Friday, 11 October 2013

Rubbish to the left of me, and rubbish to the right....


I am sitting here, with a week’s worth of rubbish. I am in the process of tallying it, to see what we really are accumulating, particularly in regards to plastic rubbish, plastic being more of a problem and more insidious in our environment, not to mention more disposable.

In terms of average household rubbish I am guessing it is a fairly small pile. We have a plastic shopping bag sized bin behind the sink cupboard door, and we haven’t filled it. It mostly consists of packaging, from food wrapping such as bread and crackers, the small gladwrap squares we cover the pet mince with, and plastic wrapping from mail, especially magazines. We have also realised with some horror our favourite locally-made chocolates are all in individually wrapped in cellophane. We have:

2 bread wrappers, pectin packet, recycled paper towel wrapper, 6 plastic cake mix bags, cling wrap on purchased melon, feta cheese packet, chocolate wrapper, 5 medication cards (Panadol and prescription drugs), 7 bits of gladwrap on the pet mince portions, four cellephane chocolate wrappers, 4 wires from underwire bras, plastic from a tissue box, 2 underwear packets, plastic bag on free local paper, meat pie wrapper.

The recycling is mainly junk mail catalogues (time to get one of those No Junk Mail signs), the local newspapers, cardboard and paper packaging from crackers and beer and cider six packs; glass bottles, bottle tops, aluminium cat food tins and discarded mail and envelopes. We have three small boxes full – there is a lot more than the rubbish. We have:

17 bottles and their aluminium caps
Cardboard medication packets, three gluten free cake mix packets, recycled paper packaging off recycled toilet paper, 3 cardboard milk cartons, a huge wad of junk mail, envelopes and discarded mail weighing 1.6 kilos
Plastic face product bottle, calcium bottle, empty plastic wool wash bottle
14 aluminium pet food tins and their pull tops, aluminium foil used in cooking and from choclate wrapping

Why are you bothering, I hear you ask?

I am bothering for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is useful to see just how much rubbish we accumulate. Whilst our rubbish-holding plastic shopping bag that is two thirds full of what is mainly plastic packaging may not seem much, times it by 52 and it becomes a small mountain over the course of a year. That’s a lot of non-biodegradable stuff heading for landfill. It is sobering to contemplate it. It is even more sobering to think of the resources that went into making this plastic. If you are wondering what this means, have a look at Hungry Beast’s life cycle of a plastic bottle at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B19zvES7RC8

Secondly, looking at it and counting it reminds me we live in a disposable society. I am amazed at how commercially produced food portions are getting smaller and smaller and more and more packaged. There seem to be far more individually wrapped processed food products on the shelves of the super markets now, things like single breakfast bars, chocolates, biscuits and even single-serve cereals. Cheese, yoghurt, rice pudding, soup, tuna and baked beans all come in single serves, to name but a few. Apparently we have lost the will to drink tap water, needing instead plastic bottles of water and gaudily coloured products for allegedly increasing stamina. Buying in bulk is getting harder and buying in cardboard, paper and glass is becoming more of a challenge.

Thirdly, it appears almost impossible to send a magazine through the mail without a protective plastic bag. Why? It is not like plastic is the only protective covering. In our household, only The New Internationalist arrives in a recycled paper envelope. The Open Road, our Diggers’ Garden catalogue, the local free newspaper and a few other catalogues that have followed me to Wauchope all come plastic wrapped.

Lastly, I realised how much we rely on it to keep food fresh. Gladwrap (or its equivalent) has insinuated itself into our lives to such an extent that we depend on it to keep food fresh in the fridge, wrap our sandwiches, cover our cut fruit and in our case, package cats’ pet mince for freezing. It is also a useful thing to cover food being cooked in the microwave oven.

And this is just the waste. Looking at my cupboards, I have plastic storage, plastic crockery, plastic furniture, plastic bowls and plastic utensils. My cleaning products, medications, and my bathroom products all come in plastic. There are plastic bits and pieces in our garden equipment. And the list goes on. How on earth did my great grandmothers manage without the stuff? It is everywhere.

Over the last year I have become more and more aware of the damage that plastic does to our environment. Millions of tonnes of plastic enter our environment every year. This plastic pollution finds its way into our water ways and then into our oceans. It then hitchhikes on the ocean’s currents until it ends up either in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or is eaten by marine life. It lasts longer than nuclear waste, taking up to a thousand years to break down in the environment, turning into smaller and smaller pieces that don’t disappear. Unlike cardboard, paper or glass, plastic just doesn’t go away. It is stubborn stuff, and it is lethal stuff.

According to Clean Up Australia, every piece of disposable plastic that I have ever used is still hanging around somewhere today. Their statistics are sobering:

• Almost 90% of the marine debris found on Sydney’s beaches is plastic, mostly bottles, caps and straws.
• Australians buy 600 million litres of bottled water a year.
• We use 10 million plastic bags a day (that's 3.9 billion plastic bags a year)

Planet Ark makes the point that the time we use a plastic grocery bag can be counted in minutes - however long it takes to get from the shops to our homes. But only an estimated 3% of Australia's plastic bags are currently being recycled, despite recycling facilities being available at major supermarkets. Why? Are we lazy, or do we find many new uses for these bags – such as collecting household rubbish? And while this is commendable to reuse these bags, what happens once I dump them into the red bin and they trundle off to the Council tip?

Having asked this question, I needed to answer it. I discovered that we are not off the hook by disposing of our plastic bags in garbage bins. Approximately 30 to 50 million plastic bags enter the environment as litter in Australia annually. Of that litter, 47% is wind borne plastic litter escaping from the landfills where our garbage ends up.

Once windborne, it ends up in our oceans and in our environment. In the marine environment plastic bag litter is deadly, and kills many sea birds, whales, seals and turtles every year. And due to its longevity, when an unfortunate beast is killed by plastic it decomposes much faster than the offending plastic, which is then released back into the environment where it can be ingested and kill again.

One example Planet Ark gives in regard to the deadly nature of plastic as litter was a Bryde's whale which died on a Cairns beach after ingesting 6 square metres of plastic - including plastic bags. This is potentially making my mind implode. Six metres? How did it find six metres of the stuff so readily?

And it isn’t just the ocean. Planet Ark also reports the story of a calf on a farm near Mudgee NSW, which died unexpectedly. The farmer carried out an autopsy and found 8 plastic bags in its stomach. The loss of this calf cost the farmer around $500. One has to ask how 8 plastic bags found their way onto the calf’s pasture.

The worst thing for me though was Hungry Beast’s clip on albatross chicks. I was searching for something on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and I came across this little documentary on Chris Jordan, who is a Seattle based photographer. He photographed the most heart breaking pictures of dead baby
albatrosses on the Midway Atoll (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7vHrMsnRFA). All of them had died from being fed plastic litter by their parents, who are unable to tell the difference between pieces of plastic and small fish. I sobbed the first time I saw it. It still makes me cry. The death of all these small chicks just tipped me from knowing that plastic was a problem to doing something about it.

The 15 to 1000 years that plastic takes to break down in the environment seems a high price to pay for my convenience. Recycling is not enough, and rescue is not enough anymore. Time to actually change our habits and banish the demon plastic from our shopping as much as possible.

Planet Save has a helpful infographic at http://planetsave.com/2012/08/26/life-cycle-of-plastic-bag-infographic/ and a good factsheet on bottled water at http://www.cleanup.org.au/au/Whatelsewesupport/avoid-bottled-water.html

Plastic pollution is a global problem, but it can have a local solution. That local solution is me. In the coming weeks, we need to consistently and doggedly work at turning our plastic addiction around here at Shenstone, our sustainable house and garden. Today’s garbage tally makes it clear that this will not be easy, and some things, like our medications, can’t be replaced. The plan is to keep recycling those we can, and thoughtfully disposing of those we can’t. I will be following up with our local Council to find out what happens to such recyclables, and enquiring how I make sure my litter doesn’t fly off and kill a nearby calf or whale. But widespread plastic use surely can’t be sustained in a world where oil (the basic ingredient for plastic) is growing scarcer, and where climate change is threat enough to our birds, fish, animals and creeping things. The bottom line is that it is unsustainable for all sorts of reasons. Time to really change habits and not just tinker around the edges. Less convenience, and more mindfulness of exactly what the consequences of our throwaway plastic society are is called for. My great grandmothers would be proud.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Setting sail on the SS Low Impact

Recently we watched a documentary called “No Impact Man”, based on a year where writer Colin Beavan and his family tried to live a carbon neutral life (you can see it here at http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/no_impact_man/). I found it interesting enough to buy the book: No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process.

Quite a title. For me, it was both compelling and damning reading. Because, I suspect, most of us just tinker around the edges of changing our lifestyles. We recycle, we visit a farmers’ market maybe, we buy fair-trade coffee, tea and chocolate. All of these things are good, but aren’t going to change the way the world works or our individual carbon footprints.

Prior to No Impact Man, we liked to think we live a lifestyle that has less impact than the average Westerner. On examination, our lifestyle was not a patch on Colin Beavan’s year of near carbon neutrality. Not even close. It raised quite starkly the possibility that one can always find a way of living more sustainably. So with fear and trepidation, we thought we would have a go at living more simply and with a reduced carbon footprint. And to keep the whole thing honest, blog about it so reneging is much harder.

Why bother, I hear you ask? Well, for a number of reasons. Firstly, we belong to a climate change group, and we talk a lot about how important it is to do something about climate change. So our little group gives out information, holds events, it ran a candidates election forum, it has a Facebook page where the latest research and articles on the subject are placed, and it releases press articles on various topics like the IPCC report. We all think something should be done. Whilst a number of us think it should be governments that do something, there are also those in the group who think that each one of us has a personal responsibility.

I think that is right. One needs to put one’s money where one’s climate strategy mouth is.

Secondly, as the title of this blog suggests, we are both ministers in the Uniting Church. Around two years ago, I prepared a number of bible studies that were meant to encourage people of faith to re-examine that faith in the light of environmental concerns. The studies had two central tenets – ‘love your neighbour’ (and this meant all people, even the ones you can’t see overseas and by ‘love’ we mean do them no harm); and secondly, respect and treat well the creation that God saw as integrated and ‘good’.

These studies were run with mixed results. Those who took part agreed in principle to what their scripture was telling them. Yet despite the dire consequences that the biblical book of Deuteronomy promises for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28:15-68 if you are really interested whether you risk being struck with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, or with blight and mildew, that will plague you until you perish), many saw it as ‘too hard’ or ‘too inconvenient for my lifestyle’ to actually adopt habits that would in effect, not support child labour, sweatshops, over-consumerism, environmental degradation, climate change and unethical food practices. Others attempted to make small changes in their eating and consumer habits.

The Uniting Church in Australia is committed to acting in ways that will build a just and compassionate society. It is dedicated to working for the common good of all humanity. It seeks to transform unjust social structures, and to protect and renew all of creation. The 1977 Statement to the Nation clearly says that “We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth's resources for their use and enjoyment.”

