Pluralism, same sex marriage, and the silencing of the lambs: charting a new way forward for Christians in Australia

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” — Jesus, Matthew 10

If some of the hyperbole I’m reading online is to be believed, the ‘enemy’ of the Australian church now has a face. And a name. Michael Barnett. His face and name might be familiar to you if you tuned in to the SBS show Living With The Enemy a while back, because he and his now husband, Gregory Storer, spent some time with Sydney Anglican, and fellow blogger, David Ould (I wrote about the show back then). I’ve been chatting online to both Gregory and Michael in the midst of this latest issue, and will feature some of that conversation below. I think rumours of Michael Barnett being the enemy are greatly exaggerated, and I do wonder if we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to how we Christians with traditional views on marriage speak about our views, and what we ask for in our political context.

The situation

Michael Barnett is a campaigner for LGBTIQ rights (not just a same sex marriage campaigner) and has been tweeting in support of a group called Pride In Diversity. Lots of Australian companies have signed up with Pride In Diversity to ensure work places are safe places for members of the LGBTIQ community. The list of companies includes IBM, and Macquarie University, and those companies happen to employ members of the boards of the Australian Christian Lobby and its affiliated training centre the Lachlan Macquarie Institute. Michael has publicly pressured Macquarie and IBM to act according to commitments they’ve made to the Pride In Diversity movement, and this is, in turn, being linked to the Coopers brewhaha (see my reflections here) in a narrative that says, essentially, ‘same sex marriage campaigners (especially activist members of the LGBTIQ communityare out to destroy free speech and religious freedom, the stakes on the marriage debate are higher than the marriage debate’.

I want to say at the outset that I wish we’d get better at talking and listening to each other across the divide on this issue, but that if you view the issue of same sex marriage, and other LGBTIQ rights through the lens of human rights where opposition to change is communicating that LGBTIQ people are sub-human, then I can understand the tactic being employed here with companies who’ve signed up to say they recognise the full humanity of LGBTIQ people. It’s also a shame that Christians in general aren’t better at understanding the position of LGBTIQ people and their desires (and I’m not casting aspersions at the particular individuals caught up in the campaign here, I’ve had some interactions online with Stephen Chavura, and met Lyle Shelton, and while we disagree on this stuff, I believe they do their best to be compassionate and empathetic across this divide). I have, however, been present (both in the flesh and virtually) when Christians have specifically claimed that we do not need to understand the desires of the LGBTIQ community, and I think that’s a terrible indictment on us all. I’m slightly (though not overly) concerned, as a Christian, that there might come a time when holding a traditional view of marriage within the Christian community will be cause for similar action from LGBTIQ rights advocates, and I’m hoping to articulate a middle way that listens to the concerns of LGBTIQ people (including Michael Barnett, see below), but charts a way forward for Christians.

I do think religious freedom is at stake in this debate, free speech even, but I think we (Christians) are actually doing more against these noble common goods than those who are fighting back after years of having their freedom to define marriage according to their own religious beliefs (religious freedom), and to call their relationships marriage (free speech). I’m hoping to demonstrate that this isn’t a disingenuous shifting of the goalposts, but is actually the way we should always have been understanding this issue Biblically.

The ACL’s Lyle Shelton framed the issue this way:

“The message from the activists is clear: if you don’t support our campaign to change the Marriage Act then you have no place in Australian society. The unrelenting, uncompromising, totalitarian nature of these activists should concern every Australian who wants to be free to believe in marriage.”

I wonder if the words ‘unrelenting, uncompromising, totalitarian’ could equally be thrown at Christians by members of the LGBTIQ community who are pursuing changes to the Marriage Act? And I wonder if, properly understood as a religious freedom issue, we might not be better off, as Christians, throwing our support in behind changes to the Act in order to preserve our ability to believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I don’t want this to be purely a pragmatic way to respond to what seems to be the inevitable changing of the Act. I don’t want it to be a thing we do because we fear that if, or when, we lose this ‘fight’ we will be facing an ‘uncompromising, totalitarian’ ruling class who want to stamp out our views. The fear driven ‘slippery slope’ rhetoric in this discussion serves nobody, but it is quite possible that having been perceived as uncompromising and totalitarian in our attempts to maintain our position on the definition of marriage at law, those who oppose us will treat us as we’ve treated them (and it’s interesting that the ‘golden rule’ for Christians is not ‘do unto others as they do to you’ but ‘treat others the way you would have them treat you’). I don’t believe we should respond pragmatically — to secure a certain sort of treatment — but rather our response should be driven by a consistent theological position — including a theological understanding of what it means to be human (which is that to be human is to love something ultimately (worship) and be shaped by that love), and this golden rule.

