Thursday, August 19, 2010

So this election I'm voting Greens 1, Labor 2, and I'm putting the COALition last

Only two more sleeps until the federal election and I'll be glad when it's done; it's been a most dispiriting and depressing campaign. If Australia used an electoral system like the US or the UK, I would have no hesitation in saying vote Labor. Indeed on any comparison between Labor and the Liberal/National COALition, Labor deserves to win. On Health, for example, Labor has a plan involving all but one of the States (and the recalcitrant WA will come on board in time) to revamp the health system. It doesn't address mental health or dental health but it's a start. And Julia Gillard has released a small scale mental health policy focussed on suicide prevention. Tony Abbott has released a large scale mental health policy but it's being funded by cuts to Labor's other health initiaitives including axing the new Superclinics. The COALition want to put funding into existing private GP clinics instead. However as Jennifer Doggett points out

Overall, this system has provided convenient and accessible care to many Australians much of the time. It is well designed to cope with acute and episodic care for people living in the cities who don’t have complex health or social problems.

However, there are large groups of Australians for whom this system is not working.

For example, rural, regional and remote communities frequently experience shortages of doctors as most GPs prefer to work in cities.

She also observes that people with chronic and complex conditions likewise aren't serviced well by private GPs.

Abbott is also planning further cuts to the Pharmaceutial Benefits Scheme and the privatisation of Medibank Private to boot. Furthermore the COALition's past record on health under Howard does not give me any confidence that an Abbott gov't has any idea of what to do on health except to outsource and privatise and maximise doctors' incomes.

Housing and homelessness is another area Labor has really made a difference in office. Tanya Plibersek, the relevant minister, has by all accounts done a superb job here. The COALition in office really ran down Australia's public housing stock and Abbott himself can only misquote Jesus to put the blame on the homeless themselves for their homelessness and explain away the need for any gov't action to address the issue. I should also point out that in office Labor did mitigate some of the worst aspects of Howard's brutopia, his use of welfare as a weapon of class war against the poor and vulnerable. Abbott for what I can see promises more of the same.

The National Broadband Network. This project alone is reason enough for Labor to be returned. It's a crucial piece of infrastructure that brings Australia into the 21st century. Tony Abbott proposes to axe it and proposes a half baked wireless scheme that shows he's still looking back to the past. But it highlights the whole problem with the COALition's approach to infrastructure, which as Grog's Gamut points out is a matter of 'Can't someone else do it?' The Libs/Nats are fundamentally lazy and prefer it if someone else does the heavy lifting.

Which brings me to the stimulus. If you listen to Abbott, Hockey and co Labor's stimulus package was a disaster for the country and they have done nothing but carp and whinge and lie about very aspect of the stimulus. And they keep going on and on about debt. The fact is that there was a global financial crisis and most of the industrialised world is still in a pretty bad way. Australia stands out for its success story. Mining didn't save us from recession when it came to the crunch; it was Labor's stimulus instead. As well as saving jobs, the stimulus package also provided valuable infrastructure (there's that word again) in schools and elsewhere. And given the global financial system is still shaky, the way that Abbott and Co harp and whinge and lie about the stimulus package does not give me much confidence in their ability to effectively handle another global financial crisis if things got rocky again, which they could given the state of the US.

Climate change. Tony Abbott is only Opposition Leader because the climate sceptics in the Liberal Party rebelled against the deal stitched between Labor and Malcolm Turnbull to implement an emissions trading scheme. Granted it was not the world's best scheme and gave out heaps of handouts to polluters, but even this was too much for the climate sceptics in the COALition who appear to be the majority and, if we can believe him, includes Tony Abbott himself. They certainly include Andrew Robb, touted as the Liberal smart man, and who played a key part in the overthrow of Turnbull and failure of the ETS. Lets face it any party that doesn't accept the facts of climate change is just not fit to govern.

