Sunday, November 11, 2012

Barak Obama and the US Supreme Court

Perhaps the worst thing about Barak Obama’s re-election is that he has an excellent chance of making appointments to the US Supreme Court, so that it has a liberal majority.  Here’s an excellent commentary by Half Sigma, an American blogger, on this topic.  

A certain commenter said that it doesn’t matter who appoints Supreme Court Justices because the current Supreme Court hasn’t declared Obamacare to be unconstitutional and they haven’t overruled Roe v. Wade, so it doesn’t matter.

This viewpoint is incredibly wrong. And based on a misunderstanding of the philosophy of the conservative justices, which is basically:
(1) uphold stare decisis (in other words, previous Supreme Court precedent);
(2) enforce the original intent of the Constitution, unless that conflicts with stare decisis, and
(3) enforce statutory intent, unless of course that conflicts with the first two.

And you know what? The conservative Supreme Court has done this for the last three decades!

Do you know what happened before we had a conservative Supreme Court? We had a liberal supreme court which ignored precedents, ignored the Constitution, and ignored statutory intent, in order to implement their liberal vision.

Liberal control of the Supreme Court meant that the Court could move society to the left even though there was not enough support to get laws passed that would do that. ... They discovered a constitutional right to contraception. And then a constitutional right to abortion.

It’s foolish to think that if liberals get control of the Supreme Court, they won’t revert to their earlier ways and use that power to do liberal things that can’t get done though the regular political process. What is likely to happen?

Among many other changes, it will become unconstitutional to deny gays the right to marry.

And freedom of speech won’t apply to “hate speech.” And then this blog gets outlawed. The end.


Monday, November 5, 2012

First thoughts on the Book of Daniel

I’ve been trying to read the Book of Daniel recently.

It's structured on seven visions.  First, three dreams/ visions are given to other people and the interpreted by Daniel, each vision being followed by a brief story.  And, secondly, Daniel himself is given four visions.

I’ve glanced at several commentaries and none of them make this point.  It seems a basic structural feature, and I think this confirms C S Lewis’ assessment that most modern scriptural commentators miss very obvious literary features (in his essay, “Fern Seeds and Elephants”). 

The first three dreams/visions involve a progression.  The first dream tells the Babylonian king, that his empire is splendid but will be followed by lesser empires at some unspecified time.  The second dream is more threatening, telling the king that he will lose his sanity but will later be restored to his throne.  And the third vision tells the king’s successor that he will lose his throne the same night as the vision appears. 

Perhaps there's another progression involved, with each vision being less hidden than before.  In the first, the king doesn't remember the dream, and Daniel has to reveal both the dream and its meaning.  The king remembers the second dream, and Daniel again reveals the meaning.  But the third vision is more public still – written on the walls of the king’s banquet hall.  

Or at least, following my childhood picture Bible, I’ve always assumed that everyone saw the writing.  Actually, we’re told that the king saw it (Dan 5:5) and that the wise men “could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant” (Dan 5:8).  I think the wise men could see the letters but could not decipher them, let alone provide an interpretation.  But I’ll accept that it’s an open question and perhaps the writing was seen only by the king (and by Daniel). 

It could perhaps be like the situation where Daniel later sees the angel at the Tigris River.  His companions cannot see the angel, although they sense there is something there and flee in terror (Dan 10:4, 7).  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jesus meets two women

One of the synagogue officials, named Jairus, came forward.  Seeing Jesus he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, saying, “My daughter is at the point of death.”

… There was a woman afflicted with haemorrhages for twelve years.  She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had.  Yet she was not helped but only grew worse.
Mark 5:21-43

This was the Gospel reading two Sundays ago (in the Ordinary form).  I’ve been meaning to blog about it but have been ruminating on it instead. 

I recommend ruminating on the Sunday gospel.  Ideally, the gospel reading should set the spiritual tone for the ensuing week. 

And if a passage of Scripture resonates with us, we should stay with it for as long as useful, rather rushing on to something else. 

(Of course, this doesn’t apply if we’re reading Scripture systematically to get an overall picture.  In this case, it’s probably best to keep reading.  We can make a note of interesting passages and return to them later.) 


Returning to the Gospel passage, there’s a symbolic identity between the two women.  Both of them relate to the number 12, the first woman having been haemorrhaging for 12 years and Jairus’ daughter being 12 years of age. 

We can take it further.  As Jairus’ daughter is now 12 years old, she is about to start menstruating and will undergo– in a healthy manner – what the other woman has been experiencing. 

(I don’t think it’s inappropriate to point this out– the Gospel shows that our Saviour doesn’t see such things as unclean or inappropriate.) 

Looking further, there are two twelves.  Different interpretations are offered, but I suggest they represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Church.  It’s not accidental that Jairus is a ruler of the synagogue.  (I also suggest that they parallel the 24 elders in Rev 4:4.) 

The numerological significance continues when the Lord enters the house.  When He raises the girl from the dead, there are 7 people present. (They are Jesus, Jairus and his wife and daughter, and the three apostles, Peter, James, and John.)

