Australian folklore, biblical exegesis, Christian non-violence and a man with a big hat and a tricycle.

An open letter to the Australian Christian non-violence movement.

Once a Jolly protester
camped by a helicopter
under the shade of total surveillance

And he spruiked and rode
and smashed his mattock on the Helicopter
Who’l come a tricycling Matilda with me


I was inspired by the Rockhampton airport “plowshares” action but not I suspect in the ways that the protagnists were intending to inspire. I do not think much of the broader plowshares movement or the philosophy of Christian non-violence, as I will shortly expound upon. However, the Rockhampton plowshares action was sufficiently unorthodox within these tradition to allow it to be perceived by some other measure. And I did.

Bryan Law used creative public drama to become part of Australia’s folklore. Whether or not he will be commemorated in the fashion that Frenchy Hoffmeister (the “jolly swagman”) or Ned Kelly have been I cannot say, but I have been inspired by the story of Bryan for the same reasons that stories of Frenchy and Ned have inspired me.

Ned’s Irish socialist rhetoric reeks of gunpowder and blood. Frenchy’s ghost may be heard as you pass by the billabong but if you listen closely you will also hear in the distance gunfire of the striking shearers. There is nothing in the historical narratives of Ned and Frenchy to conform to the ideological template of Christian non-violence as espoused by Bryan, but that doesn’t matter. They are all Australian folkloric archetypes of rebellion, reinforcing the innate urge to rebellion in all who hear the stories.

What inspires me about Bryan’s mattock-bashing is simply rebellion – the basic urge to resist oppression and hypocrisy, the human capacity of dignity above and beyond fear of the consequences of non-conformity. That is where the spirit of God is and it is a spirit that can be felt by any person anywhere in any context where oppression and hypocrisy exists.

Bryan, Ned and Frenchy are all non-Aboriginal people who have stepped outside of the culture and structure of the colonial society and as such are mythical role models for non-Aboriginal people within the collective Australian narrative. I am also inspired by Aboriginal warriors such as Dundalli, Pemulwuy, the Kalkadoon resistance, Pastor Don Brady, Denis Walker who have stayed strong to their culture and tradition including strategic conflict with the colonial state without fear of the consequences.

Aboriginal warriors including the ones I mentioned are not called warriors for nothing, they all at different times advocated and used violence against the colonial state. A Christian non-violence framework must necessarily conclude that this history is morally wrong and certainly should not be glorified. However the Aboriginal community across the continent have embraced this history as morally good and indeed glorified it. I do too, just as the bible glorifies indigenous guerilla wars against invading empires.

There are other tricky issues with regard to Christian non-violence reconciling with Aboriginal perspective including violence used in forgiveness ceremonies (wrongly called pay-back), and the non-consensual genital mutilation of minors (initiation circumcision just like in the bible) for which there is simply no ideological reconciliation with philosophical non-violence, yet a reconciliation (or more accurately first conciliation) with Aboriginal cultural perspectives is necessary for peace in this land, a real peace that includes no more Aboriginal deaths in custody not just more social workers. The reconciliation is spiritual – earth, sky, birth, death, love, rebellion: not moral or ideological conformity.

If the cultural perspective of Aboriginal Australia is overtly or euphamisticaly dismissed as violent and therefore evil, this demonisation is no different to the missionary church of empire that declared Aboriginal culture inherently evil, a process of cultural colonisation.

Bryan’s helicopter-bash occurred in the context of a broader Christian non-violence campaign including other forms of protest at the Talisman Sabre military exercises at Rockhampton and civil disobedience at Swan Island military base in Victoria. These broader campaigns have not inspired me.

The ideology of Christian non-violence, as manifested in recent protests, appeals to the most basic naive, minimalistic mainstream frameworks such as “peace” and “justice”.

The form of Christianity embraced by the Christian non-violence movement is the same, but slightly modified at the edges, ideological framework that has underpinned the development of western civilisation and modern imperial power. The protestors and the mainstream authorities share the same cultural heritage, the so-called “judeo-christian ethic” which has nothing at all to do with Judaism or Jesus and would be better described as the Greko-Roman ethic.