Like Lyle Shelton and Stephen Chavura, because of my Christian convictions, I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, entered into for life, and I believe this because when Jesus spoke about marriage he said:

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ — Matthew 19:4

However, unlike Lyle Shelton and the Australian Christian Lobby, and many other Christians campaigning to maintain this definition of marriage — Jesus’ definition of marriage — in Australian law, I do not think the view Jesus takes on marriage is necessarily the view that should define marriage in Australian society.

I believe that on the whole, people do better if they love Jesus, and order their lives (and their sexuality) around that first love, but I accept that many of my neighbours do not love Jesus above all else, and have that love shape how they live and love. I think we make a positive case for this by living good, and beautiful lives, as a community, amongst our neighbours. We make the most compelling argument for our way of life by living it, and explaining how our lives reflect who Jesus is.

A religious freedom solution in our secular, pluralist, democracy

We talk about religious freedom being at stake in this marriage debate, and yet we refuse to afford religious freedom to our LGBTIQ neighbours when it comes to how marriage is defined in a secular, pluralistic, democracy. This is our context and it’s worth briefly unpacking what each of these words means.

Religious Freedom

On the whole, Christians who advocate for religious freedom — like Freedom for Faith — do a fantastic job of advocating for religious freedom for people who are not Christians; we’re consistent in our advocacy for our Jewish and Muslim neighbours and their freedom to worship, even though we believe they worship a false understanding of God (even if they’re also Abrahamic religions, they worship a God who is not Trinitarian, and deny the divinity of Jesus… much like the Pharisees were participants in ‘man made religion’ once they failed to recognise the divinity of Jesus).

While atheists and other members of our community who do not identify with an organised religion might not consider themselves religious, and so subject to the need for protection of religious freedom, there are a couple of things I think we Christians need to consider.

Firstly, when we talk about religious freedom we all also want freedom from having religious views (including functional atheism)  imposed on us by law, part of religious freedom is freedom from the undue influence of other religions.

Secondly, as Christians, we believe that all people are ultimately worshippers even if they are not participants in an organised religion. This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as atheism, or that atheism itself is a religion (I’ll leave that to David Foster Wallace in This Is Water), rather it is to say that we all love and desire things in ways that allow those loves and desires to shape us (sometimes there’s ‘one thing,’ one ultimate love, other times people are polytheists and love many things that compete, or cooperate). We Christians recognise that this ‘worship’ is a religious belief that shapes the way people approach life, sex, money, work, knowledge… everything really. Including, importantly, how we believe humanity and marriage should be understood and defined.

That LGBTIQ advocates for same sex marriage view this as a human rights issue, and want to define marriage differently is an expression of what Christians should understand as religious views of the world (even if they don’t themselves understand things this way). When Paul does the ‘everybody worships’ thing in Romans 1; when he makes the case that everyone is religious, he says:

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator”

Our own theology makes this a religious freedom issue.

Secular

Secular does not technically mean that our public is free from religious interference, rather it means that there is no state religion that dominates all other religious views. This tends to mean that our law does not favour one religious belief over another, though a way this is commonly understood is that we should keep religious beliefs out of decision making; that we should make decisions on the lowest common denominator for the common good. I’ve suggested that we’d do best if people with religious beliefs acknowledged those beliefs, and the different impacts they have on religious communities, and that the secular state should attempt to make space for these community views to govern interactions in the ‘commons’We should say more often that our view of marriage doesn’t just come from nature, but from Jesus, and it is legitimate for people who believe Jesus is God to follow Jesus’ definition of marriage.

Pluralistic

That we’re pluralistic acknowledges that not only are we secular (with no state religion) but there are many religious views held and communities created by citizens of Australia, and the people who hold these different views can and should expect to be able to practice them in our nation (provided they don’t cause significant harm to other citizens). A pluralist approach to politics makes space for a plurality of views rather than enshrining the views of a majority (or coalition of minorities) over other minorities.

Christians, based on our theology, should be relatively comfortable operating in a pluralistic context. We are free to be pluralists, but not polytheists. The distinction is important. Christians are called to absolute fidelity to the triune God in our worship. We are to organise our loves around our love for God (which is why we’re to love the Lord with all our hearts, then second, to love our neighbours as we love ourselves). We are monotheists. In the Old Testament this monotheism meant there was no place for idols in Israel. Faithfulness meant the utter destruction of other gods in the hearts (and land) of Israel. But we are not in Israel. Australia is not the kingdom of God; the church is.