Asylum seekers. Labor did get rid of the worst aspects of the Howard govt's treatment of asylum seekers, including ending the so-called Pacific Solution. Not only does Abbott promise to bring it back but the COALition jumped at every opportunity to lie and whip up xenophobic hysteria about asylum seekers coming here on boats. And it did so, playing to the most negative and mean spirited aspects of the collective pysche purely for political gain. These people are cruel but their cruelty is completely calculated. You just have to look at Phillip Ruddock who sold his soul for the perqs of office and literally died as a human being. He's still in Parliament, a moral husk, a zombie, cadaverous now. This sort of stuff is poison, spiritual poison and I say people who want to promote and drink that sort of Kool Aid are not fit for government.

Mention of Ruddock also highlights the degree of talent in the Opposition or should I say lack of talent. When I look at their front bench, the vacuous Julie Bishop, the preposterous Bronwyn Bishop, the ludicrous Christopher Pyne, the ridiculous Barnaby Joyce, the thoroughly toxic Kevin Andrews, the lazy Jo Hockey, the ruthless Andrew Robb, I mean really could anyone put government in their hands? And I could go one with Peter Dutton, Warren Truss, the totally venomous Sophie Mirabella. Is it any wonder that Malcolm Fraser, apart from Howard the only other living Liberal Prime Minister, left the party earlier this year because of its direction?

Labor on the other hand does have talented people and caring people, too, many of them. I've already mentioned Tanya Plibesek.

Now as I said, if we had a US or UK style electoral system, I would have no hesitation in voting Labor. But I would have to hold my nose too. Unfortunately Labor has decided that to win office it needs to play down or even forget its record and instead follow Tony Abbott in the race to the bottom. It's done so on asylum seekers and it has behaved disgracefully on climate change and ETS. Julia Gillard's policy of holding a citizens assembly to reach a consensus on the facts of climate change is a disgrace, especially as both sides went to the polls in 2007 with policies to establish an ETS. Both sides. The COALition have dumped theirs completely and Labor doesn't want to do anything without a consensus, at least for now. The irony is the majority of Australian want an ETS. In part Labor has been cowed by the media. And that's the other factor in this mess. The Australian media have in the main behaved disgracefully. Certainly over the last 8 months I don't think I've seen anything so bad since the days of the Whitlam gov't in the 70s when the newspapers turned a full blitzkrieg on Labor with the intent, especially in the Murdoch camp, to bring it down. That's happened this time too. Constant attack and lies, even giving major space to the most bizarre climate change sceptics.

And then there is Labor's proposed internet filter. I don't know why they are so doggedly pursuing it. Perhaps originally it might have been to win support off the Family First senator and serial fool, Steve Fielding. But he'll be gone after this election well when his term expires middle of next year. Let the filter go with him!

Luckily Australia has two electoral systems federally. In the lower House, we have a preferentially determined electorate system. I get to number the candidates standing or my electorate in order of preference and the candidate who gets the majority of preferential votes wins the seat. In the Senate we have a preferential list system, a little like some European systems I think. There are 6 Senate positions for Qld (and in each of the other states too). The Senate voting system especially favors minor parties getting up.

Once upon a time the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate which meant that the government of the day had to negotiate with them to get legislation through if it didn't have Opposition support. This process actually worked a lot of the time. The Democrats were centre left which also helped for a range of progressive concerns. There was a tie when it seemed that every second gay boy was a member of the Democrats.

The Democrats self-destructed badly in the Howard years but now we have The Greens. They're fairly progressive and as the name indicates are strong on environmental issues and policy. They are opposed to the demonising of asylum seekers, they are opposed to the internet filter and they strongly support action on climate change including establishing an ETS. They're in the Senate already and this time around they will probably get a senator elected from Qld. The COALition have 4 senators up for re-election, which would be a miracle, and Labor 2. So I'll be giving my first preference to the Greens and then, voting below the line, to Labor and down to the Liberal National party (luckily in Qld they amalgamated) last. That way I can send a a message to Labor too that I do not approve of the shift to the Right they've taken and ensure a progressive presence in the Senate that's not subject to ALP discipline.