In other words, this church is a political church. It is not afraid to tackle thorny issues as they arise on the political landscape. It lobbies governments, it has helped to create policy (and occasionally history as with the Safe Injecting Room), it pushes issues of justice in the media and it urges its congregations, councils and members to actually live out the faith of a disciple of Jesus. In recent times, this has included more and more environmental issues.

Living out the teachings of Jesus are particularly challenging to the Western world. Congregations don’t especially warm to his teachings on personal wealth (give it to the poor) or his teaching that disciples should do something about the unjust structures of society (don’t extort money, free the oppressed and liberate the captives). His statement "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15) runs counter to western consumerism. And we also have the Hebrew Bible, which forms two thirds of the Christian canon of Scripture, that has quite a lot to say about the protection of our environment and its belonging to a creator God who declared it to be ‘good’.

On 1 November 2006, the Uniting Church Assembly voted to adopt the statement "For the Sake of the Planet and all its People: A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Climate Change" (http://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment/uca-statements/item/481-for-the-sake-of-the-planet-and-all-its-people)

This document encouraged Uniting Church members, congregations, groups, agencies and councils to:
‘model ways of living and working that minimise the production of greenhouse gas emissions; and advocate for government to implement policies that significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and increase our use of non-nuclear renewable energy sources.’

So in the light of this and No Impact Man, we decided to commit to modelling sustainable ways of living in line with our church’s statements; and we have decided to take up the challenge of becoming, if not No Impact People, at least Low Impact People. So stay tuned for the next instalment as Low Impact Life comes to the Mid North Coast.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

On earth as it is in heaven: a response to Luke 13: 10-17

This is a shortened version of a sermon we gave today at our local church. It is based on Luke 13:10-17, today’s lectionary gospel reading. I have decided to place it here on the blog as it is a timely reminder when we are debating the rights of asylum seekers that Jesus welcomed those on the outside of society, and encouraged others to do the same. The first half is a narrative given by Rachel, an attendee at the synagogue. The second half is a brief commentary, followed by a poem about the bent over woman. The illustration is Jesus heals a crippled woman by Cortney L. Haley


I am sitting in my normal seat in the synagogue, as I always did in the Sabbath. I like watching the people come in. Then that woman came into worship in the Synagogue as she had every Sabbath for the last few years. Others had told me she had been coming like this for 18 years. She came as she always did, bent over, with a back that was twisted.
Her face looked like she was always in pain. I wondered what she could actually see. It seemed to me she must have spent most of her time looking at the ground beneath her feet. It was impossible for her to look anyone straight in the face. If she tried to do so, surely her neck would have hurt her. Just walking seemed to hurt her, and there seemed to be nothing she could do to ease the pain.

People tended to avoid her. Can you imagine coming to the Synagogue for that number of years and no one seemed to even know your name? She was just known as ‘the bent-over- woman’. If people thought about her at all, it was probably with scorn. Physical deformity is seen as a curse by many people. I even heard some even said she was possessed, her condition a punishment from God. To be honest, any physical infirmity is thought of as God’s punishment or even as the work of the Devil. I don’t know what to think. She seems harmless, but I am afraid of how she looks.

She usually sits on the far side of the other women, way up the back, off to herself. No one rushes to welcome her. No doubt about it, whatever has caused her condition, she is oppressed by many other things and I think of her as being bent over with many burdens. Though all we can see is the physical burden, I sit and wonder what other burdens she may have, emotionally and spiritually.

Could part of her oppression be just that she is a woman, which definitely diminishes her worth? I wonder about the other women at the synagogue. What kind of burdens do they feel? For that matter, what about the men? It would be especially shameful if they showed themselves to be burdened and bent—and isn’t that a burden in itself - trying to hide emotions and pain? That is not always easy either. We sit, in synagogue, waiting for something. A glimpse of God, a healing touch. Sometimes it seems to happen. But often we just sit, and wait, and worry.

And then, one day, a visiting preacher came. A man called Jesus. He came to teach in the synagogue. But then he didn't. Teach I mean. Not straight away. He called out "woman". “Woman,” he said. Somehow the bent over woman knew he was talking to her. Can you imagine what a shock it must have been when she heard Jesus calling her? No one had called to her in all those years. Then Jesus called “woman” to her.

She moved, from her place way at the back of the synagogue, into the centre of the crowd. And then Jesus did an amazing thing. He laid his hands upon this bent over woman and told her that she was set free from her ailment; and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.’ Amen! What a blessing for her! Amen, and hallelujah’, we said. ‘Praise the Lord!’ God was moving in our lives, and especially hers.

And then he did another thing—it was a little later on when he was debating with the disapproving leader of the synagogue—he gave her a new name: he called her the daughter of Abraham. It was amazing - Jesus really gave two gifts to the bent over woman—the gift of healing from her bent over, painful existence, and just as important—the gift of recognition as a daughter of Abraham, a member of the chosen people. It was a great moment.

I mentioned an argument. Remember I said that this happened in the synagogue? And it was on the Sabbath, our holy day. Jesus healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath, much to the disapproval of the leader of the synagogue. We Jews are instructed in the importance of the Sabbath from our childhood. We are taught it is a day set apart, a day that is holy and honourable, a joy for those who observe it. Observing the Sabbath has not only been not only a part of our Law since Moses’ time, but also a part of our worship of God. Well, this Jesus showed he could argued like the best of the Pharisees, and he was pointing out that it was hypocritical to care for an animal then not recognize the need for care of a human being.

You people may not recognise it, but Jesus was making a classic rabbinic argument. You know, it follows a pattern, a kind of “you say, I say” pattern. Jesus did it beautifully. Firstly, he moved from a matter of minor importance to something of major importance. What I mean is the donkey was a minor action, a little thing. The big thing was this poor woman who has been bent over for eighteen years. Jesus is saying that if it's true for the minor thing—your ox or your donkey— then how much more should it be true in relation to a major thing, namely, this woman's life? And was it not a greater blessing to receive such a gift from God on the day God had blessed and set apart for the refreshment of humankind?

One other thing I think I should point out to you in case you missed it. When Jesus responded to the leader’s words, he was very clever with his use of words. You know, he said, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey and lead it away?" In the next sentence about the bent over woman, he says "then ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath day."

The connection he was making was very clear. Let me put it another way. Jesus said "You guys untie your ox or your donkey. I am untying and releasing this woman who has been bound for eighteen years and that's a great thing to do on the Sabbath." The crowd applauded this great wit. The point was well made.

I felt very happy for the bent over woman. She had been restored from a life lived on the margins to one that would be now lived in the community. Jesus, when he called her from the back, also symbolically was calling her back to life. I felt angry at the synagogue leader, and so did most of us. Jesus certainly won that argument, in our opinion. And I did feel some shame, I confess. I hadn't bothered to get to know this woman and help her. I should have. And I decided that in the future I would at least make the effort to say ‘Shalom’ to others, even if they seemed different from me.

Back to our time
The story of the woman who was bent over is a story of two types. It is a story of confrontation about Sabbath laws, but also a story of liberation. It is a story that reports debate and argument over interpretation of laws, but also release and freedom from repression and regulation.

In the background of this story is the argument about the character of the kingdom of God. Actions such as this—a woman being set free from an evil spirit—are an obvious and physical proclamation of the coming of the kingdom. When she is able to stand up straight, to have dignity again, and to be set free from her affliction, we can see a clear sign of the presence of the God and of the wholeness and equality and shalom promised by the kingdom.

This is a story that combines a miracle of healing with a controversy about the law. In that sense, it is like the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2—the story of the man lowered down through the roof by his four friends. The move from the miracle and subsequent celebration to conflict, is a story development that makes his story very interesting.

That is the same move, in that story, as we find here, in this story about the woman bent double. Furthermore, it ends with an even greater degree of joy on the part of the entire crowd, who were rejoicing at the things Jesus was doing. So it's a great story of hope. It’s a story that points to the healing, the resolution, of all our problem issues.

Can you imagine a world where poverty is healed? where racism is ended? where indigenous people are respected? where there is no longer discrimination or prejudice towards gay and lesbian people? where environmental problems are resolved? and so forth. What a world that would be!

This isn’t a story where we should be saying, “Go Jesus, you showed those legalistic synagogue leaders.” That is not what the story is about. Because in many ways, we are like the leader of the synagogue, clinging to our traditions and wanting others to agree with us and think like us. We don’t like change and we don’t like doing things differently.
In many ways we are also like the bent over woman, waiting for our burdens to be lifted from us so we can be freed and stand up and be transformed and praise the name of God.

I want to conclude by reading some excerpts from a poem called
OH WOMAN … DEAR NAMELESS WOMAN, by Anna Murdock

Oh woman, dear nameless woman,
how your heart must long
to look into the eyes of others once more;
to seek hope and acceptance and love.
But alas, you cannot, can you?
Your head cannot be lifted.
For whatever reasons, it is bent low.

You see only the dust of the streets
and the feet of those who step over you
and around you and on you.
Oh woman, dear bent-low woman,
God has brought you to this place …
to this synagogue … to this person
who is teaching freedom from bondage.
On this day … yes, on this very Sabbath day
you will be set free
and will stand tall once more.
He has called you … not by name, but “Woman”.
Even before his touch,
even before you might stand tall,
he proclaims that those things
that had kept your head low
and your back so bent
be gone forever.
Did you hear his words, dear woman?
SET FREE!
Set free from all of the bent-down bondage!
His eyes are the first eyes
that you have seen in so long.
How can you not respond
in the way that you do!
Standing straight … Praising God!
********************************************

May all of us be set free from whatever bends us low and keeps our eyes on the ground instead of raised upwards.
May all of us help others to also stand up straight, to live the lives of dignity and inclusion that God intended them to have.
And God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Eating your steak and caring about it too - the ecology of sustainable communities

Early on Monday morning we took off for Ellenborough, in the Kindee Valley, some 30-40 kms west of Wauchope. Our first destination was Ewetopia Farm, a 130 acre property located on the mid-north coast hinterland. Ewetopia is run by Jill and Ian McKittrick, who embarked on this significant tree change around ten years ago.



Wanting to escape the Sydney rat race, they decided that there was a niche market for gourmet sheep’s milk cheese, and took a punt on a small milking herd of sheep. They have now received Council approvals to build a specialised dairy & cheese making area. Having experimented with some success on family and friends, Ian and Jill hooped to have their ewe's milk cheese available from September 2013, initially at the local Wauchope markets. We are really looking forward to sampling the future products of the new dairy!



Jill and Ian are also working to regenerate their soils, and are participating in a soil carbon project with Hastings Landcare and the Northern Rivers Catchment Management. The highlight of the tour for the children was the milking of Butterscotch the house cow, who placidly stood as the fascinated youngsters watched her deliver over 2 litres of rich Jersey milk.



