Category Archives: Christianity

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The alt-right brony Christian conspiracy theory

When you’re fighting a culture war it seems that your enemy’s enemies become your friends.

Also when you’re fighting a culture war it seems any ammunition served up to further your cause should be fired without question.

This makes for really strange bedfellows.

My Little Pony is a cult TV cartoon phenomenon — based on the line of toys. This show is also popular amongst adults, perhaps feeling nostalgic, perhaps those who believe ‘friendship is magic’. A male who loves My Little Pony is often called a ‘brony’ — a delightful little portmanteau of ‘bro’ and ‘pony’… The show is big on inclusivity, and recently introduced its first lesbian pony couple. There’s a well documented subset of bronies in the alt-right; neo-nazi bronies. They have a chat room called ‘The Horse Reich” (content warning of course). There are a couple of stories covering this cultural movement over the last few years at Vice and Medium — and lest these articles feel like they’re from the left, you can get a bit more insight straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, from the Alt-Right Brony page on Facebook, or check out this truly ‘DeviantArt’ tribute to My Little Pony.

The Alt-Right has been working its way into western democracies for a few years now, and it enjoys an interesting relationship with Christianity because of the profound impact Christianity has had on western culture (especially institutional Christianity which has established significant western institutions like schools, universities, and hospitals, and even provided the building blocks for democracy, especially post-Reformation). Its presence in Australia has felt more ‘fringy’ to the conversation than influential — consider, for example, the almost universal condemnation of ex-senator Fraser Anning, both after his maiden speech and his response to the Christchurch massacre. This doesn’t mean the Alt-Right is not an issue, its influence is growing and will continue to grow so long as we (either from the left, or the right) buy in to the ‘culture war’ approach to politics; where the Alt-Right are either allies because they’re our enemy’s enemy, or they are friends. Given the interesting relationship the Alt-Right has to Christianity, we Christians need to be particularly discerning about how we approach people who may, at times, share some cultural convictions we hold as a result of our faith (the Alt-Right is vocally opposed to abortion, and to the ‘LGBTQI+ agenda’ and the boogey man of ‘cultural marxism’ — which is a label that is in itself an alt-right conspiracy that has a racist (anti-semitic) heritage), the Alt-Right also tends to be racist; though some of its ‘thought leaders’ have been shifting to ‘pro-western’ rhetoric rather than ‘pro-white’ — so people of other than European heritage can join in if they love “western values”; the Christchurch shooter was, according to his manifesto, not attacking a mosque because of the ethnicity of the worshippers, but rather, as part of a pro-European act; a very real example of shots being fired in a ‘culture war’ — a war that starts in political rhetoric, that eventually produces action.

There’s nothing Christian about the Alt-Right. The political vision of the Kingdom of God is people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation, gathered in the throne room of God worshipping the God of all creation, and the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus. The Kingdom of God is not ‘western’ — though the west does owe lots to the faithful presence of Christians within its institutions. Christendom did produce some good stuff, even if seeing the church and state as coterminous is increasingly a pretty obvious historical and geographical anomaly, and a theologically questionable exercise — a properly Christian ‘political theology’ needs to work as well in a small town in China in 1300 as it does in Australia in 2019. Because Christianity is neither ‘white’ nor ‘western’ we Christians need to be careful about our relationship with the Alt-Right; it’s not symbiotic. They are parasites; seeking to suck the good from Christianity to prop up a racist or ‘western’ ideology at the expense of all others. This is why the ACL choosing to endorse One Nation in its how to vote card is such a problem. But it’s also why this week has seen a fascinating display from one of Australia’s leading proponents of the culture war narrative; the Australian Conservative’s Lyle Shelton. Lyle, of course, was the former Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, and the leader of Australia’s official campaign against Same Sex Marriage. He failed in his bid to win a senate seat, which means he has more time on his hands now, as communications director of the Australian Conservatives, to tweet random grenades in a culture war that nobody else seems interested in fighting… but every time he does that, because of his prominence as a “Christian” voice in politics he further entrenches the relationship between Christianity and the Alt-Right; and the problem with parasites — like ticks — is they don’t just get sustenance from the host body, they’ll eventually kill the host, or, like mosquitos, they’ll leave the host with a bunch of strange diseases that might lie undiagnosed if the symptoms aren’t recognised.

Here are two tweets from Lyle from this week. They’re screenshots in case at some point in history they are removed (so far Lyle has doubled down on the Proud Boys one).