In the lower House, I'm in the Labor held seat of Brisbane. Changing demographics mean that the incumbent. Arch Bevis, has a tough fight on his hand. This year the Greens are running Andrew Bartlett, former Democrat senator for Qld, as their candidate. I have a bit of time for Andrew and so I'm giving him my first preference with Labor's Arch at number 2. If Arch has to rely on Green preferences to get back, all the better. It once again sends a message to the ALP powers that be that the direction they've been taking the party is the wrong one and they need to change course.

I think it was Paul Keating who said, change the government and you change the country, and it's quite true. Whitlam changed this country immeasurably for the better, Hawke and Keating brought in major changes some good, some not so. Howard took this country down some very disturbing paths and we're still trying to rid ourselves of the most noxious aspects of the Howard years. Tony Abbott was groomed by Howard. He heads a group of people outstanding for their shortsightedness, complacency, nastiness and laziness. Furthermore, Abbott is promising a renewed class war on the poor and vulnerable (including further cuts in higher education on programs that support poorer students) plus complete refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change. In other words, he will extend class war to the biosphere and to future generations too. On all those accounts he and his crowd do not deserve government at all.

On the other hand while Labor does deserve govt simply on its handling of the global financial crisis it also needs a serious kick up the backside. For that reason I will be voting Greens 1, Labor 2, and I will be doing my best to contribute to an Opposition loss by putting them last.

UPDATE Grog's Gamut on the election campaign and polling on day 34 of the campaign

And the 'psychic' croc calls it for Julia

FURTHER UPDATE 10 Reasons Not to Vote for Tony Abbott

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Celebrating the Dormition/Assumption of Mary the Godbearer/Theotokos

Today, August 15, is one of the big feasts of the Catholic world. In the Latin communion it is known as the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic communions it is known as the Dormition or falling asleep of the Theotokos or Godbearer (but those who still use the Julian calendar won't celebrate it until Gregorian August 28). In the Anglican communion, it's the Feast of the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As well as marking the death of the Virgin Mary the day also celebrates her Assumption, being taken up, resurrected, body and soul into the heavenly realm. The Roman communion teaches that she was resurrected on the day of her death but the Orthodox communions teach that she was resurrected three days after her death. In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption a necessary item of belief for the Roman communion, a declaration welcomed by Carl Jung (curiously, this Papal declaration is the only instance of a dogma declared invoking Papal Infallibility since it was affirmed in 1870 at Vatican I). Many Anglicans and some Lutherans too believe that Mary was resurrected after her death. Some Catholics, mostly in the Roman communion believe that Mary didn't die at all but was translated alive into the heavenly realm, something like Enoch in Genesis and the Enoch literature and also Elijah (but without the chariot). This is an old idea, the first clear instance of which is found in the 4th century when Epiphanius of Salamis said that no one knew whether Mary had died or not. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Assumption, the day is a public holiday in many countries including Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chile, Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Croatia, Colombia, Cyprus, East Timor, France, Gabon, Greece, Republic of Guinea, Haiti, Italy, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Republic of Macedonia, Madagascar, Malta, Mauritius, Monaco, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Tahiti, Togo and Vanuatu (I must admit I kind of like the idea of having a public holiday to celebrate an obscure peasant woman from 1st century Roman Palestine). As it falls on a Sunday this year I hope those countries follow the Australian practice of observing a compensatory holiday on the Monday. In Ethiopia, the day is also marked by a women's festival called Ashenda. I can't find out much more about Ashenda but Ethiopian Christianity is itself some 1600 years old so perhaps it derives from the pre-Christian past or maybe it is an Ethiopian Christian invention.

Mary, of course might be an obscure peasant woman from 1st century Palestine but for Catholic Christianity her very obscurity is key to her status. She is the model of what it means to be Christian who, in the words of the medieval German mystic and theologian, Meister Eckhart, are called to give birth to God in their lives. It's important to recall too that in Catholic teaching, both East and West, Mary freely works with God in a synergy. Hers is not a mere obedience or submission but a free consent, willing trust and active collaboration that are fundamental to her role. Through her Assumption, Mary models the entire Christian hope of deification, a deification that will extend to the entire cosmos. Mary instantiates the ancient deification principle that the glory of God is humanity fully alive. While she might seem like a goddess and no doubt has drawn on a variety of ancient goddesses as Christianity spread, she is greater than any goddess, precisely because she is human and indeed she humanises those old goddesses, mother goddesses, virgin goddesses, wisdom goddesses. Thus she demonstrates that Christianity is a form of applied Kabbalah, drawing out, releasing and lifting up (humanising) the sparks of the divine throughout creation, including within the deities and powers of the old religions.

