Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: 9/11

Donald Trump as a reflection of an adolescent culture

Before people like me judge Donald Trump for his bombastic statements, let’s remember that he is a reflection of the adolescent culture we all live in.

Here is an article of mine on the Trump phenomenon, published here in Ethos…

Donald Trump as a reflection of an adolescent culture

Monday, 4 April 2016 | Nils von Kalm I find myself fascinated by the Donald Trump phenomenon. Why is it that a man who blatantly lies, advocates war crimes, promotes xenophobia and can’t decide whether or not to condemn the support of a KKK leader, is set to become the Republican nominee for the leadership of the most powerful nation in the world?

American Sniper kills the myth of redemptive violence

americanjpg-bc1aa7War is hell. So said American soldier William Sherman, during the American Civil War. And this is exactly what we see in American Sniper, the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in US military history.

I’ve recently been talking with a friend about events like Anzac Day and how it is viewed by different people. I have always had mixed feelings about what is seen by many to be Australia’s national day, whereas my friend, who had a relative who fought at Gallipoli, is able to resonate much more than me with what Anzac Day is about.

In a similar way, this movie does not glorify the American assault on Iraq following the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001. It does however tell the story of the effect that war has on ordinary people who simply want to do their best for their country. Continue reading

Words that build or destroy

Words_Of_Wisdom_book“Words that build or destroy” – U2, Promenade

On the morning of September 11, 2001, theologian Miroslav Volf was just finishing a talk to the International Prayer Breakfast of the United Nations in Manhattan. The time was 8.34am. The topic was reconciliation.

The minutes following would see some of the greatest chaos and turmoil ever on American soil as planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center not far from where Volf had been speaking.

During a recent interview, Volf was asked if he thought his words of reconciliation felt empty as 3,000 people died in what he describes as an occurrence that was the opposite of reconciliation.

Words have the ability to build up or destroy. When I was in school we had a saying: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It was a saying designed to protect our minds against bullies. While you may call me every name under the sun, they can’t hurt me because I know I’m worthwhile.

Life has since taught me that such words are simply not true. Words can be poison, especially to a child. The little boy or girl who is constantly told by their parents or peers that they can’t do anything right, or that they’ll never be any good, will often go through life believing it. They will hate themselves, and more often than not inflict that hatred on others in some form or other. Hurt people hurt people.

Words also have the ability to inspire, to build up and to encourage. The child who is consistently told they are loved and worthwhile will grow up with that belief and will find it a lot easier to pass on that love to others.

Words have the power to change lives, for good or for ill. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowds that it doesn’t matter who they are, they are blessed right now. That was life-changing for people who were constantly given the message that they were nothing.

Nations have been changed by words. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech inspired a generation of African Americans to believe they were worthwhile and deserved all the rights that other Americans enjoyed.

Talk may have appeared cheap to Miroslav Volf on that tragic morning in New York. But if our words are transformative, and if they lead us to live them out, then no act of terrorism or verbal abuse of an innocent child will ever be able to deceive us into thinking we are anything less than made in the image of a God who gave us the greatest words ever spoken.

America’s Culture of Death

From Ben Witherington:

“The goal of terrorism is of course to create terror in the heart of an enemy so the enemy will colossally over-react (think billions and billions spent on TSA security even in Chitlin Switch airport in the middle of nowhere America). The goal of terrorism, since the terrorists cannot win a normal war against a country with a gigantic military industrial complex is to so strike terror into the heart of the enemy that they will destroy themselves with fear and over-reaction. They will begin to believe that the answer to foreign or even domestic violence (think Newtown Conn.) is more guns, more violence, more death. Think of how the Roman Empire came to fall. It died not so much because of the enemy without, but because of the enemy within.”

Reflections on 9/11 – Pain as a Gift

cross over world trade center in rubbleThis is the third and final of my reflections on 9/11. The first one is available here and the second is here.

Christian faith is about hope, that goodness really does prevail. As Martin Luther King said, the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice. I have to ask myself, do I really want life? Or do I want a counterfeit that promises the world but leaves me more empty than before?

It has been said by many people that God is more interested in our character than our comfort. In Wrecked, Jeff Goins writes:

“People who allow their hearts to be broken for the brokenness in the world have something that most of us don’t. Compassion. Selflessness. Freedom. They “get it” in ways that most of us would find envious. There is a distinct clarity of purpose and calling in their lives that is astounding. In the face of suffering, they somehow have learned to shed their narcissism in exchange for a more meaningful life. It is incredibly brave and inspiring.”

He continues by talking about the necessity of pain if we are to really live:

“We cannot become who we are without going through pain. And who can do such a thing without trusting the struggle is worth it? Or that the results will be good? We must endeavour to be wrecked with a deep, reckless faith that confounds the world and maybe even puzzles us at times. It will be worth it.”

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Reflections on 9/11 – Happiness and Hope


This is the second of my reflections on 9/11. The first one is available here.