Now. I could write a whole post on the oddness of Lyle’s logic in the My Little Ponies one. Firstly, gay couples existed before same sex marriage; and existed in cultural texts before same sex marriage. In fact, most people who are good at politics — unlike Lyle — recognise that politics sits downstream from culture, and it’s not same sex marriage that has produced gay characters in television programs, but gay characters in television programs that led to same sex marriage being acceptable in the electorate. This means, if you were outraged by this, you’d be better off devoting your energy to producing popular cultural texts that represent Christianity well, not, as Lyle suggests, that you’d jump into the political fray aka the Culture War TM. This is very much a ‘call to arms’ — and, sadly, it’s the kind of call to arms that leads to violent people in the Alt-Right taking up arms (ala Christchurch, and several shootings in the U.S). What’s also odd is that the implication of Lyle’s argument that same sex couples and families should not be represented in popular television programs leads to weird extrapolations about the place of such couples or families in societies. It’s a dog whistle. It’s a terrible one. I have regular conversations with my kids about the kids in their classes, or at their schools, who have two mums or two dads — having these families represented on television is a blessing, not a curse, for Christian parents who understand that it’s our job to form or indoctrinate our kids; not the state’s. Using ‘indoctrination’ as a pejorative is, for a Christian, a very odd thing — especially because Lyle is a fan of Christian education as an alternative and possible stream for Christians who want to approach the world like he does (who can also use their religious freedom to keep the atmosphere ‘pure’ from any families who might threaten the nice little monastic walls he wants built around our kids to free them from the indoctrinating power of culture and the state. Let’s, instead, focus our energy on teaching our kids to be part of the Kingdom of God, to follow the Lord Jesus as their example because they worship God and find human flourishing, or fullness, in that relationship. Let’s be parents who use TV and schooling as an aid for our parenting, rather than a substitute…

But then, the second tweet, where Lyle is pictured with a bunch of blokes from the Proud Boys — an Alt-Right group whose leader was banned from visiting Australia earlier this year. What’s worse is that the ‘Proud Boys’ are proudly making ‘white power’ hand symbols. It’s also not just Lyle Shelton caught up in this mess; Bob Katter made the news this week for his ‘larrikin’ pledge of allegiance to the Proud Boys. It’s not clear to me if it’s worse for a Christian involved in politics to share an ideology with the Proud Boys and the neo-nazi Alt-Right, so that a photo like this is a meeting of the minds, or to see them as allies in the Culture War and so lend credence to their platform rather than deliberately and clearly disavowing the movement. Lyle did neither. After a tweetstorm (and a deleting of the photo on Facebook), Lyle issued this ‘non apology’ to clarify his position.

“I’m skeptical when the Left brand people Nazis, haters etc. So when a group of “Proud Boys” invited me for a drink, I was happy to have a chat. I share their disdain for PC. If there are elements of white supremacy or advocacy of violence in the PBs, I obviously reject this. As a target of violence from the Left (my office was bombed, meetings disrupted, family home address placed on the internet, death threats etc), I abhor violence. I also campaign against eugenics as practiced in Australia against disabled & female unborn babies. I’m no Nazi.”

Now, some will see this as the sort of disavowal required; but I don’t think so. Lyle might claim he rejects ‘white supremacy’ and any of it associated with the Proud Boys; but there’s very much a ‘the enemy of my enemy’ (the politically correct left) thing going on here, and the sort of non-apology/non-condemnation that allows him to have his cake and eat it too. He can pander to the political support of the Alt-Right while maintaining some sort of clean-skin mainstream ‘rightness’. No thanks. Let me say it again; there is nothing Christian about ‘white supremacy’, dogmatic nationalism, or using ‘anti-PC’ as a way to disguise hate speech. So Christians have to call this out for same reason it’s worth calling out the hateful origins of Israel Folau’s meme, and the ACL’s endorsement of One Nation, and the ‘culture wars’ as a phenomenon; legitimising hateful words in the name of one’s ideology scoring points in a culture war leads people to take up arms; the Christchurch shooter made the same hand symbol the Proud Boys do in this photo. There’s no place for this in any politics that claims to be Christian. It’s definitely possible to be a conservative who loves good things about the west and wants to hold on to them; but not like this. Lyle doesn’t need to ally himself with these lads in order to win some ‘greater’ victory; to do so is a loss for the Gospel, and as Jesus said “what good is it to gain the whole world and yet forfeit your soul’. Proud Boys or members of the Alt-Right who find themselves in our churches because they share a conservative political ideology and love for the fruits of Christianity in the western world need to be clear about where that fruit comes from — the Holy Spirit being poured out on people of every tribe and tongue and nation, going to the ends of the earth, as people put their trust in the victory and rule of the resurrected Lord Jesus. The fruit without the tree is poisonous.

But maybe this is actually all quite innocent; maybe Lyle was at the Mount Gravatt Bowls Club with the Proud Boys for a Brony convention. Maybe he’s a closet brony and it’s more socially acceptable to be a racist than be outed that way. That might explain his anger at the new couple on My Little Pony. Maybe it’s actually My Little Pony fans, not Christians, who should be up in arms about their ‘identity’ being co-opted and destroyed in the name of some culture war. Strange bedfellows indeed; but it kinda makes more sense to me than trying to fuse the worship of a crucified Jewish man, put to death by the western state (Rome), in the non-western world (Jerusalem) with white supremacy or the defence of ‘the west’ and its values.