Another point of symbolic identity is that both are called "daughter". But, while the little girl is a daughter of the synagogue, Jesus acknowledges the haemorrhaging woman as His spiritual daughter.  Later He addressed the women on the Via Dolorosa as “Daughters of Jerusalem" (Luke 23:28),  but it is only the haemorrhaging woman whom He calls His own daughter.  


Of course, nowadays, we’re not used to reading for numerical significance.  We may feel uncomfortable with such “mediaeval” ways of thinking.  But it’s clearly in the text. 

In particular, it’s in St Mark’s account of the feeding of the four thousand (chapter 8).  After the miracle, the Lord asks the apostles how many basketfuls of pieces were there (twelve) and how many basketfuls were left (seven).  Then He asked them, “Do you still not understand?”

So what is the answer to the Lord’s question? 

The symbolism has levels of meaning, but I think the immediate answer is that twelve stands for Israel and for the Church, the new Israel.  And that seven stands for the Sabbath, because “...the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). 

To digress, this point achieves a greater significance when we realize that the Lord rose on the eighth day, the first day of the New Creation.

(See for example, St Peter’s reference to eight in 1 Peter 3:22.  The point is spelled out in the early Church document, The Epistle of Barnabas, 15:8, 9.) 


Turning to another issue, the Saviour tells the healed woman “Daughter, your faith has healed you.”  And in last Sunday’s gospel, St Mark tells how He could do little for the people of Nazareth and was “was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mark 6:1-8).  

This makes for a contrast between the two women in the Mark 4. The haemorrhaging woman has a courageous faith but the little girl, being dead, cannot be said to have faith.

Perhaps we could say that her father had faith in Christ.  Or it might remind us of St Paul:  “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  And note how, of the two women, Jairus’ daughter received the greater miracle. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Conservatives should welcome the Australian High Court's decision

The Australian Government thinks that it's good if schools have chaplains. So it’s been contracting with various organisations, funding them to provide chaplains.  

(In Australia, Government schools are the legal responsibility of the State Governments. As they also think that school chaplains are a good idea, this doesn’t create a problem.)  

But Mr Ron Williams wanted his children to have a secular education. He asked the High Court to stop the Australian Government from funding the chaplains at his children’s school.  And, on Wednesday last, the Court did so. 

The High Court is Australia’s top court – our equivalent to the US Supreme Court.) 

Despite immediate appearances to the contrary, I argue that conservatives should welcome this decision. 

The Court looked at two issues.

First, it didn’t accept Mr Williams’ argument that, by funding chaplains, the Government had breached section 116 of the Constitution (dealing with the separation of Church and State).  In fact, the Court’s discussion on this point was brief and dismissive.  
So there’s no intrinsic problem with this program, and the Australian Government has announced that it will seek to continue the funding. It looks as though Mr Williams’ elation is likely to be short-lived.

The Court also decided that that the Australian Government can’t fund programs just because it wants to.  This is a seismic shift from the way that lawyers have previously been reading the Australian Constitution.

In effect, the Court said that the federal Government (the Executive Branch of Government) can only do so if the Australian Parliament (the Legislature) has given its authority by passing a law to authorise the proposal. 

(Actually, it seems the Court might permit the Government to directly approve some kinds of payments in cases involving the internal administration or the status of the Commonwealth as the national government.  The latter concept is rather vague and is likely to lead to more court cases!) 

The result of the decision is that the Government will need to pay more attention to the Parliament.  This means the decision involves a restriction on the power of the Executive. 

At present, the Greens have a significant representation in the Australian Senate.  By enhancing the role of Parliament, the High Court’s decision will also enhance the Greens’ power. 

In the short term, this is not a good outcome for conservatives.  But they should welcome the broader effect of the Court’s decision, because it restricts the power of the Executive Government. 

There’s also an issue about the State Governments.  The Australian Government sometimes asks the Australian Parliament to pass legislation, giving grants to the State Governments for various purposes.  This avoids difficulties in the federal parliament funding the projects outside its constitutional power. (See section 96 of the Constitution.)  

Following the High Court’s decision, the Australian Government will probably increase its use of this process.  If so, this will give more power to the State Governments (which might object or have questions about projects). 

In short, the decision should disappoint people who want a secular Australia and who want a central government with fewer restrictions on its capacity to spend public money. And it should be welcomed by conservatives.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Abraham and the two kings

Genesis 14 contains a short passage about war between various small kingdoms in the Holy Land, some three to four thousand years ago. It's a passage of great importance.

The background is that, after having been subjugated by the King of Elam for twelve years, five small kingdoms declared their independence, including the city state of Sodom.

The King of Elam prepared his revenge. Two years later, he and his three allies defeated the rebellious five kings. As Genesis 14:9 says, a war of four kings against five.

In the course of the war, the King of Elam captured Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who lived in Sodom. Perhaps he was going to sell Lot as a slave, perhaps he was going to hold him hostage.

But Abraham conferred with three other tribal chiefs and they went in pursuit. They had a small force but were triumphant (a familiar theme both in Scripture and in modern Israel!) He freed Lot and recaptured the people and booty taken by the Elamites.

