Sunday, November 28, 2010

The empty spot inside

I read a book that talked about loneliness - it said that we weren't meant to be alone, that love and community are at the centre of what it is to be human, that God created Eve because without her Adam wasn't complete.

I struggle to be alone. I get lost in silence of an empty house, I don't know where to put my hands, where to sit, what to eat. A free day, spread out like a canvas with no plans and no one but myself to fill it with, can fill me with anxiety. I feel that I should at least be productive - improve my mind with a book, get some exercise, vacuum the carpets.

What am I so scared of?

I've been sick these last days. Not lying in bed in a feverish stupor kind of sick; just a low-level flu that prevents me from going to work but opens my days to different possibilities. Some of these days I have spent at my own house, away from David, where it is empty and quiet. I have watched BBC history documentaries on You Tube. I have improved my mind with books. I have gone round the corner to buy vegetables from that flirtatious old Italian man. And then I have stopped. The sound of an excited BBC presenter no longer blearing from my computer. The trams whirring by in the distance. The light growing dim in a cold room, wind swishing the trees outside.

And I've felt alone. Lonely, even. And I've sat, and thought, until even my thoughts get too noisy. I've felt that empty spot inside, as empty as my silent empty house. I light a candle - it just feels like the right thing to do. And I sit and wait.

Was that what I was scared of?

For how long can I sit here, and what will happen if I do?

When I marry, will my empty spot inside go away? Will Adam ever fill it? I'm not sure if I want him to. I feel like God flickers in that spot.

I wrote a list of all the boys I'd ever kissed, ever rolled around in bed with. It was a long list. Mainly, I realised, in most of those boys and men, I was escaping loneliness. Escaping the sensation of emptiness, which begs to be sated like hunger. I wondered whether I had been damaged by this trail of sexual experiences, whether my purity was tainted and my soul scarred the way that the Christian writers who write about chastity tell me it will be. I don't really know - we are all damaged, but it's hard to know what from. But one thing I did realise was that by kissing boys, I lost an opportunity. I sense there is a great wealth inside our internal empty spots - and I think we all have one. I didn't want to come near that wealth. It was easier to kiss boys, which were like fairy floss to a growling stomach. What might have emerged from my empty spot inside?

These days, I hear the rumble of loneliness less. My love and companionship with David is like wholesome bread. But the spot is still there, and though it's the very arms of God that stretch out from our friends, family and lovers, God still flickers in that very inner place that no friend, no lover, no brother, will ever reach.

There will always be a part of us that is alone. I will try to thank God for that.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fortresses vs relationships

Within my circles, we have a unique way of viewing 'security'. I belong to a community of Christians who believe in social justice and the power of sharing food, art and sport with those in our midst - rich, poor and marginalised alike. Security, then, is less about building fortresses and more about building relationships. The idea is that when we know the people around us, we have less reason to be scared, and they have less inclination to hurt us. You're less likely to rob your friend than the neighbour you have never met.

But then, of course, people we love DO hurt us, and we hurt people we love. This is especially true when one is desperate. You can rob your best friend of when you're chasing for drugs, for example.

And so we walk and oscillate along a fine line, between keeping the door open and keeping the door locked. When I was a young, single, female resident living on Level 8 of inner-city Collins St Baptist Church, I did value the lock on the door, and the buzzer system where we could screen who came upstairs. I learnt that you can love everyone, but you can't trust everyone. We often opened the door, but we also utilised our system of gates, locks and surveillance.

I've been thinking lately about international security. I believe strongly in the power of building relationships at an international level, as well as an individual level. I think we would be safer as a country if we invested more (disinterested) aid in Afghanistan, for example, rather than supporting a war that's getting a lot of people extremely angry. I think that diplomacy, student exchange programme, effective aid, trade and more are all great ways to increase the security of our nation, as our government well knows.

However, I also know that sometimes things don't go as planned - sometimes somebody you once thought was a friend turns around and stabs you in the back. I am pragmatic and I think nations, as well as individuals, need to be prepared for that possibility. We need our nation-versions of gates, locks and surveillance.

We have these things in the forms of international intelligence, our defence force, border patrols, airport security etc. I think this is good. The question, for me, is striking the right balance: there is a point where your gates, locks and surveillance actually make you less safe. On an individual level, it makes it hard to make new friends: your house becomes a fortress of alarms and cameras and a target for thieves and neighbours that call the police when your dog is barking rather than popping by themselves. People don't trust you because you don't trust them. The same occurs at an international level. The trust is breached. You're more likely to face a sanction or a pointed missile than a stern diplomatic word when your country does something that encroaches on the power of another.

What definitely topples the balance, and what Australia is guilty of, is when our defence mechanisms become offence mechanisms. It's one things to defend your country against physical attack; it's another ball game altogether when you're waging war somewhere else. (Of course, we use the language of defence to justify this: we're "fighting terrorism" etc.)