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The church of the excluded middle

If there’s one thing we learned in the recent Australian election, just one ‘take home’ message, it’s that there aren’t just deep fault lines between religious and non-religious Australians, but, increasingly, there are fault lines running through the Christian community. I’m not sure ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Australian politics — or within the Australian church — have ever been more polarised. But then, I am still reasonably young…

The stakes seemed pretty high for religious Aussies, what with lobby groups like the ACL doubling down on ‘religious freedom’ and ‘keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament’ as two of their top five areas of policy concern for Christians’ (which led them to hand out how to vote cards that supported One Nation in certain ‘battleground’ seats (for what it’s worth, Tony Abbott’s pugilistic campaign page ‘battlelines.com.au’ seems to have been a misfire)). The Labor Party’s policy on abortion was also an issue of widespread concern amongst Christian voters — but that tends to be one that crosses the right/left divide amongst Christians in lots of cases. Meanwhile, my friends on the left seemed keen to play down religious freedom as an issue (especially as it connects to the ongoing imbroglio surrounding ex-Wallaby Israel Folau), even as Labor Party insider after insider comes out flagellating the party for ‘disconnecting’ itself from the average religious punter (and, for what it’s worth, in my little bit of political punditry in my previously linked piece on abortion, I suggested Labor’s platform revealed they believed the Christian constituency to be so insignificant a force that they could not just ignore it, but trash it and ‘wedge’ Christian conservatives as the ‘bad guys’, turns out if that’s the strategy, they were wrong, and I remain curious about the impact Israel Folau had on this misread)… That said, my friends on the left are dismayed by the failure for, in Abbott’s words, the issue of climate change to be treated as a moral issue not an economic one, for a lack of movement in Australia’s generosity via foreign aid, and for many of us with friends who sought asylum in Australia there’s a particular grief about more years of limbo and dispassionate dehumanisation of these vulnerable members of our community (calculated dispassion at this point seems morally worse to me than passionate objection to the issue — plus, if boat turnbacks have “stopped the boats,” the whole rationale for keeping people from settling in Australia permanently is gone; either that policy is working or it isn’t). 

The stakes seem high for fellowship amongst Christians who are ideologically convicted or partisan, or even just ‘centrist’ (and not in the sense of trying to find a synthesis between every policy issue, but rather, in the sense of recognising that where the right tends to focus on individual responsibility and a conservative impulse, and the left tends to focus on systemic issues and solutions, and a progressive narrative, there’s actually truth and wisdom to be found in holding those poles in tension). People on either pole seem keen to take to Twitter to disavow the political other — to pull the church in a political direction based on an ideological assumption of ‘Gospel truth’ linking up with a particular stance, and in doing so, to dismiss the good faith reasons their brothers and sisters in Christ give for holding different convictions as matters of liberty, wisdom, and an application of our limited, creaturely, ability to actually know how to tackle incredibly complex questions in an increasingly globalised world. 

At the same time as political questions get treated as though the answers must be found at the ‘poles’; theological questions are also being resolved in the same way; ‘tension’, ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox’ are increasingly terms to be viewed with suspicion. Where once unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things might was an ‘ideal’ — it has been replaced with a sort of philosophy that looks like:  ‘unity is essential, charity towards those who disagree with us is unnecessary and perhaps unfaithful’. This seems to come from a growing fear that our churches are like the lifeboats dropping off the sinking Titanic of Christendom which has just crashed into the iceberg of secularism — means everybody is clamouring to clearly mark out their space. The way this plays out is in a phenomenon observed by James Davison Hunter in his To Change The World; he was writing about the polarising nature of public life once everything in public life is ‘politicised’ — where we outsource all major decisions and recognition of what matters to law makers — but this observation is also true of the institutional church as it adopts the ‘politics’ of the world around it. Hunter says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicisation is the turn toward law and politics—the instrumentality of the state—to find solutions to public problems. The biggest problem is how to create or reinforce social consensus where little exists or none could be generated organically. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases.” — James Davison Hunter

In a time where we feel a need for certainty within our church structures — the sort you want when you jump in a lifeboat hoping it will hold up your weight — our churches seem to be turning to writing ‘policies’ or ‘statements’ (or feeling the pressure to sign up to competing statements like the Nashville Statement or the Revoice Statement on sexual ethics) where once there was liberty. We’re running to the poles and creating ‘laws’ or ‘lines’ or ‘boundaries’ on questions where uncertainty might not have been such a bad thing; partly this is a pressure placed on the church by external political forces — the more our civic life is subject to legislation around what behaviour and expression is welcome in public, the more clearly we will be compelled to outline our ‘doctrinal positions’ in the face of legal action, like, for example, whether or not a Christian school’s treatment of a same sex attracted staff member or transgender student is an expression of its doctrine; that these questions are now viewed through a political or legal lens rather than a pastoral one is one of the great failings of the church as we’ve been co-opted into this new reality. 