Ian and Jill also run a farmstay cottage, with a well-appointed cabin that can sleep six. If you and your family want to stay on a small working farm, you can contact them at http://www.ewetopiafarm.com.au/



After idling away an hour or so at Long Flat Cafe, it was time to head to Kindee Valley Farm. You can find them here http://www.kindeevalleyfarm.com.au/ This somewhat tested our poor little Honda hybrid, which is simply not built for driving on dirt roads, fording river crossings, climbing grassy knolls, or cross country motoring. We eventually arrived on the top of a hill with a spectacular view of the valley and nearby rain forested hills. Around 80-90 people arrived also, which did test the parking and the area thoroughly – and the kitchen skills of Kerry, who was busy making lots of delicious Kindee bacon BLTs for the hungry visitors.



The farm is around 622 acres, with a 100 of these under rainforest. It is in the midst of this picturesque scenery that our hosts, Brian and Kerry Wehlburg raise their cattle, pigs and chickens to produce fine ethically pastured food. Brian and Kerry Wehlburg are also committed to improving biodiversity and sequestering carbon in the soil. This is one reason why the Wehlburgs run Kindee Farm - to do something about climate change. Carbon sequestration is one way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.

The Wehlburgs pride themselves on raising stock that never sees a feedlot, pigsty, or chicken cage. The animals are regularly moved onto fresh pasture to keep flock and pasture worm and disease free and healthy. Brian says that this is better for them, better for the environment and creates a more nutritious, flavoursome product.

And, as Brian said a number of times, their animals ran on solar, reproduced themselves, and when they died you could eat them. They were also handy tillers and fertilisers of the soil. What more could you ask?



Brian told me that his philosophy and methods are based on Holistic Management, a process developed by fellow Zimbabwean Allan Savory. Brian is himself an Holistic Management Educator and describes it as a way of making decisions that are socially, financially and environmentally sound. American Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms provides many of the "how to's" for practically managing the farm.



It is the word sustainable that is the key here. Though it is true that modern farming techniques have delivered profits to many – most notably the Colesworths of this world – it is equally true that such techniques have come at a high cost to our environment, the integrity of the food supply, and to small farmers. Australia, which has poor and ancient soils, has always battled with loss of topsoil and salination of its arable farmland, now also faces challenges to its food production areas from development, coal seam gas mining and contaminated groundwater. Overuse of pesticides, herbicides and artificial petrochemical fertilisers have compromised pasture and waterways and even put ocean reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef at risk from nutrient rich fertiliser run-off.

Many small holding family farmers feel forced to leave their land, due to increased costs, recent drought or flood conditions, and their inability to compete with larger, corporatised farms, or unable to make a living on the pittance that Colesworth is prepared to pay them for their produce.

Climate change is not going to make food production easier or more lucrative. With peak oil, peak soil, peak whatever, our food production is going to come under increasing pressure. Surely one answer staring us all in the face is to increase the number of sustainable farmers, and to promote greater amounts of local, safer, sustainably produced food. We need farmers who will maintain healthy soil and clean waterways, and who will produce fresh, healthy food for generations to come.

Lastly, we need communities who will support our farmers, and who are prepared to share equipment, facilities and work together. As Joel Salatin says, the ecology of community is as important as that of the land. Community ecology takes time, care and innovation, and anything less tends to create social and environmental upheavals. Factory food and huge chemically-dependent monocultures do not factor in the intrinsic and hidden costs of pollution and environmental degradation, or the increased CO2 in the atmosphere caused by overuse of fossil fuels and their derivatives.

Food from sustainable farming is actually cheaper for the planet because it factors in all these costs. Using manure instead of artificial fertiliser, moving stock frequently instead of needing to worm, using chickens and pigs as pest destroyers and cultivators in working with, not against nature, encouraging microbial activity and building soil are all sustainable practices that do not spoil or pollute. And it results in animals that are less stressed, and free to express their natural instincts. It also means that they eat what they were meant to, not industrialised fish waste or the like.



We should all be reacquainting ourselves with real food. We should all be cutting food miles and finding our food closer to where we live. The UK has a 100 mile food movement; maybe we should develop such things as well here in Australia. It means that we should eat food in season, and cook the produce of our regions in our home kitchens.

As a wise farmer once said, if you eat food, you should care about how it’s grown. Our farmers are rightly proud of their produce, and we feel so blessed to live in the Hastings Valley with all this wonderful food from sustainable farms, readily available at our local Farmers’ Markets. And by eating local we are saving on food miles, and we are supporting our local and regional economy. So support your local markets, eat fresh, choose organic and sustainable options and everyone and thing, including the planet, is a winner.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

What’s the dirt on dirt – day two of the Hastings Valley farm gate tours.

Day two of our Farm Gate tours began at 9.30 am at Redbank Organic Farm. Redbank is run by the Eggert family, and has been owned by them for 5 generations. They are a certified organic farm of approximately 500 acres, located across the Hastings river not far from us in Wauchope. Redbank produces Oxhill Organic Eggs, and they also have organic dairy cows producing organic milk that is commercially produced under the Norco label.



Our tour was conducted by Chris and Ann Eggert with help from their three sons. We started by inspecting the dairy herd of approximately 180 head, with Friesians, and Jersey/Guernsey cross-bred cows roaming around river flat grassy paddocks. As well as being organic cows, they were also curious and friendly, and it was a chance for anyone unfamiliar with them to get up close and personal.



We then moved on to the chicken sheds and hen paddocks, which are regularly moved every three days by the Eggerts behind the cows, and which breakdown the bovine manure and any attendant nasties before the cattle are moved onto the pasture again. The pasture also gets a good dose of chicken manure. The hen houses (‘chicken caravans’) are an astonishing blend of practicality and ingenuity. They are completely movable with a tractor, and have a self-organised watering system for the birds, and nesting boxes gently sloped that connect with a hand cranked conveyer belt that can be used to move the eggs to the end of the shed for collection. The chickens were clearly at home in them and happy to lay many eggs in the comfortable boxes.



The flocks are guarded from foxes by alpacas, whose smell is repugnant to foxes, and who apparently have an innate dislike of this predatory and cunning canine. They will spit on them, and kick them when they spot one. Certainly both hen and alpaca seemed comfortable in each others company. The Eggerts create paddocks by the use of movable electric fences, which means pasture is properly rested before reuse by cattle and chooks. Paddocks are fertilised by their own farm-made organic compost with the hay and sawdust which is used in the dairy yards, and then composted for 6-8 weeks. The compost is then spread over the paddocks.



The Eggerts went organic in 2000, and it is an impressive and symbiotic system that they have in place between pasture, cow, hen and alpacas, and the dairy. Chris was very clear about the benefits they had gained from going organic, and by rotating their hens and herd regularly. He found conventional farming using urea was very expensive, as his animals were often sick and needed regular drenching for worms. After massive health problems, the farm went organic, which meant rotating stock, making their own fertiliser, and cultivating the creatures of the soil such as microbes and dung beetles. He no longer ploughs the fields, but plants directly, as this is much better for the soil. He uses more deep rooted grasses and pasture plants, and by moving stock it prevents the build up of the micro and other organisms that cause disease. He has not vaccinated the cattle in all this time and has had no problems. Chris believes that good management prevents disease, builds soil fertility and health and means chemical-free produce.

I asked Chris why he went organic and why it was important. Initially, he said, it was about money – saving money from the cost of artificial fertilisers and from treating disease, and gaining better returns from a more saleable product. But he said he was now passionate about organic farming systems, as he could see how much better they worked. His cows did not need vaccinating or worming, his fields did not need urea or other artificial applications, his stock rarely gets sick, and his soil and pasture are much healthier and lusher – though this took longer than using conventional farming methods.

The Eggerts also trade under a label called F.U.N. Organics. Their website states that:

The family decided that it would be a good idea to have a marketable brand name to take the farm forward. The name F.U.N. Organics came from a core belief that a lot of the joy of producing food has been taken away today with the onslaught of mass produced, industrial agriculture. We believe that farming should be fun, that farmers should be proud of what they do and what they produce, and that farms should be a safe and happy place to bring visitors and raise children. Farming with nature, not against it, is a central basis to the way we farm and is especially important when farming organically. So our farming business is now F.U.N. Organics – Farming Under Nature! You can find some videos on the farm, and more information at

In the afternoon we went off to Foodprints. Foodprints is a 40 acre farm run by Jeremy Bradley and Kathy Eggert (yes, she is related to the Eggerts above and spent a lot of time at Redbank when she was growing up). Foodprints is about good soil health and sustainable food production. Find them at www.foodprints.com.au



We started with a sausage sizzle lunch under two magnificent magnolia trees (made from the free range beef raised on their farm) and this was followed by a talk on the importance of microbes: bacteria, algae, fungi and other tiny creatures such as protozoa to soil health. Symbiotic relationships between plant and air, water, sun and microbes eventually produces humus, the stable medium which is the key to healthy soil and sustainable farming and nutritious food.

Part of the talk which was new to me is that we are using soil faster than we are making it. This concept of making soil had never occurred to me. I thought, along with many others, that soil was just, well, there. Apparently this is not true. Artificial fertilisers such as urea do not build up soil, and have a huge carbon footprint due to their being made of natural gas that has been shipped to China, converted to fertiliser, and shipped back to Australia. Better to grow one’s own nitrogen via healthy soil and microbes. It seems the right regime of natural soil enhancement grows new soil at rapid rates, replacing what is used and what is lost.



Interestingly, a by product seems to be reduced weeds. At the border of FoodPrints pasture, fireweed is seen obviously growing on the neighbour’s side. It is missing on Jeremy’s side. Jeremy and Kathy put this down to their rotation of the cattle and subsequent mulching of the paddock, which as Kathy says, disadvantages everything equally, including the weeds. Their neighbour keeps asking how they do it. He apparently keeps failing to get it.

The FoodPrints website stresses that:
We are not a global company, in fact we are the antithesis of a global corporation, because we have a global ethic. With every farming decision we make we consider the planetary consequences. We believe in growing and consuming low input local produce and continuously improving our management practices. Our farming methods are traditionally organic and we do not do anything unnatural to our soil, our plants or our animals.

The name ‘foodprint’ comes from the idea of food miles and food production miles. Jeremy and Kathy encourage us all to think of our ‘foodprint’, and to support local famers, eat food that is grown in season and reduce our "foodprints". FoodPrints fresh vegetables include garlic, pumpkins, shallots, potatoes, carrot, silverbeet, rainbow chard, eggplants, corn, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beetroot, rosellas and a variety of herbs. They prefer to grow traditional open pollinated varieties and save the seeds.

John and I regularly buy the famous Jack’s pumpkins from Jeremy and Kathy. I have to say it is the only pumpkin we have successfully grown in our own backyard. (And it is quite delicious, John adds!)

Kathy’s special passion is conservation of local vegetation and the fauna that inhabits it. Their farm is managed to enhance existing native forest and wildlife habitat, and they have signed a conservation agreement to ensure this habitat is preserved into the future on their property.

