Jesus Christ and Christmas

Around this time of year we are often reminded by Christian leaders that the real meaning of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christianity’s most important figure, Jesus Christ, rather than an excuse for rampant, self-centred consumerism.

The life of Jesus Christ himself was chronicled long after his death and he was accorded the status of supernatural being, the Christian God. I don’t think he ever saw himself that way. It was others long after his death who sought to deify him for their own agendas.

But whatever you think about Jesus Christ he was a deeply impressive person from all accounts. So what would the man from Galilee have to say to the world today in light of the things he believed. I think his commentary would go something like this –

“Heavens above, what is going on here? It’s a shock to have a celebration of my birthday 2000 years after my death.

“I see why you want to celebrate. You’re saying I’m God. Wow that’s scary. I never thought so myself. When I talked about “My Father in Heaven” I was speaking metaphorically, not literally. It’s been like a game of Chinese whispers about my life going on for hundreds of years until the bible was written from the last whisper and has completely distorted my life. I think Islam has got the best take on me. I’d be pleased to be remembered as a prophet in a long line of thinkers and teachers from the Middle-East.

“I can’t understand why the Pharisees are still running everything. Why do you let this happen? I saw a United Nations report last week which said just 2% of the wealthiest people own more than half the world’s wealth and even more astonishing the poorest 50% (me and my family would have been in this group) own just 1% of the worlds wealth. Whew. What was it that you didn’t understand when I said the meek shall inherit the earth? I didn’t mean the parasites should live off the poor.

“Talking of parasites I see the loan sharks are even worse than they were in my day. I chucked some of them out of my father’s temple (metaphorical father remember!) when they were fleecing worshippers. I said they had turned the temple into a den of thieves and so they had. But they are better organised thieves now and they have the full support of the political leaders. I see they don’t always need to use churches now – most even have their own flash buildings.

“I also see the rich using the same self-serving arguments they used in my day. There’s no problem being rich they say – the problem is that the poor are envious! Yeah right.

“I was amazed to see the Pharisee George Bush waging wars in my name. My message was to reject violence and look after the poor. Another message lost in translation. I didn’t say wage war on the poor to make the rich richer!

“And my home country of Palestine. I can’t believe what has happened to the land I grew up in. In my time we had many different groups living together. I was Jewish but had lots of friends from other races and religions and despite our differences we lived alongside each other. 

“How embarrassing to now find my own Jewish descendents taking over the best parts of Palestine for themselves. Most of the coastline, the fisheries, the water supplies and the best land for growing food while the descendents of my Palestinian friends are being kept in huge open-air prisons called the Occupied Territories. Even Jerusalem – the big city of my day – is a divided city. Heavens it makes me angry. Break down those barriers that divide the people! Get rid of that stupid apartheid wall which separates Jews from other Palestinians. The land has always been big enough for all to live together in peace and plenty. What is it about sharing that you don’t understand?

“I see there have been multiple crimes committed in my name through the past 2000 years. Mass murder, brutal oppression, rampant greed, legalised theft. And yes, amid it all I do see good people doing their best. My empathy is with them. But I have to say that those in power have been poor students of my teachings. Some attend Christian services to praise me but spend the rest of the time forcing injustice upon injustice on those poorer and weaker. Some things never seem to change.

“I myself was born a Jewish refugee. Were I born today I’d probably be a Palestinian child in a refugee camp on the west bank of the river Jordan. Would you think as much of me now if I were living once more in your midst?”

Israeli war criminal protected by government

Cowardice and hypocrisy were present in equal measure when Attorney General Michael Cullen two weeks ago quashed attempts to bring alleged Israeli war criminal Mosche Ya’alon to justice.

Cullen ordered the abandonment of the arrest warrant issued against Ya’alon by Auckland District Court Judge Avinash Deobhakta earlier in the week. The judge had spent the weekend reviewing a substantial body of evidence presented for Ya’alon’s arrest and in his ruling on the Monday found there were “good and sufficient reasons” for the New Zealand police to arrest him.

However the police referred the warrant to the Crown Law office and within an hour of them receiving the court documents Cullen found time on his travels in Timaru to cancel the warrant.

So why the fuss about a retired head of the Israeli Defence Force?

In 1996 Ya’alon was identified as the person behind the shelling of the United Nations compound at Qana in Southern Lebanon in which more than 100 civilians were killed. He was dubbed the “Butcher of Qana”. In the ensuing investigation the UN found the Israeli military had violated international law.

Then in 2002 Ya’alon was identified as the person responsible for directing the bombing of the densely populated Al Daraj neighbourhood of Gaza City to assassinate Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh. 15 were killed and 150 injured. Seven died in Mr Ra’ed Mattar’s household when his house was completely destroyed. Mr Mattar is a war crimes complainant against Ya’alon.

The arrest warrant was issued after the judge found a prima facie case was established of a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949, which is a criminal offence in New Zealand under the Geneva Conventions Act 1958 and International Crimes and International Criminal Court Act 2000.

The war crimes covered by these New Zealand laws include “wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to the body or health and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”. Also covered are situations involving “launching an attack in the knowledge that attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian object or widespread long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.”