Christian non-violence affirms and supports the cultural underpinnings of the beast it protests about, it is itself a part of the beast, it dovetails with it. It is not rebellion but a calling for a return to the essence of the status-quo.

The sombre ritualism of American plowshares tradition and much of the Christian non-violence movement’s “public liturgy” is deliberately based on the ecclesiastic traditions and philosophies of the Roman and Holy Roman empires. The protestant protestors may modernise their symbols a little but still operate within a framework of symbolism that conforms to the cultural base of imperial Christendom. Bryan’s symbols of a big hat, a tricycle and a mattock and the choreography of these symbols was a pleasant relief from the funerary norm of christian protest.

The Jesus of the bible was a tribal indigenous Jew that resisted Rome, which it seems to me to have absolutely nothing to do with the Jesus of the Roman religion that has given divine authority to global empires, wars and social workers since the fourth century. Yet the Christian non-violence movement appears to embrace the Jesus tradition passed to them by empire including the theology of civil passivity – the attribution of moral value (“good”) to detached inactivity.

The cultural underpinning of civil passivity is concomitant to the state’s exclusive authority to use violence, they are the two sides of the same coin. I say, Christian non-violence has embraced this mainstream cultural norm and modified it to its logical conclusion – pacifism or philosophical non-violence. They have developed an ethic from within the empire instead of transcending the culture of empire.

The spirit of God, of the land, of the sky is not found in the traditions and cultural assumptions of the empire. The imperial religion has invoked another kind of spirit, an escapist illusion to evade the hard realities of the spirit of God. The spirit of God is found in more primitive realities, the earth and sky themselves not temple orthodoxy; birth and death, not notions of afterlife; love and rebellion not ethical frameworks and moral traditions. A sick old man in a big hat riding a red tricycle defeated the biggest military machine in the world, that is where the spirit of God is found, not in any articulation of ideology.

I would like to chastise, in the strongest possible terms, the Christian non-violence movement for bastardising the bible. Christians of all political pursuasions have cherry-picked and de-contextualised isolated passages of the bible to justify their various ideologies and to date the Christian non-violence movement has done exactly this also.

There are many bible passages routinely rolled out to provide spiritual authority to the ideology of non-violence that need to be tackled but that is beyond the scope of this reflection. I will however specifically look at the books of Isaiah and Micah from which the “swords into plowshares” movement claim a prophetic mandate to ideological non-violence.

For a start, if one bothers to read the books rather than just the nice verse, one will notice that the peace referred to is between “Israel”, that is the northern kingdom of Israel also called Samaria and “Judah” the southern province of which Jerusalem is centre. The prophecy is a call to tribal unity in the land of Abraham’s covenant. The enemies of these people, the imperial armies and economies of Assyria, were to either make peace with God in Zion or be destroyed by sword and fire, which is what actually happened in the Maccabees revolt. The Maccabees revolt was celebrated by Jesus at the festival of light/Hanukkah (John 10) without any commentary of the violence of the expulsion of the Greeks, only participation in the celebration of their expulsion.

Micah 4:13 (the same chapter as the swords into plowshares passage) “The Lord says,   “People of Zion, get up  and crush your enemies. 
      I will make you like a threshing ox.  I will give you iron horns and bronze hoofs. 
      So you will crush many nations.” 
   They got their money in the wrong way. 
      But you will set it apart to the Lord. 
   You will give their wealth to the Lord of the whole earth.”

A pacifist reading of Isaiah and Micah is just enculturated distortion and misrepresentation of the story. I urge those who mouth the words “swords into plowshares” to properly read the prophets to understand what they meant by it. If you disagree with it, leave it alone but give some respect to the integrity of the story on its own terms.

Jesus locates himself as the fulfillment of the prophets. When he says in Matthew 10: 34 “Do not think that I came to bring peace to the earth. I didn’t come to bring peace. I came to bring a sword.” he is clearly alligning himself with the indigenous resistance to empire. This does not suggest that Jesus’ intent was to begin a violent revolution for the bible clearly shows that he did not. It does however undermine any suggestion that an ethic of non-violence was paramount – or even a small part – of the gospel of Jesus.

