the Christian church generally; i am encouraged that it's not something she is willing to let slide for herself. studying theology in a seminary that places a higher value on God's word (despite how they may value other aspects of ministry) will serve her well, i think, and wherever she ends up, either in lay ministry or formally pastoring a congregation somewhere, it will serve those she ministers to as well.

my prayer for her, as well as for myself, is that by being steeped more deeply in the Bible, there will be a corresponding maturity in love and willingness to serve sacrificially, with a shepherd and servant heart. the apostle paul says, "whatever gain i had, i counted as loss for the sake of Christ. indeed, i count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." he goes on to say, "not that i have already obtained this or am already perfect, but i press on to make it" [becoming like Jesus in his death and attaining the resurrection from the dead] "my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own." [philippians 3]

like so many other people God has brought into my life, t. reminds me that the Christian faith is not a sprint but a marathon, which we are not called to win ahead of others but to complete together, helping those weaker and encouraged by those greater than ourselves. the wisdom is see in some inspires me to spend more time in the Bible; the selflessness i see displayed in the lives of others inspires me to work out the love of God more in my own life. i am not the worst of all sinners (i think paul claims that one for himself too!) but nor am i the best. i think i am fairly mundane, which is perhaps most frightening of all. i have no desire to be spat out of the mouth of the Living One in a laodicean fashion; i want to be salty and flavourful, hot and spicy, cool and refreshing. God has blessed me by changing me from wanting to want this to actually wanting it and i praise him for that.


At August 10, 2011 2:49 am , Blogger MCB said...

Hello Maya,

I stumbled upon your blog randomly and it was a good thing I did. I struggle with the exact things you've mentioned - am doing so currently. Always, in fact. It was a true pleasure to read! Look forward to reading future posts.

Austin, Texas


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