Under these laws war crimes can be tried and punished in New Zealand under New Zealand laws even if they took place in another country and neither the perpetrators nor victims are New Zealand citizens. This is critical because war criminals more often than not escape justice in their own countries. The Mattar family have attempted to get justice via the Israeli courts but as our District Court judge pointed out, these attempts have been either exhausted or frustrated.

And as our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade points out –

“The prosecution of accused persons, whether that occurs at the national or international level, will help to put an end to impunity for international crimes. The prevention of such crimes is in the interests of international peace and security, which benefits all states”

But these strong words melt into meaninglessness when the perpetrators of terrorism and war crimes are well-armed nations such as Israel backed by powerful friends such as the United States. Cullen wimped out and has left New Zealand morally and legally diminished.

If war crimes are to be effectively prosecuted and deterred then courts and governments around the world must be vigilant and respond to appeals from the victims by issuing proceedings against these criminals. In this case we can be proud that our district court rose to the challenge but our government has demeaned us all.

The Mattar family and countless other victims of war crimes deserved better than Cullen scribbling franticly to bypass our commitments under the Geneva Convention.

The government likes to talk about us being “players on the world stage” and “responsible global citizens” with a “first-class record on human rights”. I’d like to see Cullen try to explain what those fine words actually mean to the remaining members of the Mattar family as they carried the bodies of their children from the wreckage of their home.

The message from New Zealand which reverberated around the world, to both the perpetrators of war crimes and their victims, is shameful. Cullen has yet to provide more than a few dismissive comments to explain why our courts could not be trusted to try Mosche Ya’alon.

It was a Spanish court which first issued warrants for the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean military dictator notorious for the murder squads which rampaged the country after his CIA backed coup in 1972. 

Why couldn’t New Zealand have been the country which had the political courage to stand up for the Palestinian victims of Israeli war crimes?

Will John Key make a difference?

John Key looks like a nice guy. He seems affable, friendly and thoughtful. He also has a reputation for listening which is a rare quality in our elected representatives. Unless of course it’s a focus group or a poll result.

His first few hours as the new National Party leader were full of positive affirmation for New Zealand and the bright future we can have under a Key/English led government.

He says he has a vision for New Zealand which is broad and inclusive and aims for the betterment of all of us. He believes in one standard of citizenship but that we must celebrate diversity and the place of Maori as tangata whenua which he sees as an important aspect in New Zealand’s unique identity.

It’s difficult to disagree with any of this and there will be many across the community impressed with the fresh face, the eagerness, the enthusiasm and the hope for a better future.

Because let’s face it, New Zealand today is a sad reflection of what once was termed God’s own country. It is clear from a whole range of social indicators in health and education, income and security, opportunity and fulfilment that we are in a parlous state.

There are plenty of jobs but they come with irregular hours, low-pay and are hopeless for anyone wanting to raise a family. The direct cost to families of schooling, university and polytech increases each year. Young New Zealanders are now saddled with $8.7 billion in student debt while billions more are going off shore each year to (mostly) Australian multi-nationals to whom we pay hugely for the privilege of having them own our largest and most lucrative businesses.

Economic growth was supposed to be the panacea for our ills but despite seven years of strong growth the only obvious improvements have been in pay for senior executives and politicians while the living standards of our poorest communities have fallen to shocking levels.

Key says he thinks it’s dreadful that New Zealand has allowed what he calls an underclass to develop. How right he is.

So having identified the problem what are Key’s solutions? It took less than 24 hours for the new leader of the National Party to switch from talk of a broad inclusive dream for the betterment of all New Zealanders to policies based on a hopelessly blinkered free-market vision which will worsen the very problems he claims to want to solve.

Key’s policy proposals include cutting wastage in health (yeah right!), contracting out public services to the private sector, reducing the role of government, less regulation to allow the “markets” to flourish, market solutions to climate change, more competition between schools etc. Where have we heard all this before?

Key likes to tell his rags to riches story where he was brought up in a state house by a solo mother and faced some relatively hard times.

The most important part of this story however is that Key grew up in a welfare state where his family’s house was built by the government which then set the rent at an affordable level. His schooling was high quality as was his university education and again both were fully paid by the government. Key’s story is really about the success of the welfare state.

Key’s family never faced such things as market rents for state houses, substantial school “donations” and poverty level welfare benefits.  

Would Key be where he is today if his mother had struggled under the 1991 benefit cuts imposed by his National Party? Would he have even been able to go to University with its huge fees and the increasing perception by young New Zealanders from low-income communities that tertiary education is a burden and a debt rather than a path forward for the family?

It was his National Party which continued and intensified Labour’s free-market blitzkrieg of the 1980s which devastated our economy, made a mockery of the welfare state and turned New Zealanders against the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens. There are tens of thousands of young John Keys growing up in New Zealand today being looked after by solo parents doing their best in conditions comparatively worse than Key and his family ever experienced.

Key’s problem is not that he is rich and lives in an $8 million house but that he hasn’t learnt the lessons of his upbringing. He is now the doctor who dispenses the same useless medicine even as the patient gets sicker.

Personal wealth is never a substitute for clear thinking but in Key’s case it is a positive hindrance.