What the?

what if Mr Rudd was right after all?

I wrote this piece for the weekly bulletin at a Melbourne church that generously supports and prays for me in the work I do with the Christian Union at La Trobe University.

“The Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.”

This is how our former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, responded to a question on Q&A just before the recent election.

Watch it in context here:

As you can see, Mr Rudd’s response was greeted with rapturous applause.

He went on to offer this justification: “Because St Paul said in the New Testament, ‘slaves be obedient to your masters’. And, therefore, we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US war. I mean, for goodness sake, the human condition and social conditions change…”

Since then, his response has come in for serious (and much-deserved) questioning.

So was Mr Rudd right?

Was Mr Rudd right to equate the slavery spoken of in the Bible with slavery in pre-Civil War America?

Historians will tell you, the answer is ‘No’.

There were major differences. For example, slaves in the Roman Empire enjoyed many freedoms mostly because they weren’t obviously identified on the basis of their skin colour.

Was Mr Rudd on shaky ground when he took one of the specific biblical instructions to slaves and turned it into a general endorsement of the condition of slavery?


The Bible speaks in some detail about what to do when someone is murdered. But it is not endorsing murder when it does so. It is attempting to retrieve some good from a tragic situation and avert a miscarriage of justice or full-scale blood feud.

Much the same could be said of slavery.

Did Mr Rudd get his ancient sources scrambled?

It’s possible. The Greek philosopher Aristotle explicitly calls it a natural condition.

But the Bible does actually say that slavery — of a certain kind — is a natural condition.

In fact, Jesus himself says it: “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8.34)!

According to Jesus, slavery — spiritual slavery — is the ‘natural condition’ of anyone who sins.

It wasn’t what God intended. It wasn’t how we were made. But it’s where we all find ourselves anyway.

Any yet it is precisely this ‘natural condition’ that Jesus came to free us from.

But Jesus goes on: “The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8.35-36)

Gloriously, Jesus came to free us from our spiritual slavery so we could become God’s children!

And it’s this message of liberation and adoption that shapes what St Paul says about economic slavery.

For example, speaking to Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus (who’d become a Christian), Paul says: “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16).

Ultimately, this basic biblical message of liberation and adoption in Jesus calls the entire institution of slavery into question. (And it was this, not a revisionist impulse to set aside the teaching of Scripture, that propelled the likes of Wilberforce to overthrow institutional slavery when they had opportunity.)

inundation and web-spinning

I wonder if you saw this amazing image from flood-affected Wagga Wagga?

No — it’s not a farm house surrounded by flood waters. It’s a farm house surrounded by spider webs!

How they organised this impromptu Occupy The Farm House bamboozles me. But I love it. Can you imagine walking out your front door to this one morning? You’d have to pinch yourself.

I find this image latent with more than purely Nature Is Amazing kind of significance. For surely this image of physical inundation triggering a frenzy of web-spinning — like the socially-networked protesters converging on Tahrir Square in response to a rising tide of brutality and economic insecurity — is metaphorically pregnant with the essence of the age we live in.

According to Time magazine, a recent study published in Science has found evidence that when inundated with information, we network. Specifically, they found that:

  1. We are increasingly processing the tsunami of information threatening to swamp us by networking. When we don’t know the answer to a question, we start thinking about how we can get access to the Web to answer it
  2. We are increasingly outsourcing our memories — failing to commit things to memory when we believe we’ll easily be able to save and access it again later
  3. And what we are remembering is not the information itself but — in an Information Age mutation of the social-psychological phenomenon known as transactive memory — where and how we’ll be able to find it

This certainly resonates with the way I learnt theology. I was forced to think much more about the connections within the overall system — as well as how these linkages are made — than the precise details (of historical debates about the doctrine of creation etc).

What about you? Does it ring any bells for you too?

unintentional heresies

I spent last weekend at the Victorian Christian Youth Convention.

I don’t know if it was because we were focusing on the resurrection of Jesus for the weekend or because certain frequently-downloaded preachers have set a precedent, but there were an awful lot of prayers directed to Jesus from up front.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I have no issue with people praying to Jesus. I’m confident Jesus is worthy of our worship. And I personally pray to him. A lot.

My issue is with what often happens when people who are used to directing most of their prayers to the Father start praying to Jesus. What happens is they get confused, trip up, and become unintentional heretics.

I lost count of how many times over the weekend people prayed prayers like this from up the front: “Heavenly Father, we praise you that you are raised from the dead”.

Bzzzt! That’s a theology FAIL.

I know it’s an honest mistake. But it’s dangerously close to the ancient heresy known as patripassian modalism — that is, treating Father and Son as though they were interchangeable and claiming that it was the Father who suffered and died on the cross (and, presumably, rose again).

Although, it could be worse. A friend of mine was once heard to pray: “Dear Jesus, thank you for sending your son to die for us”.

Don’t know which Gospel he’d been reading. But I’m sure Dan Brown would be interested to hear about it!

ethics vs morality

I keep hearing people making a distinction between ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it too?