The thing that has struck me mightily about both these farms is their reduced costs in regard to fertiliser, reduced illness and reliance on chemicals, and how much they have enhanced their soils, pasture coverage and their increased output.

We keep being told by big companies like Monsanto that organics will not feed the world, and GM RoundUp Ready GM food is the way forward in a world populated by increasing numbers.

I find this extremely difficult to accept based on the evidence of the farms here. It is clear that soil is crucial; I can’t see how using fossil fuel derived fertilisers can build it up, replace it or make it more efficient. A crop is only as good as what you grow it in – how then, even if GM seeds are the most efficient crops in the world, can they thrive in inferior, nutrient deprived soil?

Secondly, it seems to me from my reading that monocultural crops are much more prone to disease. Biodiversity encourages predators and soil improvers and crops and livestock to work together in symbiotic relationships that keep disease and pests to a minimum. It is much cheaper than paying for drenches, vaccinations and pesticides and herbicides. The subsequent enrichment of the soil gives better crop yields. So can’t see the superiority of GM crops here. And there is the small matter of pollution of soil and waterways. Clean water is essential to life. Run off from herbicides and pesticides is not helping. And good soil can sequester carbon, which helps the issue of CO2 emissions.

And if companies like Monsanto persist in merging small farms into big farms, or seeling their seed particularly to poor indigenous farmers who can’t afford to buy seed and herbicide etc each year, then we are not feeding the hungry world but indeed depriving it, in the name of Western greed, of its dominant means of feeding its subsistence farmers. Indian cotton farmers used to save seed, replant and have enough to feed their families. Monsanto’s cotton seed has greater need for water, less yields and requires more chemicals. The result has been the regular suicide of Indian cotton farmers caught in a cycle of debt and Monsanto’s indifference.

In the USA, big food companies are becoming bigger. They appear to have unprecedented power over the market, and for years now have been putting small farmers out of business in favour of factory farms and the cultivation of GM crops, especially GM corn and soy, which just happen to be the essential ingredients in most of the Western world’s junk foods.

Lastly, the carbon footprint of huge agribusinesses like Monsanto is immense, and reliant on fossil fuels. I see no chance of this changing in the near future, not while there is a dollar to be made.

Food production needs to be unhooked from fossil fuels and monocultures and the direct and indirect pollution these things cause. In their article in “The Conversation” Can we resolve the ‘peak everything’ problem? Alexandra and Campbell state that:

because biodiversity conservation, water and land use, energy production, carbon intensity, disaster management and global food supplies are all intimately linked, the 21st century challenges need to be conceived as converging, not as isolated single issues. (http://theconversation.com/can-we-resolve-the-peak-everything-problem-13070)

For example, this means a much more integrated approach to land use planning, involving all tiers of government working together, with industry and the community. It may sound tedious and expensive, but the alternatives — staying in our silos, then wringing our hands after big shocks — are much worse.

In other words, our organic farms, in all their biodiversity and their consideration of the smallest microorganism to the immensity of the planet, are showing us the way forward.

Redbank Dairy

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Gateway to real food and real solutions for the future

In the Hastings Valley, the 2013 Farm Gate Tours are underway this long weekend. It is an event designed to support local farmers,especially those into biodiversity, organic methods and boutique type produce.

John and I are regular customers of the Wauchope Farmers’ Markets. There are a number of stalls we always patronise, and we look forward to the diverse range of fresh produce from macadamias through to herbs to pasture-fed meat. The 2013 Farm Gate Tour appeared invented just for us, as it provided a not-to-miss opportunity to not only meet the farmers, but access their farms as well.

Hastings Landcare Inc had recruited 11 farms covering poultry breeding, dairy, garlic and essential oils, beef, pork, eggs, native bush-foods, sheep cheese, alpacas, and macadamias. Conservation issues such as biodiversity were highlighted as a feature on the tour.

Today (Saturday) we visited Lorne Macademia farm and Justeph Alpacas.

Justeph Alpacas is a working alpaca and beef cattle farm run by Justyn and Stephanie Phillips. Justyn took the tour of the place, and is obviously proud of the farm and the work he has put into it. Healthy cows and new calves, and lots of woolly alpacas are testament to his hard work. He explained how he had set up paddocks and lanes, and the importance of having permanent water, good rainfall and good soil. It was clear that Justyn managed his soil and the manure from the alpacas very well. It was also clear that alpacas do not like cameras, and find ingenious ways to avoid a lens. But for us, our main interest was “the huge netted garden producing a big variety of foods” as per the Farm Gate Tour book.



As avid backyard fruit and veggie gardeners, we were keenly interested. Berries, herbs, espaliered fruit trees and edible greenery were growing in the netted garden. Guinea fowl had routinely patrolled the area, removing pests but not plants. I was impressed. Our chooks would have demolished the lot. Everything looked healthy, and many things were still producing fruit, including a few feisty kiwi vines, and a raft of citrus trees.



Later at the macadamia farm, our first task was to have lunch. There is an excellent cafĂ© with a delicious range of homemade goodies made by Joanne Scott. After lunch we were entertained and educated by Ray Scott who runs the farm (we buy from Ray at the local farmers’ markets). It was great to see the whole story behind the produce we buy: wonderfully tasty macadamias, delicious macadamia butter, and macadamia-infused coffee-to-die-for!!



Ray talked to visitors about the number of trees (1400), and how they needed to be cared for. Ray admitted he was a refugee from Sydney, and had been in quest of seaside tree change. He decided eventually to settle for the trees rather than the seas. New to macadamia farming, Ray set out to educate himself about their care and their harvesting.

Ray has embraced a pesticide and petrochemical fertiliser free regime on his farm, because he feels that the cost, both to his bank balance and to the environment is too high to do otherwise. “I got a quicker response to artificial fertilisers initially,” he said. “But long term the harvest was far higher using macadamia waste product mixed with the waste from our chooks on the trees.”

Ray also has a policy or reuse, recycle, repair and reinvent. All of his sorting equipment was repaired, built or modified by him and his father, with even an old supermarket checkout conveyor belt being adapted to make a macadamia sorting table. “We are not into wasting things around here,” said Ray. “And we share the costs of processing with a macadamia co-op made up of small growers like myself.”

It is heartening in a throw away, consumer-driven world, to meet someone like Ray. I love his sturdy independence and creative engineering. He saves money, saves landfill, and thereby saves the planet. And his macadamias are well worth it – they are delicious.



In his talk, Ray pointed out that already, at the start of winter, 40% of his trees were flowering, and that this was completely unseasonable. He didn’t know what it meant for the tree and its next fruiting. He was waiting to see what happened, especially since the honey bee hives in the area had mysteriously died, and his orchard was silent where it had once hummed with avian life. He thought the cause may have been a beetle. I thought maybe colony hive collapse was catching up with the mid north coast area.
I asked him about the change in flowering later, as a number of farmers in the area have told me that they too, had noticed things out of whack in their farms. One lady’s fig trees had flowered too early, before the wasp that pollinated them was around and they had therefore set no fruit. Others have told me that flowers were appearing on fruit trees now, instead of spring, and fruit was setting for the second time on their trees.



The changes taking place to the trees’ cycle seemed to be due to variations in the unseasonable weather, and incongruously nuts were ripening on the trees in preparation for falling and harvesting at the same time new flowers were blooming. We had an interesting discussion with Ray about the changes in weather and might relate to climate change. He told us his father had been keeping records for 16 years, and that initially a rain pattern could be discerned of wetter summer-spring and drier winters. This has apparently disappeared in the last two or so years, with no discernible seasonable rain patterns and with temperatures higher than normal, one result being cessation of frosts. Ray wasn’t sure exactly what had caused the change, but he knew change was happening.

The disappearance of the bees bothers me more than the unseasonable flowering and simultaneous fruiting, though that bothers me too, as the two are in fact linked. I was reminded of Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’, when Ray talked of the silence on his orchards. Changing climate and seasons may not be the greatest threat to food production, in the future it may actually be lack of pollination that brings on a food crisis.

Apparently pollination is needed for around 75% of global food crops. New research has shown the huge contribution of wild insects and honeybees to pollinating food, and indicates that the habitat of wild insects is being destroyed by monoculture crops and bees are under threat from climate stress, diseases and pesticides.
This puts crop and farm biodiversity squarely back on the agenda as one of the best preventatives to protect food production and its pollinators.

The other part to this is that climate change seems to be contributing to a mismatch between pollinators and plants. I mentioned the farmer who noticed the wasp was too late to pollinate the figs. European data shows there have been seasonal shifts in the distribution of pollinators, especially bees. And the food plants that depend on these pollinators are also undergoing seasonal shifts. If pollinators and plants cease to match up, food production is in real trouble.

The last part of this complex puzzle is the chemical companies that pedal pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers to farmers. They encourage monoculture food crops and genetically alter the DNA makeup of plants, then patent the seed. Pesticides do not help pollinators. Lack of biodiversity does not help pollinators. Even Roundup, touted by Monsanto as harmless as a herbicide gets, is developing super weeds. Ray tells me that his weeds are no longer responsive to low dose glyphosate, but each year need a bigger dose. Strangely, Monsanto is bringing out stronger concentrations of RoundUp each year. Coincidence? Probably not. Peter Newman, from the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative says an increasing number of weeds are no longer being killed by the herbicide glyphosate, and currently there are more than 360 known cases of glyphosate resistance in Australia. That number is expected to rise significantly by the end of the year.

Perhaps we should be thanking God for our small farmers, with their multi-faceted farms and their diversity of enterprise and best-practice land management initiatives. For their resourcefulness and resilience may well lead the way into an uncertain future.


Sunday, 12 May 2013

And God created Wisdom, and saw that she was good...

The Trinity: what is it, where did it come from?

Soon it will be Trinity Sunday, following hard on the heels of the Spirit as celebrated at Pentecost. But there is something important about the spirit that generally does not figure in the sermons of Pentecost. And it is this missing element that will form the basis of this dialogue. So this dialogue is offering some thoughts designed to challenge and develop our thinking about the Spirit. Is the Trinity really what we think it is? Or are some surprises lurking within?

There is a joke about ministers managing to be ill, take holidays, or be struck temporarily dumb on Trinity Sunday, usually because the various technical explanations of the trinity prove too dense and headache-inducing to tackle. There is an assumption that the complex history of the development of the doctrine of the trinity is just too intricate for the ordinary person in the pew. John and I disagree, and think that the basics are understood enough that we can build on them by engaging in a dialogue about this particular topic.

We should warn you that this is not meant to be an inspiring and enthusing sermon. Rather, through the technicalities of the development of the doctrine, we hope to encourage you to think about our understanding of God, and how we experience God’s presence in our lives.

