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Review: 'Muddy Spirituality' by Jon Owen

'Muddy Spirituality' by Jon OwenIndian Australian Ministering to Australia’s poor

“Muddy Spirituality. Bringing it all back down to earth” by Jon Owen (UNOH, Melbourne 2011) is an inspiring book by an inspiring young Indian Australian who works among the poor and marginalized people of the needy suburbs of Melbourne and Western Sydney. The important message of the book to all people, whether theists, atheists or agnostics, is effective service to our fellow man through empathy, cohabitation and practical assistance.

I am an agnostic, humanist scientist but I am also a teacher. I have been teaching university students for about 40 years and recognize that the key to effective teaching is empathy with the students and pitching the Big Picture message in terms that are readily understood. Jon Owen is a Christian who, together with his wife and family, lives and works among the poor and disadvantaged of Western Sydney, Australia. He takes his inspiration from Jesus who lived and taught among the poor and his book repeatedly turns to Gospel stories of Jesus serving those marginalized or despised by society. The humane teachings of Jesus (love thy neighbor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, he who is without sin cast the first stone) is of course an inspiration for all decent Humanity, whether theist, agnostic or atheist. Indeed Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Communist USSR, author of Russia-West rapprochement and 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner, famously declared that “Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind”.
We are familiar with the stereotype of the self-righteous Christian minister who lives a modestly comfortable middle-class life and operates a top-down ministry of earnestly advising the poor and those who have “strayed” to repent and mend their ways. However an alternative model of bottom-up ministry and Christian Socialism is that of the Worker Priests of Latin America who live and work among the poor and follow the empathic example of Jesus. Indeed many Worker Priests were martyred like Jesus at the hands of the exploitative Establishments in Latin America and elsewhere. A good example is that of Jean-Bertrand Aristide a former Catholic priest and proponent of liberation theology who in 1990 became Haiti’s first democratically-elected president. Deposed by a coup in 1991, he became president again in 1994-1996 and in 2001-2004. In 2004 he was toppled by a US-backed coup, kidnapped and rendition by US forces to Africa and was only recently (in 2011) allowed to return to impoverished Haiti.

Australia is a very prosperous country but there is a steadily widening gap between the rich and the poor. This gap is most horribly evident in the Third World circumstances of many Indigenous Australians (Aborigines, Aboriginals, and Black Australians) and a huge gap in life expectancies between Black and White Australians. Thus the Australian Government’s Australian Institute for Health and Welfare: “Life expectancy is not uniform across populations within Australia. An issue of particular public interest is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a much lower life expectancy than the general Australian population. Indigenous Australians born in the period 1996-2001 are estimated to have a life expectancy at birth of 59.4 years for males, and 64.8 years for females. This is approximately 16-17 years less than the overall Australian population born over the same period” (see Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, “Indigenous life expectancy”). The annual avoidable death rate is 2.0% for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, 1.8% for Indigenous Australians as a whole, 1.0% for non-Arab Africans, 0.4% for  Indians and 0.1% for Western Europeans (see Gideon Polya, “Body Count: The Awful Truth”, National Indigenous Times, 14 June 2007,  “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, and "Aboriginal Genocide").

Australia is a generally very prosperous country and the envy of debt-ridden countries of the EU and the US. However rich Australia is a look-the-other-way society that, social service payments, free pre-university education and public health services aside, largely ignores the plight of the Indigenous Australians and other disadvantaged groups such as the refugees (thousands of whom are subject to prolonged abusive incarceration),  the mentally ill (very poorly serviced since the mass closure of most mental hospitals), drug addicts and alcoholics, the disabled, victims of domestic violence,  sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, other victims  of domestic disruption, the  long-term unemployed  and the homeless (this including many in the forgoing categories, noting that some 105,000 Australians out f a population of 22 million are homeless on any given night).  It is such people, the so-called “battlers” and urban poor of Sydney and Melbourne that Jon Owen and his associates in the Urban Neighbors of Hope (UNOH) live among and help with advice, material assistance, example and love.

Jon Owen comes from a loving Christian Malaysian Tamil family and others of his siblings have been variously involved with UNOH, working with aborigines and working with the sick. Jon speaks East Timorese Tetum (having worked in East Timor and with East Timorese refugees in Australia) but confesses to speaking Tamil poorly. He has been working with UNOH since 1997 and in 2007 moved with his wife and 2 children to the impoverished suburb of Mount Druitt in the West of Sydney. His work and this book start with the pragmatic premise of following Jesus’ humanity: “Imagine what could happen if we ceased all efforts attempting to prove the divinity of Jesus, and diverted all that energy into following his humanity... I find the life and actions of Jesus so compelling, that if we were to seek his way together, I am convinced that we could save the world.”

Jon Owen describes his mission with a mixture of his experiences in working in Mount Druitt and the stories of Jesus working among the sick and the poor and of being at one with the people. He writes in an engaging, natural and good humored style that is consonant with his empathy and love for fellow human beings. Jon Owen is frank about anger and violence associated with poverty and disempowerment and connects this with Jesus’ ministry: “Living the dream and facing the reality do not come easy for me. Yet, when someone is abusing another, regardless of who they are, it is important to stand in between the bloodthirsty crowd and the victim, regardless of what they have done. Jesus stood between the crowd and the woman caught in adultery. Sometimes ministry is about “getting in the way”. There are going to be consequences, not all of them great. There is no guarantee of protection.”

Jon Owen’s approach of “muddy spirituality”, of finding oneself by empathy with the messy world of humanity at its most difficult, brings to mind a deeply philosophic book “Death’s Dream Kingdom. The American psyche since 9-11” by American literature professor Walter “Mac” Davis. Professor Davis’ book  is about how sensible humans attempt to understand themselves (through earnest, honest, painful  introspection) and others (through empathic internalizing and analyzing of the suffering of others) – as compared to the psychotic,  “ideology-driven” simplicity of “compulsory happiness”, “endless demand”, “axiomatic rightness”, “certainty- and guarantee-demanding”, denial, avoidance of empathy and introspection, and  violent externalizing of inner fears by both the American Religious Right and contemporary. “moving forward”, Capitalist America that reached horrible depths in the hate- and power-driven War on Muslims (12 million war-related Muslim deaths in US- or US surrogate-violated Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria , Libya and Pakistan, 1990-2011) (see: “Muslim Holocaust, Muslim Genocide”)  and the ongoing, US-backed Palestinian Genocide (see “Mornings in Jenin” by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa, “The Plight of the Palestinians”, edited by Professor William Cook,   and “Palestinian Genocide”).

“Muddy Spirituality” by Jon Owen is an eminently readable, wise and good-humored book by an engaging, honest and good person. We exist to understand ourselves and to understand and empathize with others. It is warming to know there are those like Jon and his associates who have made it their mission to help the severely disadvantaged in a rich society like Australia that unfortunately generally looks the other way. His bottom-up approach of empathy, direct engagement and living with the poor is the opposite of the non-empathic, throw-away, safety net philanthropy and ignoring by Capitalist society as a whole. Brilliant humanitarian Indian writer Arundhati Roy has commented powerfully on this Mainstream ignoring in “The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile”:

“The ultimate privilege of the élite is not just their deluxe lifestyles, but deluxe lifestyles with a clear conscience.” As in the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan who helped the injured and robbed Jew, we cannot walk by on the other side.  Jon Owen says: “For those of us seeking to follow Jesus there are no invisible people”.

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