Hunter sees this ‘politicisation’ emerging as a result of an increasing trend for people to process truth through the shortcut of their ideological framework. We no longer have shared beliefs about much of what was once held in ‘common’ which means everything is contested; and if truth is contested, especially in the public, and especially where the ‘public’ is the same as ‘the political’ — you’re better off being a ‘winner’ than a ‘loser’; and ultimately we lose (as we seek to find) our ‘self’ as it becomes subsumed into an ‘ideology’ and then an ‘identity,’ he says:

“Politicisation is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicisation provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarisation is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics.” — James Davison Hunter

In his book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says there’s a ‘religious’ fervour at the heart of polarisation in the west; he sees it as a product of a political Manichaeism — where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are polar opposites at war with one another and the ‘good life’ or ‘good society’ is about victory over evil, not compromise. His model of human behaviour — where ‘the rider’ (our reason), tries to control but is ultimately pulled about by ‘the elephant’ (our emotions and desires), suggests attempts to negate polarisation without tackling this ‘religious’ elephanty disposition towards combat will be pointless. He also says that in this climate using reason alone in political (or theological) disagreements won’t persuade the other, because discussions in this context will feel, and often be, combative. 

“If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”

He, like Hunter, sees polarisation coming as a result of ideology — and his book makes interesting observations about the different moral foundations brought to bear by the left and the right on each issue (and Christians can readily affirm each category). The catch is, those different foundations gear us to respond differently to the same facts — and our view of what is ‘true’ in areas of dispute will be affected by these foundations not just our theological system. Haidt says:

Several studies have documented the “attitude polarization” effect that happens when you give a single body of information to people with differing partisan leanings. Liberals and conservatives actually move further apart when they read about research on whether the death penalty deters crime, or when they rate the quality of arguments made by candidates in a presidential debate, or when they evaluate arguments about affirmative action or gun control.

As this politicisation, polarisation, and move to ‘lawmaking’ plays out at a ‘structural’ level in the institutional church, it also hits home in the local church. I can speak from personal experience that to either deliberately not adopt a position (as our church did during the plebiscite), or to adopt a ‘nuanced’ theological position (as our church does on the question of same sex attraction — where our public teaching has been more aligned with Revoice than with Nashville in that particular part of an inter-nicene ‘culture war’ (I am way prouder of that pun than I should be), comes at a cost. People leave. People want the certainty of a floating lifeboat with high rigid walls, not a rubber dinghy that might get tossed about a bit, but that might also allow a few more people to cling to the sides because it’s closer to the waterline. This too, is a failing of the modern church — a failing to understand who we are called to be; and what sort of community we are meant to be united in Christ, by his Spirit, maintaining fellowship as our chief expression of that unity when it comes to ‘disputable matters’ (note Paul’s ethical approach in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10-11). To leave a community over a political issue or an attempt to be accommodating to people with multiple views is to tear apart the body of Christ that the Spirit of God is knitting together and taking towards maturity; and this maturity is the sort that comes from bumping into one another; from disagreement with a commitment to relationship in Christ above our political concerns, or even matters of disputable doctrine in areas where our knowledge or certainty is limited, like, for example, if intersex people are intersex because their bodies have both male and female characteristics, and we are forced to accommodate such a reality in our theology, how is this definitively different not so much from the ‘psychological’ reality of a transgender person but the physical and neurological realities that we can observe with brain scans? How can we speak with dogmatic certainty on that issue, or, like the current debate around the language of ‘gay Christian’ adopted by same sex attracted people who hold to a traditional Biblical teaching on sexual ethics, but nonetheless want to make claims about their experience without making a claim about their ‘identity’ or ‘ontology’ (a group explicitly excluded by the Nashville Statement, and a position championed by Revoice (which has now been rejected by the Central Carolina Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America whose panel again (which included the Gospel Coalition’s Kevin DeYoung), seems to have brought their conclusions to the table before listening to the people they’re engaging with on ‘their’ terms).

Why must we draw ‘lines’ on these issues? What purpose does such line drawing serve except to move more into the ‘essential’ category, bound by ‘laws’ that suddenly exclude those previously included in liberty or treated with charity?

There’s a law in logic, that when falsely applied creates a fallacy — the law of the ‘excluded middle‘. 

“In logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true”

When we reduce our beliefs to propositional statements; to ‘law’; we don’t just codify a position, we negate other positions. Nashville does this with a series of ‘we affirm’… ‘we deny’ statements; but even simply by affirming a particular propositional truth and not bringing the denial to the table we necessarily exclude. 

The ‘fallacy of the excluded middle’ kicks in where a propositional statement creates a false dilemma; where we create ‘poles’ where no poles were necessary and declare the other pole ‘negated’. It’s this rush to the poles that is excluding so many Aussies in the political process, so that many of us report being disenfranchised and disillusioned; but it’s a similar rush to the poles that is destroying unity and fellowship the same way a mad rush for the lifeboats at the expense of all one’s fellow travellers ‘excludes’ those who don’t get a berth. 