It's these 'pagan' associations that lead many, particularly Protestants, to dismiss Mary and her cult. However, I would argue that to be true to its Jewish origins Christianity can only ever be both sacramental and Marian, Catholic. When Jesus stepped into that 1st century messianic gestalt, it would automatically incorporate his mother. I have written before on miraculous motherhood and ancient Judaism. But I also want to point you to an excellent essay by Margaret Barker, "Images of Mary in the Litany of Loreto" (pdf). Here's a sample to whet your appetite:

The world of the temple and the teaching of its priests was a sophisticated theology that now has to be reconstructed from many ancient texts, but it is clear that this is where Christianity has its roots. The Christians saw in Jesus the fulfilment of temple rites, which foreshadowed his work of salvation (Heb. 9.11–14),10 and they described him as Melchisedech, the high priest of the ancient royal house who was, in a way we no longer fully understand, the presence of the Lord on earth (Heb. 7.11–22). It was therefore to be expected that Mary was described as Wisdom, the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of the Lord on earth. The titles in the Litany of Loreto, and in many other praises of Mary, were drawn from the Wisdom tradition...

In this article I shall show that Wisdom was a fundamental figure in the ancient faith of Jerusalem, that the Church claimed Wisdom’s titles for Mary from the very beginning, and that by the time the Litany of Loreto was composed, the meaning of some of these titles was fading and their significance already lost. The titles in the Litany seem to be a summary of a much older tradition.

I don't agree with all of Barker's historical reconstructions of ancient Israelite Temple religion but I think her overall picture fits quite well with an understanding of ancient Judaism evolving out of an older Palestinian/Canaanite 'pagan' milieu, an evolution that was still happening even in Jesus' and Mary's own time. If Christianity could subsequently connect with 'pagan' traditions within and without the Roman Empire, it was precisely through its Jewish background/origins and not in spite of it.

In her essay, Barker refers to two Christian prayers or hymns, the Litany of Loreto and the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God. For those unfamiliar with them, I've embedded links to the texts. The Akathist Hymn probably dates back to the 6th century and is important in the liturgy of Eastern Christianity. Akathist means not sitting and is a genre of hymnody in the East. One recurring Marian title in the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God that I really like is Unwedded Bride.

Here is an excerpt from the hymn in English with visuals of some marvelous icons:

And here is another beautiful version in Arabic, again with some stunning icons:

And a Russian version, note the fabulous image of Mary on the bishop's vestments at the start:

And here's some more Marian music to celebrate the Dormition/Assumption, mostly from the East as a reminder that Western Christianity is not and never has been all there is to Christianity.

Here is a hymn specifically for the Dormition:

In giving birth thou didst preserve thy virginity; /
in thy dormition thou didst not forsake the world, O Theotokos. /
Thou wast translated unto life, / since thou art the Mother of Life; //
and by thine intercessions dost thou deliver our souls from death.

Kontakion, Tone 2:
The grave and death could not hold the Theotokos, /
who is sleepless in her intercessions and an unfailing hope in her mediations. /
For as the Mother of Life she was translated unto life //
by Him Who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.

O ye Apostles from afar, being now gathered together
here in the garden of Gethsemane, give burial to my body;
and Thou, my Son and my God, receive Thou my spirit.

