The annual Thought Matters conference, drawing 73 delegates from Australia and New Zealand, was held at New Zealand’s Booth College of Mission from 29 September to 1 October.
Thought Matters is run by the Theological Forum of the two Australian territories and the New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga Territory to foster theological discussion that shapes how The Salvation Army carries out its mission. This year’s theme was ‘Hospitality: Engaging the Other’, aimed at exploring what the Army’s willingness (or unwillingness) to make space and offer kindness says about Salvationists as people of God.
Close to 30 people submitted abstracts of proposed papers, with 12 papers selected to explore the application of hospitality across a range of contexts, including with Aboriginal peoples from the land now called Australia, among Pasifika peoples, in the online world, with GLBTIQ people, and in relation to known sexual offenders in a Salvation Army church setting.
A better illustration of hospitality and the relationship between host and guest could not have come than in the Māori pōwhiri ceremony in which Booth College of Mission staff and cadets welcomed delegates. Captain Hana Seddon, Divisional Secretary for Māori Ministry, Northern Division, explained the pōwhiri as ‘a welcome from people who love you and want to draw you in’.
Hana touched on the pōwhiri process again on Sunday morning in her paper ‘Manaaki: An Indigenous Christian Perspective of Hospitality’. She explained that the Māori word ‘manaaki’ described the practice of giving hospitality. ‘Manaaki involves support and protection, as well as showing respect, generosity and care for others.’ In stark contrast to such hospitality, Hana argued that ‘the church has continued to give Māori the message that most of our cultural expressions are either inferior or evil’. This had caused many Māori to renounce their culture to receive a fuller welcome into the Christian church.
Dr Andrew Shepherd, a Research Affiliate with the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, presented a keynote address on ‘facing the Other in an age of terror’. Engaging with the cultural mediation of ‘mirrors, screens and photographs’, Andrew explored the concept of empathy and the premise that ‘the dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face’. In a world troubled by terrorism and ecological crisis and with increasing levels of disparate poverty, ‘the metaphor of hospitality becomes crucial for the shaping of an ethical life and the shaping of peaceful and just human societies’, he said.
Brisbane-based clinical psychologist Catherine Philpot presented an evaluation of psychological literature looking at how Christians treat those not like them. One of these findings was that ‘the niceness or nastiness of Christians depends a lot on what kind of Christian they are, and what kind of person you are’. She said Christians who developed ‘open, questing approaches to faith’ showed increased openness and less prejudice to others. ‘Whatever the future holds for those of Christian faith,’ she said, ‘there are no signs that people are going to stop watching and judging our faith through how it is expressed towards others. The challenge for us as Christians is that we continue to remain open—to God and those around us—as we pursue faith.’
Major Terry Grey explored ‘identity and belonging’ in the Hebrew Bible. He noted that Christians often read the Bible in a way that positioned them as ‘the belonging ones’, rather than seeing that their true identity was as the welcomed ‘stranger’. ‘In my view, at the heart of the gospel is radical inclusion,’ Terry said. ‘The dark side of belonging … is the power to exclude those who are not like us … When does the stranger become no longer strange? Most often, the response to that question is when they become like us. When they learn our language, embrace our culture, when they truly want to become an Australian, or a New Zealander, a Salvationist.’
Major Lynette Edge presented a paper asking if inclusion was possible for those who had breached the sacred trust to protect people from sexual abuse. She noted the Army’s tradition of working with those rejected and excluded from society—as sex offenders typically are—and advocated the ‘careful grace’ of ‘welcome with boundaries’.
The importance of giving proper attention to First Nations peoples was again emphasised in a moving paper by Major Sandra Crowden and Brooke Prentis. Australia was considered terra nullius (‘nobody’s land’) when European settlement began in 1788. What followed was the taking of land, the attempted extermination of people and culture, and an ‘extinguishing of Aboriginal peoples as hosts’. Significantly, however, the Aboriginal peoples saw themselves as ‘the second hosts’, with Creator God the first host who entrusted the care of the land to the Aboriginal peoples. It was clear that for The Salvation Army, this journey of reconciliation still required a stronger conversation.
In a provocative paper centred on Bram Stoker’s 1897 book Dracula, Envoy Malcolm Irwin considered atheist philosopher Slovoj Žižek’s notion that while people may be open to Others, this was tempered by the central ‘human right’ of society—‘the right not to be harassed’. This led to the desire to remain at a ‘safe distance’ from others and a preference for ‘the Other to be Otherless’. An example was multiculturalism, which deprived people of their cultural identity by homogenising all cultures into something less than Other. Malcolm proposed that the way to counter the ‘hate of Others’ was not through a ‘pacifying, inclusive tolerance’, but with a ‘precise kind of hatred’—the ‘disruptive’ and ‘violent passion’ of Christian love. To love as Christ called Christians to love meant creating discontent with whatever excluded people, even if it meant ‘hating the beloved’ of established social hierarchies and familiar religious traditions.
Conference convenor Coralie Bridle said, ‘Thought Matters was a reminder that people are always more than labels or categories. All of us are created in the image of God and so our commitment must be to offer everyone hospitality, welcome and respect. This cannot be merely an idea we think and talk about; it must be how Salvationists live every day.’
Saturday evening of Thought Matters featured the launch of Major Harold Hill’s new book Saved to Save and Saved to Serve: Perspectives on Salvation Army History.
Retired General John Larsson has described the book as ‘prophetic’ and an ‘extraordinary treasure’. In the book’s Foreword, he writes: ‘There are official histories of The Salvation Army which describe its development—mostly in laudatory terms. There are interpretative histories, which seek to analyse and explain ... Saved to Save and Saved to Serve [is] so original that it creates a new genre. Here is a born teacher who presents his material in a fascinating way and then invites us to reflect.’