There’s still no place for idols in our hearts, as the kingdom of God, and we should take the metaphorical sledgehammer to those idols (or perhaps cultivate a love for Jesus that expels other gods and loves from our hearts). And there are implications here for same sex attracted Christians who hold to conservative/traditional theological convictions, just as there are for heterosexual Christians who hold to these convictions. Christians in the New Testament also recognised that the rules for Israel no longer applied — they certainly preached and lived in such a way that they hoped idols and false worship would be shown to be less valuable, good, and beautiful than the true God, true worship, and thus God’s design for humanity and relationships) — but they didn’t take a sledgehammer to other people’s Gods. This is also how the Old Testament prophets seemed to approach the idols of the nations around Israel — using rhetoric to remove the idols of their ‘power’ (like Isaiah 40, which describes how an idol statue is made from the wood that the craftsman then uses to cook his dinner, and offers the analysis that this probably isn’t what a god should be like). When Paul gets to Athens he shows what pluralism looks like for Christians. He seeks to understand the desires of those in the city that lead them to worship things other than God, and then he has a conversation with them. He doesn’t try to legalise Christian worship and make other forms of worship illegal. Christianity — at least theologically, if not always historically — makes space for other religions, and other gods, outside the hearts of those in the church; that’s part of what distinguishes it from other forms of organised religion.

Democracy

The nature of a democracy sometimes feels like it’s a case of majority rules, when we might be best to think of it as we all rule. Democracy does away with monarchy, and it stands in contrast to other forms of government where a powerful autocracy, or to totalitarian regimes where ideological groups or communities rule over people from outside that particular caste. The beauty of democracy is not found in populist politics, but in the way it views each citizen as equal, and in the promise that those who govern govern for all, to protect different minorities and communities not simply to reflect the will of most of the people. That we are secular and pluralistic and that we believe religious freedom and freedom of speech are common goods or human rights reflects that we are also democratic.

The proposed solution

A solution on the marriage equality issue that is democratic, pluralist, secular, and allows freedom of religion is an outcome that should be desirable to all. Sadly it often feels like we Christians want a solution that continues to recognise our beliefs at the expense of the beliefs of others; and we fight for this in ways that are more populist than democratic, and more theocratic than secular or pluralist (even if we predominantly make ‘natural law’ arguments for maintaining a traditional definition of marriage).

There is another way, one that few public Christians and representatives of traditional churches seem prepared to make. We could, as lovers of religious freedom, support changes to the Marriage Act to be more pluralist, secular, and democratic, where we offer our support to changes that recognise other religious beliefs in the common law, but maintain our own approach to marriage as individuals and within our communities. This would mean being free to hold and act according to personal convictions (though probably not in state institutions), while being prepared to let others do the same.

It seems so simple. We could say “I support your right to define marriage as you see fit, and to have that definition recognised in our nation’s laws, while holding my own convictions about what marriage is that are different, but also recognised in our nation’s laws.” We could say that understanding that the LGBTIQ community desires marriage equality for reasons that are essentially religious (as we understand religion), and that this is from a conviction that religious freedom is a good thing. Which is what we keep saying.

I can understand why it’s not simple, or why people don’t seem prepared to make it. Sometimes it’s a result of our historic privilege, and the belief that Australia is a Christian nation (or at least has been at the ‘establishment’ level); though it’s debatable whether this has ever been the case outside the elite, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case now (despite the census data). Privilege is hard to give up, especially for conservatives who tend to see this history as a good thing, and change for change’s sake as a bad thing. Sometimes this opposition is based on a belief about what is good (according to God’s design), and attempt to be loving (even in ignoring the desires of others). I’m not sure this is a feasible option given that Romans 1 says that the loves and desires produced by false worship now shape people because God makes it that way, and I’m not sure it’s truly loving to fail to understand others or offer them the freedom and privilege we enjoy. I’m also fairly sure that many of the reasons people give, like ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ or ‘this will ‘normalise’ something that is not natural (ie children have a mother and a father)’ are the result of people who’ve missed the memo; that these things are already ‘normal’ and that this comes from the bottom up in our society (via culture), and that this ‘new normal’ also seems to come from God in Romans 1. If the Christian framework is true then these are bad arguments that can’t convince, and if the Christian framework is not true then these are bad arguments that won’t convince.

But it won’t work!

One of the things I often hear when I raise this idea is that the campaigners for LGBTIQ rights want more.

That this campaign for marriage (and human rights/equality more generally) is a slippery slope. That “they” hate us and are out to get us. And they are people like Michael and Gregory. This is the thin end of the wedge in some great anti-Christian conspiracy. Now, this might certainly be true for some. But let’s get the golden rule back in the mix; even if it is true, we’re called to love people and treat them as we would have them treat us. It’s also very possible that people like Michael and Gregory intuitively recognise the irony of us Christians calling for ‘religious freedom’ and labelling our opponents as totalitarian, unrelenting, and uncompromising — when we also won’t listen to, make space for, or compromise with their positions, and that this irony is actually something more like hypocrisy, and it does actually cause hurt because it communicates that we actually don’t see the concerns of this community and its desires as fully or equally human to our own.