And here is an Arabic hymn to Mary from Egypt which features a stunning image of Mary from the doe of the Coptic church in Zeitoun Cairo where in 1968-70 millions of Christians and Muslims saw a series of Marian apparitions:

(To find out more about the apparitions you can go here)

And here is another Egyptian hymn, Shere Ne Maria

I found this English text for it on a Coptic site

Shere Ne Maria Holy Virgin Mary
Shere Ne Maria Who art all Holy
Shere Ne Maria Due to you the glory
Shere Ne Maria Ethmav Empi Mayromi
Shere Ne Maria Sweet mother of light
Shere Ne Maria Who art always bright
Shere Ne Maria Standing on his right
Shere Ne Maria Asking day and night
Shere Ne Maria Hail full of grace
Shere Ne Maria Show thy glorious face
Shere Ne Maria Most kind in any case
Shere Ne Maria Intercede for thine poor race
Shere Ne Maria Through thy intercession
Shere Ne Maria Hear my petition
Shere Ne Maria And save from perdition
Shere Ne Maria Any pure Christian

As I said before, in Ethiopia the Assumption is the occasion for a women's festival called Ashenda. Here's a clip with music and dance for Ashenda:

And moving to the West, here is a beautiful setting of the Angelus with Ave Maria (Hail Mary), one of the great Marian prayers of the West, by the 20th century composer Franz Biebl:

And I thought I'd finish with a clip of Nina Hagen singing Ave Maria live. Love her work!

And if you want to read some ancient Christian texts about the Dormition you will find a collection at Stephen Shoemaker's site here.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

About Another Jewish Temple in Ancient Egypt

I've written before touching on the ancient Jewish community at Elephantine in southern Egypt and their Temple. Not only did this Temple community feel connected to both the Temples in Jerusalem and Samaria but it also seems to have practiced a form of polytheistic Judaism. At the very least Yahweh was worshipped with a consort. The Elephantine Temple didn't survive the Persian period and was no longer functioning when Alexander the Great arrived on the scene. However, Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemies saw the establishment of yet another Jewish Temple in the 2nd century BCE, this time at the city of Leontopolis in the Nile delta region of northern Egypt.

The Ptolemies seem to have been a very important, even beneficial, factor for ancient Judaism. Not only did Ptolemaic Egypt contain large communities of what would later be called Jews and Samaritans, some of whom like their antecedents at Elephantine appear to have enlisted for military service, but for more than a century Palestine/Coele-Syria was itself a province of the Ptolemaic kingdom. The Ptolemies do not appear to have interfered in the running of either of the Palestinian Temples at Mt Gerizim and Jerusalem. Indeed, according to the 2nd century BCE Letter of Aristeas it was the Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-46BCE) who commissioned a Greek translation of the Torah that would become the basis for the Greek Bible, the Septuagint, later to become the Christian Old Testament. (The Letter of Aristeas also provides a detailed description of Jerusalem and its Temple in the 3rd/2nd centuries BCE).

However this happy state of affairs came to an end at the start of the 2nd century BCE when Antiochus III (ruled 223-187 BCE) of the Seleucid Empire to the north seized control of Palestine from the Ptolemaic state. In particular, in 175 BCE Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to the throne and began interfering in the operations of the Jerusalem Temple. In 171 BCE, the High Priest, Onias III, was murdered at Antioch, the Seleucid capital (2 Maccabees 4.33). While the ancient accounts are inconsistent it appears a son of Onias fled to Egypt seeking refuge at the Ptolemaic court. This son, also called Onias, then sought permission from Ptolemy VI to establish a Jewish sanctuary in Egypt. Ptolemy still hoped to regain Palestine and granted Onias' request. The Temple was built at Leontopolis in the central delta region. It appears too that the Temple was endowed as well by Ptolemy.

The most detailed descriptions of the Temple are found in the works of Josephus in both his Antiquities and Jewish War. The Jewish Encyclopedia summarises these descriptions thus

(The Temple) was built on the site of a ruined temple of Bubastis, in imitation of the temple at Jerusalem, though smaller and less elaborate (Ant.xiii. 3, § 3). The "fortress" (ὀχύρωμα) of the temple of Bubastis may be explained by the statement, which seems credible, that Onias built a fortress (θρωύριον) around the temple in order to protect the surrounding territory, which now received the designation "Oneion" ("B. J." vii. 10, § 3).