So where does the balance lie, between building relationships and building fortresses? Is it necessary to have a defence force? What about our extensive surveillance systems, for example, the base at Pine Gap? Are we overreaching on the 'fortress' side or is this what a nation-state needs to do to stay safe?

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Why is the church so silent on current wars?"

The other day Simon asked the question, via Twitter, "Why is the church so silent on current wars?" David, who keeps an internet connection in his back pocket, got the message via his iphone, and since we were in a cafe drinking various hot substances, we got to talking about it.

I came to the conclusion that the church isn't terribly loud about anything, really. The times have changed since the days when journalists would sit on the top balcony overlooking the sanctuary of Collins St Baptist Church, furiously taking notes on the sermon so it could be reported in Monday's paper. In those days, the church really did have a voice, and people actually cared about what was said on a Sunday morning.

These days, nobody cares what is preached from the pulpit - beyond the congregation (if you're lucky). Nor does the media care to consult the church as to what it thinks on certain issues. The most we get, in terms of a public voice from the church, is the voice of particular charismatic leaders from within the church, who are animated and know how to play the media game. Ones that come to mind are Father Bob and Danny Nahlia (controversial pastor from Catch the Fire Ministries) - and, when he was serving in the church, Tim Costello.

Things might be different in Sydney, where you have the likes of George Pell and Peter Jensen who, David tells me, are weighty political players. I don't think we have an equivalent in Melbourne.

What we do have down here, however, are active Christian groups that try to influence public policy. Some are NGO and welfare-type groups, like Urban Seed, Sacred Heart Mission and TEAR Australia, and these groups often have a public voice. The other type is the Christian political pressure groups, like Salt Shakers and Australian Christian Lobby. The former generally speaks for the left; the latter almost always speaks for the right.

The churches themselves don't provide the public voice, but it's these extra-church groups, usually made up of church members, that do the talking, or else, like I said before, the charismatic church leaders that are few and far between.

David says that the churches don't have time to be a public voice, and I tend to agree. They are spending all their time trying to figure out how they can be relevant to our society, how to get people through the doors and how to look after people (or cynical version: stay attractive) so that people stick around.

Talking about the war is the last thing on their list of priorities.

So who's going to talk about the war? Salt Shakers certainly won't, nor will Danny Nahlia (they're concerned about more pressing issues like stopping gay people from getting married). The archbishops of Sydney are way conservative and probably support the war, so they won't do it. Father Bob might, and possibly already has. Tim Costello has joined a Christian NGO and won't because World Vision doesn't want to piss off too many people. In fact the majority of Christian NGOs and welfare groups are in the same boat - they don't want to lose key supporters especially when their mandate isn't protesting against war but conducting international development or serving hot meals to homeless people. When they speak publicly or lobby, they tend to speak within the area in which they work.

Which leaves, you guessed it, just you and me (and maybe Father Bob). But in another sense, we are the church, so perhaps the church isn't so silent after all?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Is violence the only response we can think of?

I was on the train the other day just minding my own business reading a book, when I looked up to see a man mouthing off to another man and his children. The man with children - a red-faced Aussie guy - was getting really angry. I recognised the man who was mouthing off - I'd seen him round before, and knew that he had a mental disability.

The situation ended in violence, with the red-faced Aussie guy following the other man down the carriage, forcefully grabbing him from behind and trying to push him off the the train. The man with the disability managed to escape into the next carriage, after which time a lot of people in the carriage applauded the the other man for his heroic behaviour.

I was quite disturbed: could this man not think of any other means of solving the problem without resorting to violence? Of course he needed to protect his children from the foul and abusive words of the other man - but is wrestling a man with a mental disability and trying to push him off a train the best way?

I ended up asking the man if he knew that the other guy was mentally disabled, and suggested that his violent reaction was inappropriate. Another man opposite me yelled out, "Get of the train, ya stupid woman!"

The red-faced Aussie man said that he knew the man had a disability, but that the man had acted violently towards his children. I said, "Violence begets violence" and he answered, "That's right."

Anyway, I didn't relate that incident to draw attention to my own heroic behaviour, but just to point out that people don't seem to be aware that you can respond to violence without using violence yourself. There are many creative ways that you can deal with a situation so that it doesn't escalate - even if it's simply asking someone why they are acting in a certain way, rather than fighting back. Usually you can avoid a violent situation even before it begins.

But this man had probably not been exposed to such techniques: all he had seen modeled to him, most likely, is what he himself modeled to his children. Violent responses to violence are not only condoned but commended in our society, as we witnessed with the applause that this man received.

I've witnessed lots of other violent situations on trains and around public transport. This is the second I've witnessed involving a person with a disability - the other one was when a Yarra Trams officer came close to beating up a man with a clear mental illness who was acting provocatively. I've also seen burly Met officers crowd around and intimidate a man who then shot up and tried to get off the train, and before we knew it there was blood.

Why are are violent responses so revered in our society, and where are the alternatives?