The first character to open our dialogue is Rufinus, who was present at the council of Nicea in the year 325, when the first formal declaration of the doctrine of the trinity was made by a council of bishops. Rufinus was one of the scribes at the council, taking notes for the eminent historian, Eusebius of Caesarea. Rufinus is full of enthusiasm for what has taken place at Nicea. He is anxious to address you on the topic. He is quickly joined by a mysterious and rather shadowy character, who questions the whole foundations of the Nicean decision on this topic.
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RUFINUS: What do we mean when we speak of the Trinity? This is a good question, and one frequently asked by Christians. The answer that you receive to this question will depend upon the person you ask. However, I will attempt a definition of what we mean when we talk about ‘trinity’.

The monotheism of Christianity is rather unique. We believe that God is One; but we also hold that the one God has three distinct “persons”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This unique threefold God of Christian belief is referred to as the Trinity (from Latin trinitas, “three”).

It is true that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible. However, we believe that some of the texts of the bible point to this doctrine – in fact, you have heard a number of them this morning. But while this concept is rather scarce in the biblical texts, there is no reason we should doubt the words of the early church fathers, where it appears often. After all, the word “Trinity” was first used by Tertullian, the great Latin lawyer and theologian (c.155-230). So it already has quite a history, stretching from my time in the fourth century back into the early years of the third century.

We should consider the early councils of the church—and especially the one held at Nicaea under the patronage of our great emperor, Constantine—to be authoritative. In these councils, doctrine is formally and correctly defined by the doctors and fathers of the church. The Nicene Creed declares Jesus to be: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” That is the trinity in essence.
And we can also consider this affirmation:

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son, he is worshipped and glorified.”

This testifies to the fact that the Holy Spirit came because of the death of Jesus. Jesus promised that when he died, the spirit, the Comforter would come. As Jesus was in the father, so the spirit was in Jesus. You see—it is simple!

SOPHILLA: Now just a minute. This is not as beautifully simple as you claim, at all. There are lots of reasons for questioning this doctrine of the Trinity. For example, as you said, the word ‘trinity’ is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. And think about it – it simply doesn’t make philosophical sense. It isn’t taught in the scripture of the Jewish people, the Old Testament. These were the scriptures of Jesus, and he never mentioned such a thing. Whoever heard of such strangeness as this ‘one in three’ business?

Further, the idea of trinity is not compatible with monotheism. In fact, this is really why it was invented. The church fathers needed to explain away why they were worshipping two gods—God the Father, the supreme God; and Jesus, also regarded as a God. This would be polytheism. So they threw in the holy spirit for good measure, and came up with this notion of the “three in one”. Lastly, this Council at Nicea was really also about refuting the so-called Arian heresy.

RUFINUS: Yes, that’s right, Arius claimed that Jesus was not one with God the Father, as he was not fully divine—a false view that had to be dealt with.

SOPHILLA: Have you ever noticed how doctrine is always developed when there is an alleged heresy at large?

RUFINUS: Well, this is the way that good ideas are shaped and refined. However, I will ignore this polemical statement and take up your earlier point. You may be right about the word ‘trinity’ not being biblical, but I have to point out that the concept is found indirectly in various statements in the Bible. The three figures of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are associated in such great New Testament passages as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19); and in the apostolic benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). And this idea explains the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and shows how this idea fits with monotheism. And anyway, it should not be expected that the nature of God is going to make sense to us humans. We have to allow room for some complexity.

SOPHILLA: I do not believe that Matthew intended this verse to become proof of a trinity. In fact, I am unconvinced that Matthew the evangelist even wrote such words. Matthew records a special connection between God the Father and Jesus the Son (for example, Matthew 11:27), but he falls short of claiming that Jesus is equal with God (as in 24:36). I do not need a trinity to explain to me that Jesus was special.

RUFINUS: Come, come, you surely cannot mean that. The coming of Jesus Christ, the belief that he represented the presence and power of God, clearly had implications for the very early Christians, and planted seeds of understanding in their minds. Think of the Holy Spirit, whose coming was connected with the celebration of the Pentecost. Surely you will agree that the Holy Spirit is divine.

SOPHILLA: Of course the holy spirit is divine. She is sent by God, to increase human understanding, to bring change and renewal, and to announce the will of God.

RUFINUS: She???!!!! What do you mean, she? The holy spirit, the blessed third person of the trinity, is male. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three persons in one being. Of course the spirit is male. How could it be otherwise? All three persons are male. And come to think of it, just who are you anyway, to be putting forth such ridiculous ideas?

SOPHILLA: I thought you would never ask. I am Sophilla, handmaiden to Wisdom, and one of the keepers of the feminine tradition. Wisdom has been described in many and various ways—as an aspect of God, as a divine entity existing in her own right, even as something approaching a feminine deity. All of these have some truth to them. Wisdom’s primary function is, of course, to be a mediating force between God and the world. Wisdom is very old; as it says in the book of Proverbs: “The Lord created [Wisdom] at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old” (Proverbs 8:22). Wisdom also functions as a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, granting knowledge of God to those who pursue her.

RUFINUS: I am sorry, this is getting out of hand here. What you are talking about is the function of Jesus. These are the things Jesus does. Let us consider these verses which come early in the letter to the Colossians:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him…For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
This makes it very clear.

SOPHILLA: All that this makes clear is that the New Testament writers usurped Wisdom’s function and gave it to Jesus. The name of Wisdom was used by you men at the early Church gathering at Nicea to try and explain how a ‘three persons in one’ related to the created world. You just conveniently forgot that Wisdom is female. It is time to give you a history lesson to prove my point.
The first recorded use of the word “Trinity” in Christian theology was in the first century (around 180) by Theophilus of Antioch. He used it, however, to refer to a “triad” of three days: the first three days of Creation, which he then compared to “God, his Word, and his Wisdom.” Later great Christian thinkers such as Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas made Wisdom integral to their theory of knowledge and understanding of the created and uncreated orders.

RUFINUS: What about Tertullian, that great theologian of the early third century? He explained the trinity properly. He made it clear that words “Trinity” and “person” are to explain that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were “one in essence—not one in Person.” What do you have to say to that?

SOPHILLA: Only this: how can you be so sure that Tertullian is right and Maximus is wrong? And what about the rabbis? Consider the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro: “You are intimate with Wisdom. She has known you from the beginning. You cannot hide from Her. On the contrary, you can take refuge in Her. This is what She offers you. You do not have to earn Her love or be other than you are…she knows you and loves you for who you are”. These teachings of Wisdom can be found in lots of Writings: the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, as well as the Greek texts, the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach. The New Testament, therefore, has clearly associated Wisdom with the person of Jesus Christ. Wisdom had to go because she was feminine. The Divine Feminine through which God created the world was replaced with the divine masculine.

RUFINUS: I am astonished by your heretical views. The New Testament shows you are wrong. What about the section of Paul’s letter that we heard today? 2 Corinthians 13:14 is such early evidence for a trinity. The apostle Paul understood God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the Trinity. Jesus is referred to as Lord and Christ, God is referred to as a source of love, and the Spirit promotes sharing within Paul’s churches. Now you cannot dispute this.

SOPHILLA: I can and I will. Paul does not refer to Jesus as son, but as the means of God’s grace. He refers to God as a source of love, not as father. And by your own admission, the Spirit promotes sharing within the community, and is not physically connected with either.

RUFINUS: All right then, what about the Gospel of Rufinus? Rufinus suggests the equality and unity of Father and Son. “I and the Father are one” Jesus says in Rufinus (Rufinus 10:30). And this Gospel starts with the statement that in the beginning Jesus as Word “was with God and ...was God” (Rufinus 1:1) and ends with Thomas’s confession of faith to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (Rufinus 20:28).” You cannot deny that these two verses identify Jesus with God.

Furthermore, Rufinus’s gospel says that of the role of Holy Spirit is to be a parakletos, an advocate and comforter for believers, and will be sent after the death of Jesus:
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you [said Jesus]. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. .. the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (Rufinus 14:18-19)

Here we see Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, both distinctly yet functioning as a unity. What more proof could you ask for?

SOPHILLA: Since you have raised the topic of the spirit, let us focus on her for a minute.

RUFINUS: Her???!!! My dear Sophilla, the spirit, as part of the trinity, is masculine. The parakletos, the comforter, the spirit, is of masculine gender. This is female bias gone mad!

SOPHILLA: I would remind you that the holy spirit was alive, well and active in the Old Testament, and the ruach, which is one of her names, is most definitely feminine gender in the language of Hebrew. Let us consider her role: the ruach is frequently coupled with the name of God; in Hebrew, the ruach Elohim is literally the Spirit of God who descends on kings and prophets alike, anointing them for the role of leadership of the people. Here again we have proof that this doctrine of the trinity has replaced the ruach with a masculine persona. Further, we find in the Hebrew scriptures the presence of two other figures: the Shekinah, also known as the glory of God, who always indicates God’s “presence”; and the bat kol, “the Daughter of the Voice,” which is how any proclamation made by God is described. Every action of God in the ancient writings is feminine. What have you to say to that?

RUFINUS: What are you talking about, with bat kols and Shekinahs? These are not words I have heard; we did not discuss these at Nicea.

SOPHILLA: Let me spell it out for you then. The Hebrew word “ruach” means “spirit”, just as the Latin word “spiritus” means spirit, but in Hebrew, ruach is a feminine noun, while in Latin, spiritus is a masculine noun. The Holy Spirit changed its sex somewhere in the last few centuries.

I have further evidence that this notion of trinity has swallowed up the feminine. According to ancient Rabbis, where two or more of the faithful are gathered together in prayer, or study of Torah, the Shekinah is in their midst. Does this sound familiar? I seem to recall a saying in the New Testament that says ‘wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am with them’. This is clearly describing the role of the Shekinah – and when the gospel writers get to work, this role has been taken over by Jesus.

Further more, the ancient Rabbis also said that the Shekinah appeared before Moses at the burning bush, where the bat kol (or daughter of the voice) was heard speaking to Moses. It was the guide to Israel in the wilderness. Now, I seem to recall this idea of spirit in the wilderness is also found in the writings of the New Testament.

RUFINUS: You cannot possibly be suggesting that this nonsense is somehow related to the deeds of Jesus or the spirit in the wilderness!

SOPHILLA: Well, I was suggesting this. The feminine spirit and Shekinah are well attested in the Jewish writings. Why did you Western church fathers need to remove them? Look at Justin Martyr – he claimed that Jesus was Wisdom, Logos and the Glory, thereby removing the feminine ruach, Wisdom and Shekinah all in one stroke. He did not consider the ancient teachings.

For example, Rabbi Hillel, contemporary of Jesus, understood that the Hebrew understanding of Wisdom and spirit was the same as the Greek understanding of the Logos, and therefore feminine. It was Paul and Rufinus who first claimed that the Word or Logos was Christ, and therefore masculine.

In the Eastern Church, the Spirit was always considered to have a feminine nature. She was the life-bearer of the faith. Clement of Alexandria states that “she” is an indwelling Bride. Instead of recognizing this feminine aspect of the divine, you have tried to satisfy women throughout the world by presenting them with models of martyrs and virgins, thereby setting a standard that no normal female can aspire to. You tried to turn Wisdom into the mother of Jesus, rather than seeing her as true divinity.