So many of our present political and theological dilemmas are built on false dilemmas; on zero sum games that simply fail to imagine third options. Talk to people occupying those positions — like those in the Revoice Movement, or other ‘celibate gay Christians’ and you’ll hear they feel stuck in the middle of the full blown ‘affirming’ movement — the iceberg — when it comes to questions of sexual ethics and desire, and the ‘negative’ movement which has us running to the life boats on the HMAS Christendom. Not just ‘stuck in the middle’ — but ‘excluded in the middle’; and this seems true in my experience of so many other ‘flashpoint’ issues in our churches and especially in the church’s relationship to worldly power and politics. 

It is hard to be a ‘church of the excluded middle’ — because both poles don’t want to make space for you; nobody is sure if you’re an ally or an enemy. You catch friendly fire and unfriendly fire, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. People flee the ‘uncertainty’ of no man’s land for the trenches on either side of the culture war, when it’s actually drawing combatants from either side together in no man’s land that might create the conditions for a cease fire in the culture wars, not a ‘total defeat’ of the other, but a figuring out how to live side by side, peacefully, in disagreement. It’s precisely those who don’t have a ‘polarised’ position (and the centre probably is a pole all of its own) who might actually help persuade your ideological enemy of the benefits of your position, if they can draw you from your ideologies long enough to talk to one another.  

Here’s my hunch though; and it’s one that I’d say is a driving philosophy behind how we’re trying to approach being the post-secular-iceberg church — a ‘church of the excluded middle’, one that rejects the push to polarisation and to ‘legislating’ on issues of liberty is better placed for both discipleship and evangelism. It’ll keep more people afloat by being less brittle or rigid, and it’ll allow more people to cling to the sides before pulling themselves on board. A group of churches — or Christians — functioning this way will also be the sort of group that can accommodate people who have ideological convictions built from different moral foundations that would otherwise throw them to the poles; and this will be for the good of our shared moral vision. But more than this, a church of the ‘excluded middle’ that is clear on the essentials will cling to Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith; it will see unity in Christ and in the truth of God’s word as timeless, and so be less shaken by the winds and waves of the freezing and deadly water we now navigate. It will listen to those voices that might otherwise be swamped — like those occupying the middle ground in the sexuality debate who are clinging both to Jesus and the traditional teachings of the Church seeking to faithfully interpret the Bible. It will conserve what should be conserved as conservative voices are heard charitably, and will reform what needs to be reformed as progressive voices call for change. It’s a utopian vision, to be sure, an ideal of its own; an ideology to be pursued in ways that might ultimately also exclude ‘truth’ or certainty. But it might just be the sort of community that Paul is imagining in 1 Corinthians 12 as he’s just outlined some real issues around the disputable matter of idol food in the city of Corinth; the sort of community that is to find its unity in Christ, by the Spirit, and use that unity as a foundation, or corrective, in all their disputes (like those Paul addresses in the rest of the letter) as they grow towards maturity and the most excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13). This necessarily requires people living together in disagreement and working out how to love one another in disagreement not just running to lifeboats where you agree with everyone else on board. 

This is also the picture Haidt paints of the sort of community that might escape the destructive ‘religious’ spirit of our age; and the sort that might be not a lifeboat escaping an iceberg, but a lighthouse pointing people from it; the sort that might model an alternative to the politicisation of everything and the reduction of each person to a combatant — enemy or ally — in some culture war. Here’s Haidt:

“Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).”

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Folau did not quote the Bible (and who actually made the content that Izzy shared?)

Israel Folau did not quote the Bible.

Israel Folau shared a ‘meme’.

The meme, as demonstrated below, comes from a street preaching circle in the United States that one could legitimately describe as a non-Biblical ‘hate preaching’ ministry that has a track record of distorting the Gospel and cherry-picking the sins it features to condemn the sexual proclivity of the modern west, but that has significant blindspots that lead to a distorted representation of the Biblical source material. The ‘ministry,’ like Folau’s meme, conveniently ignores an equally pressing besetting sin of the western world, and at least one of the preachers in question: greed.

The ‘meme,’ pictured above, paraphrased the Bible but also flips its audience from Christian to non-Christian, and misrepresents the text in question. The image Folau shared comes from a context (this street preaching group) that determined what parts of the Bible passage were highlighted. The list of sins in the image comes from, but does not quote, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” — 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NIV)

Folau’s social media presence reveals a tendency to quote the King James Version of the Bible, which, is, of itself an interesting phenomenon within the church — the KJV is a favourite volume of those who are suspicious of ‘modern’ ‘human’ re-writers of the Bible, which is a deep irony built on a reasonable amount of ignorance around Bible translation and history. The KJV translates these verses in this way:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. — 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (KJV)

The original, or earliest, rendering of this text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we have, used in english Bible translation is:

ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ἄδικοι θεοῦ βασιλείαν οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν; μὴ πλανᾶσθε: οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται οὔτε κλέπται οὔτε πλεονέκται, οὐ μέθυσοι, οὐλοίδοροι, οὐχ ἅρπαγες βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομήσουσιν.