The objection I hear is that doing this won’t work.

That these campaigners want more and they won’t rest until they get it… despite their consistent statements that they want a particular thing, that they believe is a right according to their understanding of what it means to be human. We do tend to conflate a whole bunch of issues into a narrative (usually a narrative of fear) — and so the 18C stuff (which is about race) gets thrown in the mix here too (although, to be fair, the modern ‘left’ do this with the whole ‘intersectionality’ thing too). Losing some of the privilege we’ve enjoyed via a bad approach to democracy while white, protestant, men have been largely the ones in power is probably going to involve some real pain for us too. But maybe that pain is good, and maybe it’d be less painful if we’d been doing the ‘golden rule’ thing.

Now. One of the ‘golden rule’ things I’d like to try is to actually listen to people and take them at their word. So I asked Michael on Twitter if this sort of ‘pluralist solution’ would work for him. I first had a bunch of replies from Gregory, Michael’s husband, on Twitter, which he has given me permission to quote here, and then I had an email exchange with Michael. It seems to me that they (as in these two individuals, not the entire LGBTIQ community) would be happy with such a solution, and that Michael’s campaign is not about silencing Christians, but rather about securing the sort of equal rights that Pride In Diversity allied companies sign up for… and maybe the sort of equal rights they’re asking for actually do line up with our desire for religious freedom, and freedom of speech, and we need to start practicing what we preach.

I outlined the position I’ve gone into in more depth above in an email to him, and his response included these words (if they aren’t totally representative of how he’d respond to all these extra words here, he’ll have right of reply in the comments, and I’ll be sending this to both Michael and Gregory):

“Thanks for your thoughts.  I appreciate your thoughtfulness. This is how the story goes from my perspective. I just want to get on with my life, but since beyond 2004 I’ve been trying really hard to overcome the discrimination LGBTIQ people face in society, mostly because of the impact of the ACL and their supporters… I don’t want to take down the ACL and LMI boards but when Lyle Shelton names me in his blogs I feel I have no choice but to explore those possibilities.” — Michael Barnett

I had a longer back and forth with Gregory on Twitter.

Me: If I’m happy for people to live freely/for secular laws to govern all, does this satisfy goals?

Gregory: I’m not an expert on the requirements…

Gregory: It certainly is the ideal situation for all.

Me: Can a Christian hold traditional views within the church/progressive views outside the church & not be a hater?

Gregory: of course, I know lots of them

Me: If Christians were better at a ‘generous pluralism’ understanding the LGBTIQ community’s desires and limits of our ‘moral frame,’ and so were ok with SSM etc…Would it be appropriate for such Christians to hold public positions in ally organisations?

Gregory: They already do.

Me: cause the ‘enemy’ narrative is: once we lose this, we lose ‘everything’ and that there is no public place for us.

Gregory: “That is not true and not the case.”

Gregory: “There is no reason why people can’t live together in harmony.

Now. You, Christian reader, might not be prepared to take Michael and Gregory at their word, or might not be prepared to see them as representative of the whole (unless they’re the ‘villains’ who are out to get us). But I’m, because of the ‘golden rule’ going to take their words on faith, and believe that a generous pluralism is the way to go on the question of the definition of marriage and religious freedom. So I’m going to approach this latest kerfuffle as it is; not a reason to be hysterical about the future for those who hold traditional marriage, not a reason to jump on the bandwagon with Andrew Bolt and other commentators who want to use it to fuel outrage and division in the Australian community; but as an opportunity for us Christians to consider how we might better practice what we preach on religious freedom, and how we might be good neighbours in our secular, pluralist, democracy.

4 Comments Pluralism, same sex marriage, and the silencing of the lambs: charting a new way forward for Christians in Australia

  1. Pingback: OPINION: Granting plural beliefs on marriage 'builds up' society » TruthJournalism.com: Hard-hitting, no-holds-barred, fiercely independent journalism

  2. Phil R

    Hi Nathan, given what you outline above, the best solution would be to repeal the marriage act – something I’ve been arguing for the last few years. I put this to some pro SSM friends recently and they all agreed. Why should the state be in the business of defining and regulating marriage at all?

    Reply
    1. Andrew

      The state has got an interest in registering relationships for a few reasons. To identify incest. To identify next of kin for inheritance purposes. To identify the couple who are responsible for a given child, and to encourage people to stay together in raising their children. Most of those reasons arise from a christian worldview where children are the result of a monogamous lifelong relationship. Given that’s not functionally how we operate now, and christian boundaries on sexual ethics are seen as antiquated, it’s questionable what role the state has.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Wake up! The Aussie church needs hopeful wisdom and imagination; not the ‘status quo’ | St. Eutychus

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