Isaiah and Micah, like all the bible prophets, tell a story of tribal unity, indigenous land rights and of invasion, exile and liberation from the military and economic empires of Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome. This story has great depth of meaning including relevance to Australia today yet the message of the prophets has been dumbed down by the Christian non-violence movement and packaged as a non-violence platitude in exactly the same way that the church of empire has and does dumb down and misrepresent the bible to give some spiritual authority to its ideology.

To conclude, let me specify that this reflection is not a call to arms or any kind of violence. It is a call to abandon philosophical template of violence and non violence as the mechanism for both understanding the world (and the bible) and engaging with it. Its all a bit more complicated than a simplistic moral dichotomy. The book of genesis describes the causal factor of original sin as eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The knowledge of good and evil is traditional Hellenistic dualism, the philosophy of gentile empires from Egypt to Rome to England to the US.

What else has the imperial church done except preach the knowledge of good and evil?

What else has the Christian non-violence movement done other than preach the knowledge of good and evil?

The spirit of god manifests in multidimensional dialectics, not moral dichotomy.

John Tracey

p.s. If anyone is curious about the relationship between Samaria or “Israel” and Judah and the story of the fracturing of the tribal unity after the David/Solomon kingdom and the Assyrian occupation and exile, the books of Kings (in the Old Testament) tell the story. This is is essential to understand not just the overarching narratives of the Old Testament prophets but also the meaning of Jesus’ gospel which is built entirely around Old Testament reference and allusion.

p.p.s.
“A New Australian Theology”

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One response to “Australian folklore, biblical exegesis, Christian non-violence and a man with a big hat and a tricycle.

  1. Hi John,

    I’m resting at home right now, and healing. I want to say some things about your blog post.

    First, thanx for noticing the costume and cultural references. They were a lot of fun, and very successful in communicating with a wide audience.

    Second, I’m not so sure that my action falls within Catholic Worker guidelines. They say three or four actors, in community. My sole co-offender, old mate Graeme, is a Buddhist (and a little bit sceptical about Christianity, particularly the church). Fr Carl Kabat identifies as a Catholic worker, and often acts alone, sometimes in a clown costume. On the other hand Jim Dowling and Culley Palmer identify as Catholic Workers, and they spurned this action.

    Third, I’m not in any position to judge anyone about anything, let alone the choices made individually or collectively by a people under the yoke of colonisation. I don’t see anything in spiritual/principled nonviolence that would call for or excuse such judgement directed at Aboriginal people. I suspect you’ve had this argument before, but with somebody else, not with me.

    Fourth, I come to Catholic Christianity the long way round, through Gandhi, via the US civil rights movement and the Movement for a New Society (Philidelphia). I was raised Anglican, and sometimes wonder if I ought become one again.

    Finally I’ll claim the action as a culmination of who I am (working class Brisbane boy now living in regional Queensland), my historical and objective conditions (Bjelke-Petersen shaped my criminality, Goss my disillusionment with Labor, Beattie and Bligh my distaste for empty platitudes. The natural world gives me insight and inspiration), and my dreams about what the world might become(dare I say it? God’s Kingdom on Earth? Redemption? Peace and goodwill to all?).

    I acknowledge the leadership of the Catholic Worker movement, as one part among many.

    Sinking the blade of the mattock into the side of the helicopter was a pivotal moment for me. A holy moment.

    On the video below, the ADF label me “radical and dangerous”. Elsewhere Rockhampton police lamented that I had attacked the ADF, even though the ADF had rendered assistance to central Queensland in “our summer of sorrow” (January floods). Likewise my action prevented a noble serviceman from flying to his injured wife’s bedside. I may also be responsible for the mutating Hendra virus.

    The best thing, of course, is the number and diversity of Rockhampton citizens who’ve congratulated me for keeping my promise, and who agree that war should end.

    My plan is that the action ought help to galvanise those citizens, and our movement, to stand up and take action for what we believe to be right.

    Of course, a little ongoing organisation would be good too.

    Cheers
    Bryan

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