Study after study has shown that money does not make us happy, and, in Australian society, once you own more than about $100,000 any amount over that won’t increase your happiness. Yet despite this we are still offered, and we still enter, lotto draws that offer such incredible amounts of money, believing that ‘life could be a dream.’ And studies show that lotto draws are becoming more popular among Australians. If this is not addiction then I don’t know what is.

The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says ‘we realised were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.’ For the addict, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The thing we are doing over and over is trying to get rich, and the different result we are expecting – which goes against all the evidence – is that it will be different for us. If our culture was in a 12 Step program, we wouldn’t be at Step 1, which is the acknowledgment that we have a problem. We are a culture in denial. As well as the fact that study after study shows that money doesn’t make us happy, we now know that since the end of the Second World War, the rate of depression in Western countries has risen tenfold. Materially we are the richest people in the history of humanity, and we have ten times the rate of depression to show for it.

But as I mentioned above, don’t misunderstand this. This is about finding life, not making us all feel guilty and miserable. Jesus came to give us life and life in all its fullness. It’s about a better way, a way that is life-giving, but not the way we are told is life-giving. The way that really is life-giving often feels like the way to unhappiness and death.

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Reflections on 9/11 – The Last Days of Mohamed Atta

Over the next 3 days I will be reflecting on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. The events of that terrible day reveal some fascinating insights into our Western contradictions, hope, happiness and what really matters in life. Today’s post is called ‘The Last Days of Mohamed Atta’ (Atta was of course one of the hijackers). 

In his latest book, The Road Trip that Changed the World, Mark Sayers talks about the contradictions we all live with. He uses the very revealing example of the 9/11 hijackers and their exploits in the days before they slammed planes into icons of what they saw as Western decadence. Here is what Sayers says:

[vimeo ]

The extraordinary actions of the hijackers highlights for me, not just the contradictions of our lives, but the confusion and deception we all buy into, whether or not we are aware of them (and mostly I don’t think we are aware).

All humans want to be happy. To quote an unlikely source – current Collingwood AFL coach Nathan Buckley – we all want to feel good. And our culture drums the message into us that a certain type of lifestyle will bring us the happiness we all crave. As M. Scott Peck said, we are people of the lie. In this case it is the lie that possessions will fill the void within.

In The Road Trip that Changed the World, Sayers goes on to talk about the consumer Christianity which has become so dominant in The US and in Australia. Relevant Magazine recently had an article questioning whether or not we would still follow Jesus if your life didn’t get any better. Here is a penetrating quote from the article:

“If we’re not careful, we inadvertently imply that if one only focuses enough on Jesus, one’s circumstances will get better, and better, and oh-so infinitely better.” This is the subtle promise of much Christianity today. If it is not straight out prosperity teaching, where the idea is that God has a plan for you to be fabulously rich and beautiful, then it is something more subtle where the idea is that God will ‘bless’ you when you serve him. And ‘blessing’ implies that things will go well for you.”

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A culture of fear

Recently I posted on the fact that in the West we live in a culture of addiction, where we continue on a pathway that is destructive, despite overwhelming evidence of its negative consequences. In this post I want to explore another part of Western culture, one that has been tragically highlighted by the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

The US (and Australia to a lesser extent) has long lived in a culture of fear, in which the response to tragedy has been to respond with fear-based actions. 9/11 was a classic example of this. Within weeks of the terrorist attacks on the US, military strikes commenced in Afghanistan, which was followed by a dubiously argued war in Iraq. Back home, the response was the Patriot Act which restricted the liberties of ordinary Americans while proclaiming the idea that they were intended for the security of the nation.

Source:,29307,1910204_1909321,00.htmlA similar response has been seen in the actions of Americans to the Colorado shootings. The emotional response to tragedy reflects where a culture is at, and the fact that gun sales in the US have skyrocketed since Aurora is alarming to say the least. You would think that people would want less guns to be available when yet another shooting takes place, so to arm yourself to the teeth is a reaction that is purely based on fear. Make sure you kill them before they kill you. Check out some of these quotes from a Time magazine article on the shooting:

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The God-shaped hole

“There’s a void in my heart that I can’t seem to fill. I do charity work when I believe in a cause, but my soul it bothers me still.
John Mellencamp, Void in My Heart

In the heart of every human being is a God-shaped hole. A saying that has been mostly attributed to Augustine is that humanity was made to worship God, and we are restless until we do.

20120710-213309.jpgIf we are able to grasp this truth, we will see more clearly that everything we do in life is done in search of meaning. Despite the decline of faith in Australia and the media coverage of the ‘New Atheism’ over the years, the search for meaning never goes away, even if it might be drowned out by our lifestyle of endless consumption.

One of the signs of this search is the rapid increase in recent decades in the tide of addiction. When the alcoholic takes another drink, thinking this one will be different; when the drug addict injects again honestly believing this time it will give him what he needs; or when the sex addict settles on what he believes is finally the perfect porn clip, they are all actually searching for something deeper. They are searching for God.

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Thoughts on the American psyche

My wife and I recently returned from spending some time in the United States. Having been there a few times now, and having some family over there, I have decided to pen my thoughts on this country of contrasts, of opportunity and of deprivation.