Then Abraham is approached by the mysterious Melchizedek, King of Salem. The King offers a sacrifice of bread and wine to God, and blesses Abraham. Recognising the King as a priest of God and a precursor of the Messiah, Abraham gives him an offering, a tenth of his possessions.

Melchizedek was king of the city called Salem, now called Jerusalem. Reflecting on the Hebrew meanings of these words, Hebrews 7:2 tells us that says, the name 'Melchizedek' means 'king of righteousness'; then also, 'king of Salem' means 'king of peace.” And, as a ruler of peace, Melchizedek did not participate in the conflict between the nine kings.

For those interested in numerical patterns, he can be regarded as the tenth king, as the king who received a tenth of Abraham's possessions, and as a person reminding us of the ten commandments of God.

After his encounter with Melchizedek, Abraham is approached by another king. The king of Sodom asks Abraham to return the people taken from Sodom and suggests that Abraham keep the spoils taken from the city.

But Abraham refuses. He will not accept anything for himself (though he will accept spoils for his allies). In fact, he had taken a solemn vow that he would accept absolutely nothing.

Did Abraham realise the iniquity of Sodom? Is this why he refused to accept the king’s offer? Perhaps the passage is meant to contrast how we should venerate the King of Righteousness and have no part in the King of Unrighteousness?

If Abraham realised Sodom's iniquity, we can see an extra edge in his later bargaining with God on the city's behalf (Genesis 18). Perhaps he realizes the sinful nature of the city but still seeks God’s mercy for it. And, realising its iniquity, he seeks to expand God’s mercy proportionately.

(Until he comes to the requirement that there be ten just men. Numerically, this may remind us of the commandments and to stipulate the minimum compliance that a society needs to survive.)

Another point. We’d have expected that the king and people of Sodom people would be deeply grateful to Abraham, particularly those who had been taken as captives. So reflect on the viciousness of the people of Sodom when they later attack Lot, although they knew that he was the closest kinsman of their benefactor, Abraham (Genesis 19:9).

(By the way, I've referred to Abraham, but at this stage he was still called Abram. Later God gave him a new name to his part in Salvation History: see Genesis 17:5.)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Peter Singer receives top Australian honour

Today, June 11, Australia has been celebrating the birthday of our monarch, Queen Elizabeth. It's a tradition dating from the first British settlement in Australia, back in 1788. Quaintly, we don't actually celebrate Her Majesty's actually birthday, which is 21 April, but instead celebrate an "official birthday" in June.

To mark the occasion, the Queen's representative in Australia (the Governor-General) announces various honours that have been awarded to leading citizens. Honours typically go to retired policians, judges, generals, and worthy scholars who have received the Nobel Prize or have otherwise distinguished themselves.

Except that this year, the highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia has gone to Peter Singer, an professor who has instead distinguished himself by his attacks on traditional human values. While promoting animal rights, he sees nothing wrong with killing human babies after birth.

As an Australian Government's website says, "Honours help define, encourage and reinforce national aspirations, ideals and standards by identifying role models".

So presumably Peter Singer is now to be regarded as embodying Australian ideals and standards. The Australian community has moved yet further from the idea that there's anything specical or "sacred" about human life.

And, yes, one step closer to the extermination of anyone who doesn't fit the national aspirations. Look out if you're disabled, too old, or can't pass as a bronzed Aussie sportsperson!

To put it another way, the mainstream has again shown its contempt for traditional ideas and human values.

As an aside, people will criticise the Australian Government about this, so let's look at the actual process. The political head, the Prime Minister, effectively appoints members of the "Council for the Order of Australia". (Actually, the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General to appoint them, and this request is always accepted.)

The Council is an independent body and prepares the nominations for awards direct to the Governor-General. So the Australian Government is not responsible for the award to Peter Singer. Merely for creating the body that made the decision.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What is your favourite book of the Bible?

Of course, there are some stock answers. If you say the Epistle to the Romans, then you're probably a narrow Protestant (and I invite you to ponder whether the Gospels might be more important than St Paul's commentaries, profound and beautiful though they are).

Or, if you choose the Book of Revelation, then you may well be a rather apocalyptic Protestand. And if you choose Daniel, then you're almost certainly an apocalytician.

By contrast, choosing the Psalms suggests that you're on the opposite end of the spectrum, that you aspire to the monastic life and are into the Divine Office (aka the Liturgy of the Hours.)

I've been asking friends this question. There's been an interesting range. Several nominated St John's Gospel, because it's so spiritual.

After that, the answers tended to diverge, with people selecting books that have a personal meaning for them. For example, one woman chose the Book of Esther and another chose Tobit.

And my choice? Well, I like Genesis, which sets out the beginnings of it all, and I like Revelation, which gives an overview of Salvation History. Perhaps it indicates that I'm a big picture guy! (My favourite gospel is St Luke, mainly because of his narrative of the Christmas events.)

Anyway, what's your favourite book of the Bible and what does this say about you?

Of course, if you don't have a favourite book of the Bible, perhaps that's an indication that you need to immerse yourself in Holy Scripture a bit more.

And, in conclusion, perhaps we should remind ourselves to spread our reading. While it's probably desirable to have a favourite book, we should also read, ponder and pray about the other books from time to time.