RUFINUS: You still haven’t explained what you mean by bat kol.

SOPHILLA: The bat kol, the ‘daughter of the voice’, was the voice of God that proclaimed God’s will and intention, his judgments and his promises, his warnings and his commands to various people, communities, and sometimes to all of Israel. Jewish tradition always spoke of the bat kol. When the Law was given at Sinai the Bible says,
“And the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice.” (Deut 4:12)

This voice is the bat kol. There are hundreds of examples of the bat kol in the Old Testament. And believe it or not, the bat kol is alive and well in the New Testament writings – do you recall the baptism of Jesus? A voice was heard from to make a pronouncement about Jesus. This was the bat kol.

RUFINUS: I am glad you mentioned this scene. This is another part of the New Testament that is considered to show the trinity at work. We have Jesus, the son, being baptised by the holy spirit, and the voice of God is heard. Surely you must accept this as proof.

SOPHILLA: No, I do not. The writers have taken the bat kol and made her masculine! And I see this scene very differently. The ruach, the spirit of God, who descended from the heavens was changed into the pneuma, or spiritus, and made masculine. The qualities of Wisdom and the Shekinah were grafted onto Jesus – again the feminine became masculine. And the bat kol, the voice of God and the means of communication between God and the people, morphed into a male. So you could say that all three ‘persons’ of this newly invented trinity were in fact, originally female. And did I mention that the bat kol is represented in Jewish tradition by the symbol of the dove?
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JOHN: At this point, we shall leave our analysis of the history of the doctrine of the trinity. However we approach this subject, it is clear that it is, by its very nature, complex. We need to recognise that the concept of the trinity was developed over a long period of time. It was not only an expression of divine revelation. It was just as much about refuting heresies, and explaining how belief in what seemed to be three divine entities was still consistent with a faith that was monotheistic. And, of course, it had to do with the church politics of the time. This is well-recognised by theologians and church historians today.

ELIZABETH: What is not so well known is that the many attributes of the three persons of the trinity were taken from the older religion of Jesus – that of the Jewish people. An analogy to this might be seen in the Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas, where older traditions were redefined or subsumed under the Christian banner. As we have seen, the trinity contains Jewish ideas which have been reshaped into a new doctrine. In this process, the female figures so important in Jewish tradition were lost. Today, we hope that we have helped you to recover the missing element—the female figures of Wisdom, Shekinah, the ruach, and the bat kol.

The view we have presented here of the trinity is not meant to discredit the traditional doctrine. On the contrary; what we hope to have done is to open up new possibilities for further exploration of the idea of the divine attributes and the different aspects of God. The trinity can be a stimulus for such exploration in our thinking about God, and how we experience God’s presence in our lives.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

When the sacred and the secular collide - the meaning of ANZAC

I posted this on Anzac Day last year, and it seemed like a good idea to do so again, after reading quite a few Facebook comments on the topic.

Today is Anzac Day, and much of Australia will stop what it is doing, and in religious ceremonies all over the country, will observe what is increasing described as the most sacred day in our national calendar.

It has also been described as the day that best describes the nature of our national character. Even for those who don’t normally participate in the worship life of the Church, Anzac Day is the day where many of the public gather in reverent public rituals or liturgies. At shrines, memorials and monuments in every town and municipality across the country, people gather to remember and honour the fallen, and to honour and express gratitude to those who survived and can participate in marches.

I remember as a small child going to the Anzac march in Newcastle with my grandfather, who has served in the 12th Light Horse in Palestine in WW1. This would be followed with beer and two up (though not by me I hasten to add!) in the Merewether RSL. I also remember ceremonies at my school, where at a certain time we would all stop, go out into the playground, and recite the ode and sing the recessional hymn. While I was struck with the hushed solemnity of both march and service, I am not sure I really understood exactly what it was all about. While feeling sorry for soldiers who had died, the ceremony was little more than a solemn religious occasion which I was required to take part in once a year.

What is it about this day that makes it ‘sacred’? What do the public mean when they speak of some of the larger memorials as ‘shrines’? Why is that we find bible verses inscribed at these monuments and shrines? In an increasingly secular and atheistic society, why do more and more people – particularly young people – gather each year at religious services?

The war memorial in Hyde Park is a great example of a place where the sacred and secular collide in an outstanding way. For those of you who have not seen it, the shrine itself is in the style of classical architecture and its only inscription, “Let silent contemplation be your own only offering” is from the Greek leader Pericles. The first thing to note is that it is called a ‘cenotaph’, which is NT Greek for ‘empty tomb’. Already in the name, we find the Christian idea of resurrection subtly woven into the structure. At the centre of this ‘empty tomb’ is a sculpture called ‘The Sacrifice’. It comprises a bronze group of sculptures depicting the recumbent figure of a young warrior who has made the supreme sacrifice; his naked body lies upon a shield which is supported by three womenfolk, representing his mother, wife or lover and sister. In the arms of one is a child, representing the future generations for whom the sacrifice has been made. You can see it at http://www.flickr.com/photos/_autumn_leaf/225122586/

The group rises phoenix-like from symbolic flames of sacrifice, which radiate from the base. The women represent the living — the soldier the dead. He signifies the past — they hold the future in the child one of them carries. Together the figures are meant to embody the abstract concept of sacrifice. The description tells us that the figures are welded together structurally into one form, so they also represent a complex unity signifying national sacrifice. The figure of the young man is clearly cruciform, and evokes the cross of Jesus.

Rayner Hoff, the sculptor, intended two other figures to be placed in the memorial. One, called The Crucifixion of Civilisation, was denounced by the church. It depicts a naked female figure on a cross representing peace, with a pyramid of broken soldiers, corpses, weapons, helmets, and the debris of battle at the foot. Hoff described the symbolism of his central figure: "Adolescent Peace is depicted crucified on the armaments of the ravisher, the war god, Mars."

This monument, had it ever been built, would have undoubtedly contradicted the glorification of war. Interestingly, it was opposed primarily by the Catholic church of the day, who denounced it as “only fit for Protestants”. You can make of that what you will! The National War Memorial in Adelaide is similar. On the front, the figure within the arch represents the spirit of Duty, bearing in its hands a sword shaped as a cross. This figure is the vision seen by the group standing on the stage in front. http://www.anzacday.org.au/education/tff/memorials/sthaust.html Also like the Hyde Park memorial, we have a depiction of the aftermath of war on the reverse wall. Another winged spirit is depicted in the arch, but this time it symbolises the attributes of womanhood, and reminiscent of the Pieta, the spirit carries on its left arm the limp figure of a dead hero, while in its right hand it holds a cross-like sword.

The inscription reads: ALL HONOR GIVE TO THOSE WHO NOBLY STRIVING, NOBLY FELL THAT WE MIGHT LIVE.

In other less dramatic memorials around the country we find quotations from the bible, the most popular being John “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Such memorials are frequently described as sacred places, and often have a small daily service, invoking ritual and religion for those who are present.

The feeling of sacrifice that permeates Anzac Day surely can only be explained by its conscious and unconscious references to the sacrifice of Jesus. Hence on Anzac day, we find the non-church going public willing to speak of fallen soldiers as making the ultimate sacrifice. Canon David John Garland, the man credited with the instigation of the modern Anzac day in the early 1920s, described it thus: The memorial in its noble dignity proclaims, as befits a Christian people, the great sacrifice of Calvary; and unites therefore the sacrifice of those who also laid down their lives for their friends. Its inscription is no less dignified than the memorial itself: Their Name Liveth for Evermore…On Anzac Day we gather collectively, and plead for them the Sacrifice of Calvary, to which they united themselves by offering their souls and bodies as a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice, after the example of Him who by word and from the pulpit of the Cross taught that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Clearly, Jesus’ death and resurrection was related to the meaning of the sacrifice of young lives in war. It was, after all, the death and resurrection of Jesus that made it possible to see any hope at all in the mass slaughter of young men. In Jesus’ sacrificial act on Calvary, and his subsequent resurrection, we see the groundwork for the belief that those who had died defending others would still live on, and their memories would continue to be honoured.

So Anzac day has a theology that is capable of bringing thousands of people in touch with the divine, and it offers them a fleeting experience or encounter with the Godhead, though perhaps not too many who attend would articulate their feelings quite in these terms.

Despite these heavily religious overtones, or even perhaps because of them, Anzac Day commemorations do not always sit comfortably with many Christians. While we recognize the meaning in Jesus’ sacrificial death, we also hear his words when he calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. When his enemies came against him with military force, Jesus did not resort to reciprocal violence to defend himself or his cause. He allowed the machinery of might and power to add him to its seemingly endless blood-stained list of sacrificial victims. Jesus gave us no endorsement and no precedent for taking up arms in military conflict.

So where does that leave us on the day when our nation commemorates those who have fought and fallen in war? How do we meet our communities as they attend religious ceremonies to mourn the sacrificial dead? Can we participate in honouring the fallen without betraying the gospel of the Prince of Peace? Does Anzac Day provide us with a bridge into the secular community?

I think it possible, as long as we can resist aspects of the commemoration that have been manipulated to support the system that produced all the killing in the first place. In the verses we have heard from the book of the Revelation (Rev. 7:9-17), we find an enormous crowd, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and languages, gathered before the Lamb who was slain, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches as they worship God with loud voices. And Revelation tells us that this enormous crowd are “they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb?

This is interesting in light of our question, because here we have a great crowd of the fallen, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice of being martyred in the great ordeal. This passage invites us to think about how the vision it presents might connect with the Anzac commemorations. We could go in at least two very different directions with it.

The biblical vision could be used quite uncritically to support the standard Anzac agenda. Here are the great crowd of the glorious fallen gathered before the throne of the God in whose service they laid down their lives in the great ordeal. We could easily connect that with the Anzac Day services and blithely go along with using the honouring of the fallen to reinforce the implied message that the idea of ‘fighting to defend God, King and country’ is indeed a sacred purpose for which one should be prepared to make such a sacrifice.

But honouring the fallen does not require us to swallow the propaganda of war. We can honour the fallen and acknowledge their sacrifice without having to support the system that sacrificed them. We can even hope and pray that those who were killed in war might find their place among the great multitude of white-robed martyrs who worship God before the Lamb who was slain without suggesting that there is some sort of moral equivalence between them and the Lamb. They do have this in common: they are both the sacrificial victims of a system that relied on the notion that some must be sacrificed in order to preserve the security of established interests.

We can honour the memory of those who have been sacrificed in war without having to endorse either the ideologies that they were sacrificed to defend, or the actions by which they defended them. For at the same time as Jesus accepts the worship of the white-robed multitude, he honours them as fellow victims with him and wipes away every tear from their eyes. Far from neglecting their memory, it is in remembering and honouring this multitude of victims that Jesus turns the spotlight of truth on the violent system that demanded their lives.