And this isn’t a point I’m making lightly – because those who want to make a simple ‘black and white’ case that Folau quoted the Bible and so is being persecuted for being a faithful Christian need to ponder how helpfully his meme renders the words μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται, which are the two words for homosexual sex (behaviour) combined in the NIV translation, or separated as ‘effeminate’ and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ in the KJV. Whether these map carefully and accurately onto the modern word ‘homosexual’ is an important discussion to consider when determining how much the meme accurately represents the Bible. I don’t think it does. I believe, and have a long track record of arguing that ‘homosexuality’ as a label describes a person’s orientation to the world, their sexual attraction, their proclivity to ‘lust’, and that these for people ultimately (often) end up in same sex sexual activity of the sort Paul prohibits. The Bible doesn’t directly speak to orientation or attraction, but it does talk about behaviour in a way that people with any orientation or attraction have to take on board when submitting to the authority or rule of Jesus and the re-ordering of our hearts and lives when we move from “worshipping created things” as Paul describes our sinful state, to “worshipping the creator.” The meme  misrepresents the relationship between ‘sinners’ and ‘sin’ established by Paul, who is emphasising sinful activity or action, not an orientation or desire (though in 1 Corinthians 6:11 he does say ‘such as some of you were’ and our orientation, attraction, desires, lusts, and actions are often integrated so that actions are an expression of orientation. For anybody who becomes a Christian, gay or straight, the call to repent and turn to Jesus is the call to re-orient ourselves in the world and so moderate our attractions, desires, and behaviour accordingly.

So, that’s one strike against the idea that Folau ‘quoted the Bible’ via this image (at least in this image, it doesn’t seem to me that he’s in trouble for quoting Galatians in the text attached to this image in his post). Another strike would be that in the context of Corinthians, Paul has just spoken about how the church in Corinth should engage with the world, and how they should respond to sexual immorality — he says they’re to keep themselves pure, exercising judgment on sexual morality in the church, but leave judging those outside the church to God (1 Corinthians 5). I’m not one to quote Matthew 7:1 as though it should stop us seeing behaviours that are against the express revealed will of God as ‘not sinful’ or some sort of wishy washy revisionism, but I am going to point out that there’s a difference between writing to Christians telling them not to behave like the world, and writing to the world telling them to behave like Christians and taking the position of God when doing so — judging them — it is not for me to declare that ‘hell awaits’ anybody; it’s for me to declare the Gospel of Jesus, and him crucified (as was Paul’s description of his practice in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1-2, a message he summarises to include the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15).

This is a second strike; the third is to reframe Paul’s statement about ‘inheriting the kingdom of God’ to ‘hell awaits’ the other. It’s not that judgment isn’t a thing, Biblically, it’s that a causal link between these particular sins — that are symptoms — and judgment, is not a point Paul is making in this text. Also, when Paul does get to 1 Corinthians 15 his argument isn’t ‘heaven v hell’ but ‘death and dust in Adam’ v ‘life and imperishability’ in Jesus. We tend not to be super careful about making a distinction between Hades and the lake of fire reserved for Satan, his minions, death and hades, and those who reject Jesus; and I’m not convinced a person whose flesh has not been made imperishable by the Spirit of God (ala 1 Corinthians 15) lasts for very long in Revelation’s lake of fire… but this is a much more contested point than the one I’m making with this third strike against the meme; that the Bible as a whole, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in particular, don’t make judgment about particular sins, or particular types of sinner, but about whether one accepts Jesus as Lord and receives the Spirit, and life, or whether one rejects Jesus.

This is a point made by Jesus himself about what earns judgment, in, for example, John 3. Where ‘seeing’ the Kingdom of God requires being ‘born of the Spirit,’ which comes through believing in Jesus (John 3:3-16), but death comes as the ongoing result of not being born again and judgment comes on the pivotal question not of what sins I commit as a result of rejecting Jesus, but on the question of whether or not I reject Jesus.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.  — John 3:17-18

So that’s three strikes. I’m not sure you can say someone ‘quotes’ the Bible if they take a message from the Bible written to Christians, that has a particular context within a letter, and then turn it around to say something else to non-Christians, in an apparent direct contradiction with the verses from right next door (1 Corinthians 5). It’s not ‘quoting the Bible’ if you obscure in your translation decision what the original makes clear (the move from ‘homosexual sex’ to ‘homosexuals’). It’s misquoting the Bible. ‘Quoting the Bible’ is also not the ‘shibboleth’ test Christians seem to be treating it as — it’s possible to quote, say, Job’s friends or Satan as he is tempting Jesus, without the literary context, and to say very untrue things about the world.

But here’s two more questions to raise about Folau’s post (and this is not to say Folau should have lost his job for sharing his religious beliefs publicly, but rather to say, Folau did not lose his job for quoting the Bible).

  1. Is it wise to try to reduce the teaching of the Bible into memes, or even just into single verses to pump out via social media devoid of the context both of the Bible as a coherent whole, and a real relationship with the person you are communicating to? And;
  2. Where did this meme actually come from, and to what extent should that frame questions about how helpful and Biblical its content is?

