Friday, 28 September 2007

Support Burmese Protestors

I confess I felt a swell of pride and solidarity with the Burmese monks this week as I watched the protests get underway in Rangoon.

At least 30,000 people led by about 15,000 monks clad in orange and red robes swarmed through the streets of Burma's main city, with some activists saying 100,000 were involved.

Crowds of people thronged the roadside, many with tears in their eyes. About 10,000 monks and supporters set off from the Shwedagon Pagoda and past the offices of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. As the monks walked by chanting prayers for peace, NLD officials came to the footpath and bowed in respect to the clergy before joining the marchers.

"We are marching for the people," one monk said to the crowd, and urged supporters to remain peaceful and avoid political slogans.

I think the reason I was really moved by this spectacle is that it was watching faith in action. In our Christian tradition, we have often been at the forefront of social change, forcing an end to oppression, but unfortunately many times we have stood by and let the oppression, poverty and injustice go on unchallenged. We may not believe what these monks believe - but we have to admire their integrity and the way they have embraced action in their faith. Now we need "Christian" nations to support their effort.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Absurd censorship in America

It hardly seems possible, but the American government has taken to banning certain religious texts from prison libraries.

The ban includes texts by theologians Reinhold Niebuhr or Karl Barth, as well as popular inspirational work such as Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Life or Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

As The New York Times put it, "chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries."

The news reports seem implausible. The idea of government bureaucrats drafting a list of approved books on religion seems like something out of Soviet-era Russia, not the United States of America, where freedom of religion – even for those behind prison walls – is supposed to be sacrosanct.

But the reports are true. All of the books and authors named above have been removed from prison libraries. In some instances, according to the Times, chaplains have been forced to dismantle "libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups."

The contents of the "approved" list seem capricious. For example, "80 of the 120 titles on the list for Judaism are from the same Orthodox publishing house," and the list for Christianity "lack[s] materials from early church fathers, liberal theologians and major Protestant denominations."

The Bureau of Prisons says they merely want to ensure prisons are not recruiting grounds for terrorists and other militant groups. So why are they removing the vast majority of materials on faith and religion? And if prisoners are not free to pursue their own faith journeys, what cause for hope should they have?

Christians from across the political and theological spectrum are outraged. As Mark Earley, president and chief executive officer of Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, told the Times, "It's swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. There's no need to get rid of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are fine simply because you have a problem with an isolated book or piece of literature that presents extremism."

I wonder if Rick Warren had not so vocally opposed aspects of the Bush Administration, would he still find himself on the banned list?

Thursday, 13 September 2007

China: future or social justice nightmare?

This was an interesting comment on Australia's international relations with China from Chin Jin:

"Since the 1990's, Western countries have not consistently pursued democracy and human rights. In dealing with the remaining authoritarian countries, the West has been dazzled by trade and economic prospects, and inclined to adopt a policy of appeasement.

"Instead, the great democracies need to maintain a consistent strategic vision, a far-sightedness that will lead the world not merely to economic prosperity, but to the creation of more democratic societies which live together in peace, and which respect the rule of law and uphold the human rights of each citizen. They should remember the extraordinary events of 1989-91, when communist governments in Europe, under pressure, gave up their power. The lessons of that time can be applied elsewhere.

"The Asia Pacific region contains some of the world's largest and long standing democracies: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. It also contains authoritarian regimes, hopefully near the end of their tenure: Vietnam, North Korea, Burma, and largest of all, China. The region incorporates the biggest developed nation, and the biggest developing one. So far, annual APEC Summits have concentrated on economic issues. But by ignoring issues of human rights, freedom and democracy, the democratic countries show weakness and make implicit concessions to the authoritarian regimes. And they kowtow unnecessarily to China, the largest authoritarian regime of all.

"The rise of an autocratic China will not be a blessing to the world, and the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan cannot be indifferent to this. We would call on the democracies within APEC to use the next summit meeting as an opportunity to demonstrate their moral obligation to encourage authoritarian regimes along the road to democracy.

"The members of APEC have worked together to sustain economic growth through a commitment to open trade, investment and economic reform. While that is useful, in our view it is an unbalanced development. Democracy and human dignity are also necessary as values in their own right, and as long term guarantees of economic development and social justice.
As the political opposition to the Chinese Communist Government, we want to highlight the situation of the Chinese people and the repressive nature of the Chinese regime, and help their voices to be heard. They too deserve the opportunity of all-round development as human beings. They too deserve human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression, an independent media, social justice and democracy.

"The Chinese regime receives little political pressure or criticism from the international community. Mostly it enjoys a benign international environment to maintain its repressive rule. Meanwhile there are many brave dissidents inside China, but they are limited in what they can do. They face censorship and the danger of harassment, police violence and imprisonment for themselves and their families. When they do speak out, the West tends to ignore them. Through the Chinese overseas democratic movement, we are trying to give them a voice. We want China to progress from repressive one-party rule, towards human rights and democracy. Until the Chinese regime gives up its political monopoly, we will continue to speak out."

This is particularly interesting, given Rudd seems to be aligning himself with China (the future) while Howard clings on to America (the patriarchal past). But social justice must operate on the world stage too, and we will need to find ways of being able to have a relationship while pushing for change. Is it possible? Or does the very fact of the existence of a relationship mean blind eyes must be turned? That has certainly been the case in the Aus-US alliance.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Newsletter and APEC musings

Hi everyone, the September-October newsletter will be out this weekend - if you're not on the mailing list shoot me an email and I'll be happy to include you. One of the articles is an in-depth look at how the government bungled the Haneef investigation - it makes for interesting reading!

With all the fuss about APEC I'm sure some of you have some strong views/opinions on the matter. If you want them included in the newsletter, write an email over the next few days. I did hear an interesting comment about the Bush/Howard alliance - that Bush is as unpopular in Australia as he is in America (with most of us anyway!) and no more so than on the topics of Iraq and climate change. And on these two positions he is wholeheartedly supported by Howard. I don't know of this is such a wise election ploy by Howard, as feeling on both these issues is strongly negative. Still, I will be interested in seeing how Rudd plans to maintain his "committed to the American alliance" stand while at the same time holding differing opinions on both these issues.