Perhaps, on Anzac Day, we too can bring these things together. Just as Jesus exposed the systemic oppression of the people and called all to the kingdom of God, so too we can honour the fallen while allowing their memory to raise pertinent questions about the powers that were prepared to sacrifice them. The Great War has often been described as the war to end all wars, and the Christian notion of sacrifice to improve the lot of others seems to have been adopted in this explanation. It is quite likely that those that survived the war across the various nations felt that they owed the fallen a debt of blood, and it was necessary to ensure that the millions had not suffered and died in vain.

The soldiers of the Great War in particular believed that they had laid the groundwork for building a renewed society under God, one that guaranteed justice and equity to all citizens at home and an international order that made the recurrence of such destructive conflict impossible in the future – an ideal that closely parallels the Christian ideal of the Kingdom of God. But anyone who studies history knows that any war appears to only sow the seeds of the next war.

Without resorting to violence, Jesus confronted, challenged and resisted the victim-makers to such an extent that they had to sacrifice him to protect their various interests. He proclaimed love for enemy. When God raised him from the dead and he returned, he appeared to speak powerful words of reconciliation, love, peace and forgiveness.

Perhaps on Anzac Day especially, at the rising of the sun, and at its going down, we should remember the victims of war sacrificed to earthly empires, and remember all those who have become victims of the corruption, madness and greed that characterises our world. As we gather here as the people of God, we should stand with all of the victims, and with all those who have been sacrificed down through the ages. And we should bear witness along with them that the powers of corruption and death can be defeated by the power of love and life, through words of reconciliation, love, peace and forgiveness, spoken not just to our friends, but to our enemies as well. Perhaps then can peace be a real possibility in our world.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Jesus and the politics of power: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem

Now and again as a rural reverend I feel called to put something religious on this blog, usually something I consider to be significant in terms of the gospel. So below you will find an imaginary dialogue that formed the basis of our Palm Sunday service today. It takes a somewhat different view from the norm for this event, and presents a Jesus that may have deliberately set out to be provocative and revolutionary rather than the meek and mild figure of Sunday School. It sets Jesus at the heart of political change, a change that aimed to challenge the structures that oppressed and the powers which kept such structures firmly in place. It is meant to help people gain some fresh perspectives on this familar story, and there are questions at the end to ponder.

Luke 19:28-40

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" 34 They said, "The Lord needs it." 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
"Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!"
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." 40 He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

In this way, Luke tells us the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. The details of this exciting acclamation of Jesus are well known: Jesus, the humble king on a donkey, the innocent man of God, enters the holy city of Jerusalem. We can easily picture to ourselves the excitement of the crowd, the waving of the palm branches, the road lined with cloaks, and hear the cries of the crowd as they called out:
“God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

We may think we are on familiar territory with this story. It is one of the stories of Jesus that has been told and re-told, and we have heard it from our earliest days. We all know who was to blame for Jesus’ death, we all know that Pilate was afraid of the Jews and thought Jesus was innocent, we all know that it was crowd that turned on Jesus after celebrating his arrival. We all know that Jesus did not set himself up as an earthly king, that he was intentionally humble by riding a donkey, and that he died what was considered to be an ignoble death on the cross.

We think we know all this, but do we? Can we be sure this is the real story? Or is there another side to all of this? It may surprise you to learn that the Roman governor had an extensive intelligence network, and kept tabs on all activity within his jurisdiction. It may also surprise you to learn that the Romans had some significant things to say about Jesus and the early Christians in their own letters and documents.

Today, we want you to join us on an imaginative journey. We invite you to imagine that Pilate’s intelligence dossier on Yehoshua ben Joseph has just been discovered by some diligent archaeologists. It contains the full record of an interview between Gaius Scipio, a Roman centurion, and Amon, a Jewish priest. And so we invite you to listen to this interview…

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Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Amon. We have received some quite alarming reports about Yehoshua ben Joseph, the alleged teacher who is now strongly suspected of terrorist activity. We have been keeping an eye on this man, but until recently saw him as just another one of the fanatics that you Jews seem so fond of producing. Sure, there were crowds following him around but while he confined his activity to the countryside we were not too concerned. The incidents of the last week, however, are of a serious nature. I need answers for Pilate, the procurator. He is concerned, as it is your festival of Passover, which always causes problems for us Romans. As you know, the city is more than treble its normal population, the zealots are always ready to stir up trouble, and as usual we have had to put the troops on high alert, and call in extra legions from Syria. The watchtower over the temple courtyard now has to be manned 24 hours a day. So we want some answers.

I want to ask you about what happened yesterday on the roadway leading from Bethphage into Jerusalem. You know what happened, don’t you? Yehoshua ben Joseph led some sort of triumphal march into the city.
I certainly have heard of it. Everyone has. The word spread quickly. It’s been the talk of the Temple precincts since late yesterday evening.

Well, what were the people calling out? Some reports say that they were calling out in prayer. Why were they doing this? It is clear this Yehoshua character has made a mark on the people, and he was recognised and celebrated and hailed as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
They were saying, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” What did they mean by that?


They were quoting one of our special festival hymns. We know it as Psalm 118, the last of our special set of Hallel psalms. We sing them every year at the special festivals. This psalm, we sing at the Festival of Tabernacles. But originally, it was used as a hymn to celebrate the arrival of the king in the temple. Long ago, the king used to ride up to the Temple on the top of Mount Zion, for a ceremony to re-enact his enthronement. The king used to do this every year. Yehoshua was wanting to remind the people about the good times in the past, how our people used to celebrate. But I don’t think you should read too much into it, really.


But why did they cry out these words, from this particular psalm? It sounds like it was a political psalm. Yehoshua was riding up to the Temple to be crowned as King.

Well, we haven’t had a king for a long time, now; and the Herods don’t count. After all, they are in your pay – and they are not really true Jews. We’ve been ruled by foreigners like you for such a long time. But I’m not so sure that Yehoshua was wanting to make any kind of political statement with the way that he entered the city. He didn’t want to be King.

How can you be so sure? Wasn’t it his own followers who were stirring up the crowd to cry out these words? Didn’t he plant people in the crowd to try to get them all to acknowledge him as someone special?

Well, it is true that it was some of his followers who started this chant. But others picked it up. They just liked the atmosphere of celebration and rejoicing. They were heading into the city for a festival, for goodness sake! It is coming near to Passover, you know. Lots of people come to the city for this Festival. It’s a happy time.

As far as we are concerned, your festival of Passover is not a happy time – it always causes headaches for us Romans. Do I have to remind you that all of the Caesars have been more than willing to punish any rebellious behaviour on the part of you Jews? Do you not recall the time at the end of the rule of King Herod the Great (a most worthy client king of Rome) when Roman soldiers massacred 3,000 Jews as they celebrated the Passover in the Temple in Jerusalem? And this was just for pelting the soldiers with stones. The disruption of temple activities, and the claims that were made at the time by Yehoshua ben Joseph were all seen and heard by the Roman guard in his tower. And our current emperor, Tiberius, is no friend of the Jews either. Tiberias had the Jews expelled from Rome, and 4,000 Jewish freedmen were deported to Sardinia.

I am not sure that Caesar would not see this as just a fun time. From what you have said, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” sounds like a challenge to our Roman rule, to me. Are you sure that the followers of Yehoshua weren’t trying to claim that he was going to take on the role of this king, now?

Well, to do that, he would have to try to provoke some kind of military action. And he didn’t do that. All he did was ride into the city while people sang psalms of celebration.

I’ve heard that the people were crying out “Hosanna”. What does that mean, “Hosanna”?

Well, it’s just an old Hebrew word for praise. They were crying out to Adonai, to our Lord, to thank him for what he had done. It was a prayer of thanks.

A prayer of thanks—I see. But what were they giving thanks for? What had he done, this invisible Adonai god of yours? He hadn’t done anything, really, had he?

Well, no, not really, But the people were happy. They were calling out to our Lord, crying out their “thank you”, so that everyone could hear how happy they were.

But I can’t understand what they were thankful for. You lot are always complaining about being oppressed by Roman laws, taxes and our religious traditions. Did the crowd forget that this day? Come on, what does the word really mean? What are its origins? I can ask the scribes, you know, and they’ll tell me the truth. You wouldn’t be hiding anything from me, would you?

Oh, well, I suppose I have to tell you, it comes from the word hosa, to save. So “hosanna” literally means something like, “save us, now”.

Save us! Save us! That doesn’t sound like it was just a prayer of thanks. It sounds like a call to arms! Save us – from those horrible Romans, no doubt.
Oh, no, I don’t think that was what they meant at all. Save us from doing silly things. Or save us from doing the wrong thing. That’s what they meant.

Well, that doesn’t sound like a very happy thing to be saying. Are you sure they were saying prayers of thanks? Weren’t they really asking Yehoshua to save them from us Romans?

Well, I don’t think I can help you any more on that question.

I am not convinced by your explanations as yet. Well, what about his mode of transport. Why was he riding on a colt?

Oh, he had a long way to go. People often ride on animals when they are going long distances.

But he wasn’t really going very far, was he? Just from Jericho to Jerusalem – that’s only 17 miles, isn’t it – not really a long distance.

Well no, I suppose not.

So why was he riding on a colt? Why wasn’t he walking like everyone else?
I guess it was just the first thing that his people were able to find for him. They wanted to make him comfortable.

Are you sure? Wasn’t there a reason for him to choose a colt to ride on?

Hmm, I’m not sure. I thought it was just by chance that he was riding an animal. But maybe there was something more to it. Hmm… Oh, no, it couldn’t be.

Couldn’t be what? Out with it.

Well, in our scriptures, one of the prophets refers to riding on a donkey – Zechariah, I think it is – and says that it would be a humble person who would ride on a donkey. “Humble and riding on a donkey”, it says. Chapter 9 of Zechariah – Zechariah the prophet.

Listen, whether he was on a donkey, an ass or a colt, he is clearly making a statement. Humble people walk into the city. Humble people don’t draw attention to themselves. People with an agenda ride in triumphantly on beasts, and let the “happy” crowd sing political songs at them.

Well, I don’t know about that. I think you are making a bigger thing of this incident than it is.

Tell me more about what this prophet of yours says.

Well, it is part of another hymn of praise. “Rejoice”, it goes, “rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter, Jerusalem!”

So, it is like your psalm, is it? A psalm of praise, which is really a call for political salvation!

Oh no, not at all. “Rejoice”, it goes, “shout aloud, for lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey”.

Oh really – “triumphant and victorious”, indeed! Only a Jew would try to be simultaneously triumphant and humble! And what was that reference to a king?

A king? Oh yes, a king. Oh well, I suppose you could argue that there was some small hint about that in his decision to ride into Jerusalem, mounted on an animal.

You must know how we Romans feel about kings. We do not have a king ourselves, you will note. History has shown that kings are always to be associated with arrogance, and misuse of power. Look at Alexander the Great. Great general, dreadful king. He let power really go to his head and of course this leads to bad political decisions, and civil disobedience and unrest. And even the great Julius Caesar – as soon as he set himself up as a king he was assassinated. The only kings we Romans tolerate are our client kings, who do exactly as they are told. The governor will take a very dim view of anyone setting themselves up as a king, you know.