The first one is one where people will no doubt reach different convictions based on communication theory and an understanding of the ‘content’ of a proclamation of the Gospel; ie what ‘communicating’ the Gospel as a message involves in terms of content, and how this ‘content’ should shape the context we give it as communicators. How much does our ‘message’ need to inform and shape ‘our mediums’. I wrote a thesis on this question, basically, so I won’t revisit that here…

But the second question is quite instructive. Google’s ‘reverse image’ function reveals there’s no public, track record of this image being shared online (this doesn’t mean it’s not been shared and circulated on systems that might be closed to Google’s image search function (like Instagram)). Its presence on the web in the form Folau used it, directly coincides with Folau’s publication of the image; and correlation is causation in this case.

I also waded through, thanks to reverse image searching some of his other posts, Pinterest boards of other images Folau has shared on Twitter and Instagram over the last 12 months, and it appears he gets images from a wide variety of sources. He has a penchant for criticising prosperity preaching (and Joel Osteen and Hillsong cop his ire regularly). In the fallout of last year’s similar controversy, he shared a video from David Wilkerson (the guy who wrote The Cross and The Switchblade), who is popular amongst a certain corner of the Christian ‘dark’ web — those who believe the church, in its current form, have compromised and that faithful preaching looks a lot like taking to the street with placards. Folau is getting his content from somewhere, and he got this image from somewhere, and where it came from (both when he found it, and originally) is not irrelevant; especially not in the realm of ‘memes’ and how they are circulated and distributed.

In the early days of the Folau controversy I asked what the difference between his ‘quotes’ from the Bible and the quotes from the Bible featured on Westboro Baptist signs were, because there is more to faithful proclamation of the Gospel than just taking bits of the Bible that name specific sinful behaviours, convicting people of that, and telling them to make some sort of belief transfer to Jesus; there’s more to ‘evangelism’ than just holding up a placard and shouting. But I wasn’t sure there was a legitimate link between a Westboro sign and Folau’s meme; as a result of a reasonably deep dive into the source of Folau’s image, now I’m not so convinced the comparison isn’t apt; and that rather than the picture being ‘quoting the Bible’ it isn’t a certain form or re-appropriating the Bible for a ‘hate speech’ based approach to preaching.

My reservations about Folau’s communication strategy on social media are much the same as my reservations about Westboro; though I don’t think he is a ‘teacher’ in a church in the same way Fred Phelps is, so I think his actions are well intended and wrong, rather than the horrid actions of a false preacher; Folau’s post is the fruit of that sort of false preaching and wrong use of the Bible taking hold in the lives of real people searching for a coherent truth about the world, and sin, and Jesus. Folau’s post is the product of a tradition that puts the emphasis on those ‘blocks’ in all the wrong places in a way that distorts the truth and misrepresents it to a world ill equipped to have conversations about sin and judgment (especially when it comes to the way it tackles the sexuality issue).

Folau did, however, source this image from somewhere. Because the image does exist in a variety of forms, with some variations. It is used by a couple of street preaching ministries in the United States, appearing both in the ‘Bulldog Ministries’ (bulldogministries.com) ‘evangelism’ of David Stokes in Texas and surrounds, and the ‘ChristianInterviews.com’ (site now defunct) ministry of Aden Rusfeldt in Philadelphia. Both seem affiliated with OfficialStreetPreachers.com; which features images linking to ‘ChristianInterviews’ and is linked to by Bulldog Ministries. Official Street Preachers features this charming assembly of some of their signs (an earlier version of this post had this image as the header, which led to some confusion and concern on social media, the header image has now been changed).

Here’s the Facebook page and YouTube channel for Rusfeldt’s ministry, and a gallery of public preaching from both sites featuring signs identical to, similar to, and from the same ‘family’ as Folau’s meme.

From what I can tell, the earliest use of these signs that are the source material for Folau’s memes come from Stokes, in that this news article from 2012 describes the graphic pretty well.

“The first thing that really draws the eye, though, is the enormous sign he’s carrying.

“WARNING,” it reads, in five-inch high orange letters. “Drunks, homosexuals, abortionist [sic], adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, witches, idolaters, HELL AWAITS YOU.”

More recently, in Philadelphia, the sign has been part of an array used by Aden Rusfeldt. Here’s a fascinating profile of his mission strategy in Philadelphia, containing some interesting data that brings into question the decision to not, include greed in the ‘ChristianInterviews’ placards.

“And Pastor Aden knows what it’s like have your soul saved. He, too, used to be a seemingly hopeless sinner. Pastor Aden had sex before marriage. He used to drink heavily. He polluted his body with marijuana.

That’s the stuff that Pastor Aden tells you about when he gives you his “testimony,” as Christians call it — the story of their salvation.

But he leaves some stuff off of that list.

Pastor Aden has been fined millions of dollars by the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission over investment schemes he ran as far back as 2005 and as recently as 2015. According to the government, he was known as “Big A” to many of the people whose money he took. The CFTC found that he “defrauded customers.”

