Gentle Revolutionary

25 Aug

I’ve just read the biography of Bob Brown, conservationist leader, founder of the Australian Greens, and Senator in the Australian parliament.
He is a person widely respected, even by those who disagree with him deeply. This I think is because he is what Australians call ‘fair dinkum’. He acts with an astonishing degree of genuineness and integrity. He is a person of values and acts on them, often at great cost to himself.
He is a  prophet, in a time when there are few beacons of hope for those who wish for a different way, a way of peace, mutual respect and democratic processes which empower people rather than bolster the dominant groups and their economic interests.
The book is ‘Bob Brown; Gentle Revolutionary’, by James Norman, (Allen and Unwin, 2004).

There are three things I’d like particularly to note about Brown’s story. First is his love of the bush as a place of spiritual healing and sustenance. Next his conviction that the major threat to life on earth is humanity itself, and the solution is not simply a matter of better education, the hope that people will act reasonably. Finally, something of Brown’s positive, prophetic challenge.

In the early 1970s, while working as a local medical doctor in
northern Tasmania, where he rode a biciycle to do his home visits and
advocated better bike paths, Bob Brown bought a small property in
Liffey. It was to become his spiritual home, a retreat from many
struggles and a place of solace for himself and many friends.
Notoriously, a sign of the gate says: Trespassers Welcome.
into the forests and mountain ranges, this home is the place where
Brown goes to think and write. In January 1983, while in prison for his
part in the blockade which eventualy saved the Franklin River from
damming, the last great wild river in Tasmania’s south-west, Bob Brown
wrote of the  spiritual presence he finds in the bush;
‘For several
years I have returned to it [the south-west] to watch the interplay of
forest, rivers and sky by day and to listen to the animals stir at
night when the stars are ablaze and the scintillating blue specks of
glow-worms pierce the forest floors of blackness.
I am not a
conventionally religious man, but in the wilderness I have come closest
to finding myself and knowing the universe and accepting God—by which I
mean accepting all that I don’t know. The wilderness is my best place
on earth. It is at elast as important to me as a place of refreshment,
inspiration and fulfilment as is the house of worship to many other
Now I have been made a trespasser in the Cathedral of my choice.’ p100

Brown had been a conventionally religious person, deeply committed
to the Presbyterian faith of his home. He found, however, that this
form of faith was not able to include the breadth and urgency of many
of his concerns, about human relationships, conservation, and his
emerging homosexuality. though he prayed fervently ‘that Jesus would
change him’, there was no resolution until he accepted his gayness.  It
appears, however, that his struggle with his sexuality was not the
major issue of faith and theology for Brown. He noted a too small
concept of God and a too narrow focus in religion on guilt and the
‘salvation’ of human beings without much concern for the earth or for
justice amongst humans in this life.
We have much to learn from this experience!
addition, Bob Brown began to recognize the greater depth of the human
predicament. He came to speak of ‘the human tragedy’, which he says
will be the theme of a book he longs to write. In essence, his
conviciton is that the continuing liberal ideal that humans can resolve
their own issues and problems, provided we have a little more education
and all act with reason, is simply false. We are the basic source of
our problems and we are inclined to act against our own best or longer
term interests, for short term comfort and profits, even choosing to
ignore the issues and threats which we could see before our very eyes.
chilling story brings this conviction into focus. In 1972 two activists
in the campaign to save Lake Pedder planned to fly a plane above the
Australian capital, sky-writing their message. They received a veiled
telephone warning against this action. Their plane disappeared over the
ocean and was never found. It later emerged that emergency warning
equipment had been removed from it and hidden elsewhere. No thorough
public enquiry into the incident was ever held. Brown tells of the
impact of this incident on conservationist groups, and his own
conviction about human beings:
‘I learnt that you’ve got to be tough
in return, even if it’s not in your nature. You see it all the time in
the forest campaigns now—the really good-hearted people getting
crunched in the middle because they want to resolve the issue.
were terrified after that … Those people really believed that the
world was a decent place, and a bit more reason here would fix it—but
of course it doesn’t.’ p 58
Brown also believes the world is a
decent place, but not perfect and not so benign. He has learned to be
tough in politics without being selfish and power-hungry in human

His prophetic values are a challenge:

‘Selfishness prevails on Earth. Nowhere is this more apparent than
in Australia. We live for maximising personal wealth and ignore the
miseries of our neighbours; we plunder our natural resources as if we
are the most deserving generation that has ever been or ever will be;
we rush to gain advantage from technological innovation even when there
are appaling risks; we claim parenthood as a joyous right but leach the
joy of our childre’s futures. As a result mankind faces a needlessly
wreteched future. At best there will be proplonged repression, cruelty
and hate until reason gains ascendency in a human community desperate
for happiness. At worst human life will cease at its own hand.’

The gloomy prospect might be easy to dismiss if it came from someone
who didn’t care and didn’t try to make a difference. I doubt whether
any Australian has acted with more hopefulness, and more faith in the
possibillity of another way, a life-affirming and mutually respectful
way than Bob Brown.

His challenge to the values of our life-style, which he rightly sees is really a death-style, is profound indeed.

In addition, I find many strong resonances with Brown’s experience
of God – in fact, in the stories of the Bible, where a people wandering
in the wilderness come to their most positive sense of an accepting,
guiding God, and where the focus of God’s way is upon the marginalised,
those whose livelihood and place in the community is threatened. Bob
Brown’s story has much to teach us about what conventional religion
calls the reality of sin. Together we have much to learn about  life
together in hope, within the mystery of God and the constructive ways
to lvie with the earth and all its creatures.

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