The Onias temple was not exactly similar to the Temple at Jerusalem, being more in the form of a high tower; and as regards the interior arrangement, it had not a candelabrum, but a hanging lamp. The building had a court (τέμενος) which was surrounded by a brick wall with stone gates. The king endowed the temple with large revenues (ib.)

In fact, because of the Temple the area became known as the Land of Onias.

If the Ptolemies thought that establishing a Jewish Temple in Egypt would return Palestine to their control, they would be disappointed. Antiochus' interference in and eventual desecration of the Jerusalem Temple provoked the Jews of Judea to revolt under the Maccabees. The revolt was successful and an independent state of Judea was established under the Hasmonean High Priests. Eventually they would take control of all of Palestine and rule it as priest-kings until the Romans came in the mid-1st century BCE.

The Temple at Leontopolis outlasted the Ptolemies, the Seleucids and the Hasmoneans. All up it seems to have lasted for about 243 years being closed by the Romans around 73 CE after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE during the First Jewish War. The Romans were apparently afraid that a continuing Jewish Temple might keep the fires of rebellion burning. Ironically the Second Jewish War against Rome, in 115-17 CE, began in Cyrene, modern day eastern Libya, but in the ancient world part of the Ptolemaic state, and then spread to Egypt itself and then Cyprus, which had also been part of the Ptolemaic Empire and also had a large Jewish population, before subsequently spreading to Judea and then to the Jewish communities of Mesopotamia, only recently conquered by Rome. Rome suppressed this revolt with disastrous consequences for the Jews of Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus in particular. But I wonder if the Temple at Leontopolis had been allowed to continue whether the revolt would still have taken place. There's no record of the Temple ever being associated with seditious activity, unlike Jerusalem. At the same time it was regarded as a legitimate sanctuary and not a rival or threat to Jerusalem and presumably had a sacral authority, an authority that would be enhanced by its status as the sole Temple after 70.

I also wonder about a pretty basic question, who paid for the Temple over the 243 years of its existence. It appears that Ptolemy VI endowed the Temple when it was established. But at same time temples can be expensive operations to run. First off you have the staff to support. All reports indicate that Leontopolis had both priests and Levites and sustained the full cycle of ritual and sacrifice. The Temple had to be maintained as well as its vessels and vestments and other accouterments. And then there were the needs of the cult itself - animals for sacrifice, incense, grain, wine, plus the fuel for burning the offerings. Presumably there was a Temple Library as well and perhaps even some sort of facility for the production of texts. Priests, Levites, scribes and other Temple personnel would also have to have been trained as well. Either Ptolemy VI gave a quite substantial endowment or perhaps his successors topped it up with their own endowments as well. After all the Temple at Jerusalem relied on a Temple tax levied on Jews around the Empire to help finance it and it was a major pilgrimage site too, always good for revenue. But Leontopolis does not seem to have been a major pilgrim centre (although that may have changed if it had been allowed to continue after 73). If subsequent Ptolemaic rulers did top up the resources of the Leontopolis Temple what happened when Ptolemaic rule came to an end and was replaced by Roman rule in 30 BCE? Did the Roman administration provide any resources to maintain the Temple for the last century of its life too? And as I come to the end of this post I still wonder whether there would have been a Second Jewish War, a war fought almost entirely within the old Ptolemaic domain, if the Leontopolis Temple had not been closed. What would Judaism and even Christianity have been like if the Temple had been able to continue? Intriguing what ifs.

One other observation I have to make is that it seems there never was a time when the Temple in Jerusalem was the sole Temple of Jewish or Israelite or Yahweh religion even though it would appear that it often tried to present itself as such.

The site of ancient Leontopolis is currently known as Tell el Yahudiyeh and was excavated by Flinders Petrie in 1905/06.

There's a post on the Leontopolis Temple over at PhDiva with a link to a review of an Italian study of the Temple and more details on the Temple at the Jewish Encyclopedia site.

There's also a good overview of the history of the Jews in Egypt from the 7th century BCE to the present day here at Wikipedia.