Andrew has recently observed how much edgier ‘ethics’ seems relative to ‘morality’:

It’s not very cool these days to say you’re interested in “morality”. You can say you’re interested in “ethics”, yes. That’s because “ethics” has a kind of cutting-edge, out-there-in-the-complex-modern-world feel to it, as if you’re engaging in highly specialised and hair-splitting decisions that the advance of technology has thrown up at us, like “if some rogue scientist has cloned a goat crossed with a seagull, is it ok to harvest its bone-marrow to use in weapons technology?” That kind of thing.

The relative sexiness of ethics was on display on Triple J towards the end of their recent ‘Sex Week’.

A group of guests were chatting about why people seem to find it so hard to talk about sex — especially with their partners. One suggested that the problem was that our thinking and talking about sex was too bound up with morality, which he said meant “questions about right and wrong” (questions he hinted were not only guilt-producing but also impossible to arbitrate or settle)

He went on to suggest that we need to disentangle ourselves from this and start operating out of an ‘ethics’ framework instead, which he said had more to do with “respecting each other and reducing harm”.

Now, this says more about the sexiness of ethics than the ethics of sex. Scratch the surface of both ‘respect’ and ‘harm’ and you’re suddenly back in the much-maligned realm of morality — and its irreconcilable absolutes. For once you start fleshing out what it looks like to respect someone, you’re drawing upon your moral vision. And once you start talking about how to calculate (and mitigate) harm, you’re doing moral calculus.

But we’ve got to get past scoring cheap debating points — one way or the other (e.g., “Morality’s dated and repressive, get with the times and do ethics instead” or “Your ethics is shot through with morality – ner, ner!”). Because what’s going on even further below the surface is where things could get really interesting.

I’m wondering if the flight from potentially intractable moral debate towards an ethics that is at once thinner (more minimal and readily accessible) and deeper (because it supposedly transcends the awkward particulars of morality) testifies to our longing for a universally valid and ready-to-hand perspective on how to live. Our longing, in other words, for God to speak an authoritative word of judgement and grace.

what do you want to be when you grow up?

I’m genuinely interested in the answer to that question — and I’ve deliberately used the present tense for whoever, like me, is still trying to figure this out!

When I was going through my (protracted) childhood dinosaur phase, my unhesitating answer was, ‘paeleontologist’. I loved the idea of unearthing things, digging up their prehistory.

Which is why one of the displays at the Ashmoleum museum in Oxford grabbed my attention. According to the display, the term ‘prehistory’ was coined in the 1830s. But it didn’t attain wide currency until 1859 — the year John Evans and Joseph Prestwich confirmed some important findings in Somme valley gravel pits. Alongside fossils of organisms they didn’t recognise, they found flint tools — evidence of human habitation and activity massively antedating any recorded history!

What I find compelling about this story is the idea that a seemingly obvious notion like ‘prehistory’ can itself have a history. It’s not a necessary concept, fallen from the mind of God. People didn’t always think this way. They had to feel their way towards the idea in order to account for the otherwise puzzling evidence before them. It’s ‘necessity’ was contingent on the situation and the more or less deeply felt need to solve the puzzle.

I haven’t grown up to be a paeleontologist. But I’m still fascinated by unearthing things, digging up their prehistory. These days, it’s concepts that I love to uncover, brush the dust from, and scrutinise to determine their function — whether psychological, sociological, ethical or whatever.

That’s why I’m setting out to read Charles Taylor’s magisterial Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Taylor promises to unearth the prehistory of our modern western sense of self — visible in our remarkably tenacious sense of ‘inwardness’ and individual agency as much as in our more common anxieties over identity.

I’m hoping that in doing so Taylor sheds light on how this sense of self functions, revealing what needs it meets. If it can do this, then Sources of the Self has the potential to break the deadlock between those who brandish the fruit of western individualism and those who feel they’ve solved (or rather dissolved) every problem when they’ve chased it back there — to its supposedly tainted source.

Either way, I’m looking forward to doing some digging!

an incompetent anthropologist

An abridged transcript from my trip home on the tram last week:

Burmese Guy: You are Australian?

Me: Yeah…

Burmese Guy: I am not. I am foreign.

Me: That’s…good?

Burmese Guy: Can you explain for me Australian culture?

Me: Ummm… I don’t know. It’s what you see all around you. I’m not sure I can sum it up in a couple of sentences.

Burmese Guy: What about you? What do you do?

Me: I’m a student.

Burmese Guy: What do you study? What speciality?

Me: Anthropology.

Burmese Guy: And what is that? Anthropology?

Me: Ummm… the study of … culture.

I console myself with the fact I’ve only been ‘doing’ anthropology for a month!

keen to make some cash?

Two completely different small business ideas that I’m never going to make happen — feel free to make them your own:


1. The Basics

A small stall at the airport exit selling bread and milk.

We have only once had enough forethought to put bread and milk in the freezer ready for our return — and even then, you have to wait for the milk to defrost before you can make a cuppa. This is especially problematic when your flight gets in after about 6pm.

I would use this shop nearly every time I fly home…

2. Puppy love

Slightly less serious…a sort of ‘match-making’ proposition.

The idea is, you charge dog breeders for the service of walking and training their puppies and then you charge young, single men for the privilege of walking and training said puppies (have you seen the attention puppies can pull from women?!).

You win at both ends of the transaction!