So, onto another matter. The people that were watching your Yehoshua ride along the road – why did they take off their cloaks and throw them over the animal he was riding on?

Well that was just a sign of respect, a sign that they were showing deference to the travelers.

No, I don’t believe it. Isn’t there more to it that than this? If it was a common sign of respect, then we would witness it daily. I want to know where your scriptures refer to this particular sign of respect.

Oh, I think it is in the books of the history of the kings of Israel.

I see, the books of the Kings – indeed this is a surprise!

Well, yes. But this was back in the days when we had our own kings, before your Caesar ruled over us, with all of his soldiers and tax-collectors and so on. Anyway, in the second book of the Kings, in chapter 9, there is the story about when the prophet Elisha anointed the young commander, Jehu, as the new king of Israel. When he came back to his troops in their barracks and announced to them what had happened, all the men took their cloaks off and spread them on the bare steps.

And what did they say to him, I wonder?

Why, the trumpeters blew their trumpets and all the people cried out, “Jehu is king! Jehu is king!”

Well, isn’t that interesting. And so I suppose you don’t expect me to think that yesterday, the people were about to call out, “Yehoshua is king! Yehoshua is king!”? Do you take me for a fool? I can see that their shouts were disguised cries acknowledging Yehoshua as king.

Oh no, not at all!

We hear that some people were waving leafy branches as he rode into the city. Why was this? Was this another royal symbol?
Of course not. It had an entirely different meaning. The branches relate to the Temple. They are part of our celebration, each year, when we remember how the Temple was purified and restored so that we could worship our Lord once again.


And when was this?

A long time ago, many years ago, when Antiochus brought the time of shame to our people, and burned our Torah scrolls and polluted our Temple, and we had to stop offering sacrifices at the altar. The time when the blessed Matthias and his seven sons were victorious over the foreigners and restored the Temple worship. That’s when the people waved their branches and shouted in praise to our Lord. It was a glorious time in the history of our people. You can read about it in the second book of our Maccabees heroes (2 Maccabees 10).

Indeed – a time when armed insurrection took place, when brigands and scoundrels fought against the armed might of the emperor, when they sought to appoint another King!

No, no, no…it was a glorious time because we remember how wonderful it was that we could worship again in our Temple. And that is what we can do now – worship in our Temple, thanks to your wonderful ruler and your brave Roman troops.

Enough – don’t make me sick. I know that’s not what you really think about us Romans. And anyway, since you bring up the topic of the Temple, tell me – what do you make of this? When Yehoshua ben Joseph arrived in Jerusalem, he went straight to the Temple and looked around at everything. Then he came back the next day and caused havoc in the courtyard of the Gentiles. What was he trying to do? It’s a good thing that he settled down and disappeared before our soldiers got there, or else he would be gone by now.

I tell you, the governor and the Herodians are not going to stand for any of this nonsense. The last time general unrest broke out in Palestine, the rebellions were easily put down. It is amazing how the crucifixion of 2,000 Jewish insurgents and the selling of another 20,000 into slavery can quieten a restless population. The zealot movement has been a right headache to us since then. And I did hear that one member of the Yehoshua movement is a zealot. There have been rumours also that Yehoshua disciples carry swords.

Well, travel is dangerous, you know – and the road from Jericho to Jerusalem is particularly dangerous for travel, especially at this time of the year, when lots of people are making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. With such large crowds moving along the road, it is easy for those robbers to hide behind rocks and under cliffs and spring out onto the road and take what they can from the pilgrims and businessmen on their way to Jerusalem. I reckon that if you stopped every traveler and checked them to see if they were carrying a dagger or a small sword, then most of them would be – or most of the adult males, at any rate. Self-protection is pretty important, you know – and making sure that you could protect your wife and daughters and sons, if you were traveling as a family, would be sensible, too.

But Yehoshua and his friends weren’t traveling as a family group, were they?

Well, no, but that didn’t mean that they wouldn’t be carrying arms. I mean, business people carry swords, too. It’s just common sense. You just never know when someone might attack you. And you can’t depend on other people coming to your aid if you do get attacked. It has been known for people to lie, injured, on the side of the road for some time before somebody stops to help them.

Hmm…you make it sound so matter-of-fact and normal for people to be wandering along the road armed to the teeth with swords and daggers and weapons.

No, not at all. It’s not like we are talking about a full-scale armed rebellion, you know. We would not dare to contemplate such a treacherous activity against the wonderful rule of the Romans. But you have to realize that the Pax Romana doesn’t guarantee full safety for everybody on all occasions. There is still an element of trouble-makers in our midst, you know.

Precisely my point. And how do we tell if someone is a potential trouble-maker, a threat to public order, a secret terrorist? Why, we listen to what the crowds are saying about him, and we keep out ears open for news of political activity. Just like your Yehoshua was doing yesterday. And what about his companion, Simeon the Zealot? Now he is a worry, isn’t he?

Well, he is a bit of a wild card, I must admit. But I don’t know that he is still stirring up trouble, like in the old days. I’ve heard it said that he has reformed – that he has changed, he’s a different person, now.

Well, at this point I’m not interested in Simeon, or in any of the others – until they show their hand in the same way as Yehoshua. For the moment, we have him in our sights, and we will be watching him carefully. And if anyone else steps out of line, we will go after them, too. But it is Yehoshua that we are most interested in. He’s our main target. He’s just been acting too suspiciously. And you know, anyone who claims to be a King is setting himself against the Emperor. Amon, tell me, in confidence, what do you make of him? Do you think that his friends really do believe that he is the King of the Jews, like some of them are saying?

Oh, I think that is stretching things just too far. This man cannot be the Messiah, the Anointed One, the man chosen by God for the special task that is reserved for the Holy One of Israel. He doesn’t have any of the qualities of the Messiah. I know that some of my fellow Jews think that he is a special person. But then again, we have a track record of making this kind of claim. I mean, there was that Egyptian some years ago, and that fellow from Samaria, and the prophet called Hezekiah who gathered quite a following, and there were others; but none of them came to anything. Their movements just fizzled out. They weren’t the Messiah, despite what their followers said.

Yes, but none of them went into the temple courtyard and overturned the tables and caused such a commotion, did they? Most of them went out into the desert, much like that strange man, Johannan, the one who wants everyone to be baptised and to repent and follow him. Yes, they were all strange figures – but they were not political threats. Yehoshua is different. There is something about him, something that worries us. You know, even some of your own race have seen this man for what he is. I have heard that there were moves afoot to have him stoned because he practices sorcery and is leading Israel astray. If what you say about him merely celebrating an ancient custom is true, why have these rumours arisen?

I wouldn’t want to comment on this. I think that it is up to Adonai to judge whether a person is a sorcerer or not. If he is dabbling in this kind of activity, he will get his punishment soon enough. What Yehoshua should be doing is coming to the Temple and making his sacrifices, like an obedient and pious Jew. Like so many of us are doing, even as we speak.

But that is precisely the problem – when he came into the city, with people shouting out and waving branches and singing in praise of him, he wasn’t acting in a humble way – he was acting like the King of the Jews! And when he went into the Temple, he didn’t make his sacrifices like you require. He caused a commotion! And some of his friends carried swords! And this is the man who says, again and again, that he is here to bring in the Kingdom of God. What does that mean? Surely a man who plans a kingdom plans to be King of it. It doesn’t sound to me like he has an obedient attitude towards the Caesar of Rome, our exalted ruler.

Look, Scipio, calm down, will you. You are getting over-excited here. Don’t make too much out of what is really nothing. I’m sure he is no threat to Caesar. I’m positive.

No, I’m not convinced. I think he is more of a threat than you are making out. We have to do something. And if you don’t help us to act, you will find yourself in trouble. Do I have to remind you, that you priests are appointed by us Romans? The members of your Jewish priestly aristocracy retain their powers only by Rome’s grace. We can easily remove them. If you know what is good for you, you will co-operate with us, and you will find a way to silence him.

Well, just let me deal with it. I will ask around and see what we can do. I will take steps to have him silenced. We can work with you. Rest assured, we don’t want to upset you. We are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the peace with our Roman overlords. Leave it for the moment, and let me see what we can do. I promise. I’ll work out some sort of plan. We can deal with him. Don’t you worry.

No, it is you that has to worry, my friend. It is you that has to do something about Yehoshua. And if you don’t, then we will make sure that he is dealt with. We can deal with your problem people, if you can’t fix it. You well know that Pilate has a serious lack of sympathy for Jewish sensibilities. Don’t you remember the incident of the ensigns in the temple? Pilate ordered us soldiers to bring our ensigns into the temple precincts. We had the images of the emperor painted onto the ensigns. We brought them in by night, but you lot soon discovered their presence. Though multitudes of you Jews hastened to Caesarea to petition Pilate for the removal of our so-called obnoxious ensigns, for five days he refused to even listen to you, and on the sixth day, when he took his place on the judgment seat, he had all the Jews surrounded with soldiers and threatened with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. It wasn’t until all the Jews flung themselves on the ground and declared that they preferred death to the violation of their laws, that Pilate, unwilling to kill so many, gave in and removed the ensigns. Do you seriously think that the governor is going to give your terrorist Jew a fair trial? With all this evidence against him?

And don’t forget, either, that Pilate was the one who appropriated funds from your Temple to build the Jerusalem aqueduct – the aqueduct that brings you water for your daily needs. Although the crowd protested against him, Pilate had already planted soldiers dressed as civilians among the multitude, and when he gave the signal, they fell upon the rioters and beat them severely with clubs. It was only then that the riot was quelled – thank goodness Pilate intervened!

And remember, Pilate also arrested and executed many Samaritans during a religious uprising in Samaria. Also, much closer to home for your Yehoshua, Pilate, displeased by the attitude of a number of Galileans, had them killed and their blood mixed with the sacrifices. So don’t for a minute think that we are going to sit back and let things get out of hand! We will act!! And you will be sorry!!!

Alright, Scipio, I get the point. I’ll get the other priests together and work on them. It might take a few days, but let me assure you that we will sort this. You won’t have to intervene. Consider it done. After all, it is surely better that one man die for the people, than to have the whole of our nation destroyed.

*********************

As we come back to the twenty-first century, and leave behind our imaginary interview concerning Yehoshua ben Joseph, we are left with lots of questions.

We take for granted so many things about this story.
We assume that Jesus was the Messiah. But there were other ways he would have been seen in his time.
Was he acting humbly? Or was he acting in a provocative fashion?
Did he deliberately set out to become a target of the Romans, when he rode into the city?
Can we afford to keep on talking about “humble Jesus, meek and mild”, if what he really wanted to achieve was a radical re-ordering within society?
At what point would the Messiah have been seen as a serious threat to the Roman Empire and its stability and order?
Is the “job description” of the Messiah actually a threat to the way that society operates today?
Is it better that one man die rather than a whole nation be destroyed?