We were in Florida on the 4th of July, and we spent the evening with a few hundred other people watching the fireworks and celebrations. As I watched and took on the reactions of the people, I was impressed by how much Americans love their country, and by how genuinely patriotic they are. While I do believe that Americans go over the top with their sense of patriotism, there is a reason for it, and on the other hand, I don’t think Australia goes far enough with it. And frankly I am sick of people who constantly bag America for this and other reasons when they have probably never even been there. It is easy to be judgmental from afar.

Americans really believe they are the greatest country in the world, not necessarily in the sense of being superior (though of course there are indeed many Americans who believe their country is superior than others; and that attitude is not just limited to those who believe that America is somehow God’s promised land), but in the opportunities they have in this country. Freedom is everything in this land; it is what has made it great. But it has also led to an arrogance that will one day be its downfall. For example, for Barack Obama to say, in response to the recent downgrade of the US credit rating, that “no matter what some agency may say, we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country” was the height of American hubris.

But despite the claims of freedom that this country is built on, I am convinced that Australia has more freedom than the US. Our health system is not out of reach for millions of our citizens, we do not live in nearly as much fear of a major terrorist attack on our shores, and our level of poverty is generally not as high as in many places in the US.

As I watched the fireworks and was impressed by the love of Americans for their country, I was equally impressed by the view that America does not have a right to impose itself on the rest of the world. No country, however powerful, has that right.

Martin Luther King once made the point that a true patriot is one who loves their country enough to criticise it. He was responding to those who said his criticism of America came out of a hatred of its ideals. King though, loved his country, and wanted it to be the best it could be, to live out its ideals of equality and freedom for all. His criticism did not come out of any resentment or an attitude of judgmentalism or superiority. It came out of a dream he had for his country.

Any criticism must come out of a motivation of love. Otherwise it is tainted with self-interest. I tend to think that there will be many people gloating over the problems America is facing at the moment, looking forward to the decline of the American empire. I have to admit I struggle win that myself at times, but it is not the way of Jesus.

It is easy to be seduced by America and the very consumer culture that is the source of many of its problems at present. The ideal of freedom of enterprise, private ownership of property and individual opportunity are the unshakable bottom lines of this nation, and they have provided both opportunity and heavy costs over the years.

My relationship with America is one of both love and anger (as opposed to hatred; I don’t believe in hatred). Having a brother who has lived there for half his life, and having been there myself a few times, I see both sides of what, in my limited opinion, is both good and bad about this country.

One of the privileges we had while in the US recently was watching in person the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, the final launch of the shuttle. The word ‘awesome’ is bandied around everywhere these day to describe things which are really incredibly mundane. But watching this live was, for me, truly awesome. To watch as people are blasted into space was to realise, as my brother who was with me at the time said, that this is the very frontier of exploration. It was estimated that 750,000 people lined up on the Florida coast that July morning. It was a sight to behold, seeing the enormity of what a country can do in terms of technology. No wonder the patriotism on that day was so strong.

It must always be remembered though that, while this technological brilliance of America has certainly driven its innovation, it has been at the expense of social safety nets for the millions of less fortunate and less free, those who miss out because of billions of dollars spent on the space program.

Perhaps my response to the shuttle launch was also linked with my thoughts on the cultural hegemony of this nation. When we were in America, it hit me about how much we are infiltrated by American culture through television. It is so constant that we aren’t even aware of it. This cultural hegemony is largely what makes America so powerful. Through television, American culture has for years been exported around the world. The idea of American freedom and the American way of life has been shown to billions around the world, non-stop, 24/7, and, quite simply, it is part of our identity. That is why, when many people visit certain parts of the US, it feels familiar, they feel like they know the place; there is a level of comfort with the surroundings. Such familiarity also gives America more power. Image and perception is everything, and the America that is exported around the world is the America of Hollywood and dreams, whereas the other side of America is often hidden, for instance the side that has 46 million of its citizens living in poverty. This is one example of the lack of liberty that many people experience in the land of the free.

A final word must be taken from the Gospels. America was founded on the belief of many that they were a nation blessed by God, a light on a hill. And the constant refrain we hear from American Presidents at the end of every speech is ‘God bless the United States of America’. Well, my word toAmericais “be careful what you pray for.” The God in whom the Pilgrim Fathers placed their faith said “blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” The way of Jesus is inevitably the way of suffering. And this is the tension with which America lives. It is truly a remarkable nation, one that has given much good to the world, but it is also one which has inflicted untold suffering on innocent millions in the name of the very freedom which it proclaims to the world.

The psyche of America is indeed a wounded one. Today of all days the nation will be feeling this. The Founding Fathers seemed to have great motivations for the new country, but it has been greatly misguided over the years, leading to equally misguided hatred on the part of those who would destroy it.

On the statue of Liberty in New York harbour, the sign proclaims “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. And in Matthew 25 when the nations are brought together, it will be those who treated these very people as Christ did who will go into the glory set aside for them. Will America heed the call? On this day when many are mourning, may God truly bless the United States of America.

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