Saturday, February 11, 2017

Trump a test for Christianity and Christians everywhere

A cartoon about President Donald Trump's America seen on Twitter shows a large Trump-like woman draped in the US flag holding a Bible in one hand while pointing menacingly into the face of a ragged and unconscious coloured child. "All lives matter!" she says. "Now stay the hell out of my country."

A majority of evangelical Christians and Catholics may have backed Trump, but in the wake of the attempt to ban refugees and immigrants from majority Muslim countries, many Christians have swung against him.

"We're a church that welcomes all people and so we will continue to do that. That's who we are," Washington DC pastor Dave Schmidgall told Australia's ABC. His congregation runs a refugee responder team. They are among millions appalled by the ban, stunned by Trump's indifference.

Ann Voskamp, a Christian author with a large conservative audience, boycotted the recent national prayer breakfast to protest against the immigration executive order. "We're called to love our neighbour without exception," she told Yahoo News. "Compassion and security don't have to be mutually exclusive. I know how the refugee resettlement program works. I know how thorough the vetting is."

Michael Wear, who advised former president Barack Obama on faith issues, marched beside her. "Especially as Donald Trump is receiving a lot of acclaim from some portions of the religious community for his Supreme Court nomination, it was important that the message was sent that we're not forgetting about this," he said. "We're going to affirm when he does good and we're going to stand up when he does wrong ... I'm glad to be outside the breakfast this year."

Hundreds of clergy have signed a letter condemning the "derogatory language that has been used about Middle Eastern refugees and our Muslim friends", urging Trump to lift the refugee ban because it violates essential religious commitments from many faith traditions. Here in Canberra, the Canberra Refugee Action Committee's Faith-Based Working Group echoed that sentiment, unanimously adopting a resolution rejecting Trump's preferential treatment of Christian refugees.

Conservative Christians have long aligned themselves to the radical right for reasons that have little to do with Jesus' teaching. Sidelined by the rise of secularism, they've weighed into cultural wars (increasingly backed, it's claimed, by big corporations) over things such as abortion and affirmative action to shore up their influence. Theological principles have been lost to cultural propositions.

Once proudly conservative, Rick Warren leads the Saddleback Church in California, the nation's sixth-biggest. In his autobiography, he laments his own attachment to these cultural wars, saying it was a distraction from Jesus' central message. The Bible he was taught as a young man played down biblical demands for social justice.

Conservative Christians draw headlines because of the noise they make and their ability to paint things in black and white. When less-dogmatic theologians respond and point out that Trump, a self-declared "proud Presbyterian", isn't a regular churchgoer and talks about himself when asked about God and faith, the established cultural warriors of the religious right shrug it off.

The editor of Sojourners magazine, Jim Wallis, says whether you're Christian or not, most people know Jesus was not pro-rich, pro-war or pro-American.

What is at stake is the very notion of human dignity. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, puts it, respecting humans means being able "to look at any and every human individual and say that the same kind of mystery is true of all of them and therefore the same kind of reverence and attention is due to all of them".

Without that conviction, we are in trouble. We conflate security with refugees and with Islam, we condemn an entire people, or entire nations.

Williams worries that Trump won't be reined in by either bureaucrats or Congress. He warned before January that the force of Trump's personality would generate "a hectic climate of plans and half-plans, expenditure and public rhetoric, that will be almost as damaging as the projects themselves".

He and many other secular and religious leaders are calling for investment in local civic activism as a response, channeling outrage on social media and extraordinary street protests into strategic organising and collective action. That includes civil resistance, consumer boycotts, labour strikes and go-slow tactics alongside institutional approaches, such as court cases to defend and advance political and economic rights. But above all, to grow inclusive real-world communities that find time to reflect and show love in action.

First published in The Canberra Times, 10 February, 2017

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Questions of community and connection as Canberra goes high density

With a fraction of the population of truly global cities Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra is suddenly aiming for the sky. International flights to Singapore and Wellington are just part of it.

Every edition of The Canberra Times seems to report a new development that tests expectations of what the city is or should be. The latest controversy is a six-storey apartment block planned to replace the single-storey shops at Curtin, shading the community square.

We're told high-density living is needed if we are to sustainably grow. Besides, it was in Walter Burley Griffin's plan. But the Griffin legacy, as with the vision of Charles Weston (who pioneered the greening of Canberra), means different things to different people.

Let's look at the residential complex that takes its name from the island that houses New York. Manhattan on the Park shadows Civic's Glebe Park. It and other buildings like it in Woden and Belconnen are being sold as designer luxury living "close to everything". But they're not all they seem.

"No one talks to each other," says Jemma (not her real name), a new resident of Manhattan on the Park, who I bumped into on an aimless walk through Civic.

Jemma moved to the inner city for convenience. Her move from Canberra's fringe didn't come cheap. "A two-bedroom apartment was $630,000. While the living spaces are quite generous, there's not a lot for your money."

And she warns others to beware the veneer of luxury. "The apartments have top-of-the line finishes and appliances. They look amazing but they are not practical."

The sink in her kitchen is really deep with a tap that's really high. "When the water comes down, it just splashes everywhere. It's just ridiculous."

Noise is a problem too, especially if the apartment is near street level. "We also have neighbours below that make a lot of noise, and we find that frustrating. The walls aren't concrete. The apartment is not very soundproof."

Cities, hungry beasts that they are, are always changing, and there's no reason the quarter-acre block should remain the rule forever, but the pace of change might be stripping Canberra of its inclusive garden-city character.

Developers might be subject to too little oversight. The higher their blocks, the greater their returns. Even in further-flung suburbs, there are plenty of examples of badly planned and hastily built blocks whose neighbours see arcs of concrete and glass through their living room windows.

Jemma (not her real name) is also worried about noise. A near neighbour in the Glebe Park Apartments asks relatives in the quieter suburbs to tell her when they go away, so she can house-sit and get some sleep.

Jemma is part of a couple but says there are a surprising number of families in her complex, which also has a gym and outdoor pool. "A few monopolise the pool and barbecue area. It makes others feel unwelcome," she says. Then there's the impact of smokers.

Jemma misses her "proper laundry" and makes do with a laundry in a cupboard. She adds, "We're not meant to hang our washing on a clothes horse on the balcony but people do it … there have been issues, when it's windy, clothes fall onto cars."

The closer people get to each other, the less they can like being with each other. Prophetic urban sociologist Richard Sennett says dense cities become overly orchestrated spaces, reflecting a fear of social contact and the threat of "exposure". The image of the good life becomes "fenced, gated, guarded", where it is hard to have contact with people who are different. Canberra, famed for its friendliness, risks becoming like everywhere else.

The best cities are those that offer random and fresh possibilities of exchange: spontaneous and positive encounters with strangers. Those experiences make us more conscious of "the other", celebrate the commons and the common good. To create them we need more public space, not less, and more shared and green spaces.

The ACT government is conscious of the need for pedestrian and cycle streetscapes and spaces where people can congregate. It uses public art to activate city life, although on a diminished budget. It is trying to make us less car-dependent. Apartment dwellers are at the forefront. They are expected to wean themselves off private vehicles.

Manhattan on the Park experience, by no means all negative, is a window on where we might be heading. The Northbourne Avenue corridor, flanking light rail, is ripe for all the right and wrong kind of urban living it promises. At its best it offers greater community connections beyond those found using Wi-Fi. At its worst it offers isolation, surrounded by neighbours.

First published in The Canberra Times, February 2, 2017