And a few weeks ago, the Internal Revenue Service filed an $800,000-plus federal income tax lien against Pastor Aden and his wife in Bucks County, where they may or may not live.”

That’s not the only place Rusfeldt (and others) choose to leave greed off the list. It’s also interesting to ponder why ‘slanderers’ or ‘revilers’ don’t make the graphics, given that 1 Corinthians 6 is their origin. The dropping off of ‘greed’ from a list of sins in order to emphasise the sexual deviancy of the western world is a distortion of the difference between lust and greed; both are about false worship of created things (sex, or money and possessions). It’s not a cheap rhetorical move to ask why the guy being paid a million bucks a year shares an image that doesn’t mention it, it’s pointing to a massive cultural blindspot within Christian responses to the west. We’re great at throwing rocks at people who don’t match our sexual ethic, but not great at seeing where our economic ethic marches in lockstep with the world — or in the case of one of the promulgators of the meme Folau shared, where we’re running ahead of the world into swindly theft built from greed and carefully retelling our story to avoid that while living in a mansion.

And it’s not a ‘genetic fallacy’ thing to trace the source of this meme back to this petrie dish of hate preaching. Folau saw this image somewhere. It’s not circulating on the regular internet in obvious places. He has made a deliberate decision to pass on a meme — the study of ‘memetics’ is all about how memes function a bit like genes; that ideas transmit through different networks in particular and connected ways. The area of memetics is interesting and a bit disputed (and comes from Richard Dawkins, and is built on evolutionary science, which might poison the well for some Christians). But when we say ‘Folau just shared a meme’ we’re buying into a certain sort of idea transmission and communication theory that says that meme is connected by heritage to what came before, and remains connected as it evolves. Whether the Gospel is, itself, something like a meme — or whether it can be reduced to an internet meme — is another question; but what’s instructive in this case is that the origin of our communication material will shape what is communicated, and that will shape how the communication is received and the reaction it earns; and at this point Christians can rest a little easier, because Folau didn’t just quote the Bible, and had he just quoted the Bible we can’t know what the reaction might have been. He shared an image that has been used by people reducing the Bible to a message of hate, targetting an ‘other’ that those people hate and see as corrupting the world, while being oblivious to their own corruption (in the area of greed), and promoting an ongoing ignorance to that issue.

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How the future of religion in Australia might require a truly multi-ethnic, post-western, community (and how we might get that from migration and why that makes the Australian Christian Lobby’s how to vote card even worse than you thought)

Here are eleven things that are interesting and more connected than you might think that have happened in the last few months.

  1. A radicalised white man from Australia, with European heritage, walked into a mosque in Christchurch during prayer time and shot 51 people dead (the death toll rose 6 days ago).
  2. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, an atheist (who grew up Mormon) in an expression of solidarity with the Muslim community wore a hijab and called for a united vision of what it means to be human and thus, a citizen of New Zealand, built around unity and compassion.
  3. Polynesian Rugby Union player Israel Folau instagrammed a meme that says “Hell awaits homosexuals (and several other categories of sinner lifted from the New Testament). Several Polynesian Rugby Union players find themselves embroiled in the controversy for liking Folau’s Instagram post. “Tongan Thor” a fellow Wallaby, makes a statement that the ARU might as well sack all Polynesian players who share Folau’s views.
  4. The Australian Rugby Union, in partnership with major sponsor, Qantas, who embody a certain sort of corporate social activism (the sort where you throw your weight around on social issues locally, to turn a dollar, but also partner with nationalised airlines from around the world from regimes that kill homosexuals, also to turn a dollar), threatened to sack Folau, and are now most of the way through their internal proceedings to achieve that outcome. They say the tweet goes against their inclusion policy (which includes sexuality, ethnic background, and religion), and that he should thus be excluded. The NRL and its managing figures pre-emptively expressed the view that Folau would also not be re-welcomed, or included, should he cross codes again. A few people make the observation that religion and ethnicity are deeply intertwined in the Polynesian experience and identity (including me, Stephen McAlpine, and a gay polynesian journalist), some of us asking questions about the legitimacy of corporate, white, upper class people ruling on the validity of opinions expressed from an identity outside their experience, in the name of “inclusion.” Anthony Mundine condemns the treatment of Folau as racist.
  5. Journalists reporting on the Folau story consistently ‘mediate’ it to the wider populace reinforcing the narrative of the harm Folau’s posts do to the gay community, but making fundamental errors about Folau’s religious commitment, some including photos of Folau in front of a Mormon temple as though that is still his religion, others unable to reconcile his actions in support of gay inclusion on the football field with his theological beliefs, others calling protestant church services ‘mass’, all while arguing that this is a critical moment in the conversation about religious freedom in the post-Christian west, specifically in Australia.
  6. Bombings in Sri Lanka target worshippers in church for Easter services, those condemning the attacks, from the ‘post-religious’ west (specifically from America) call the victims gathered in church ‘Easter Worshippers’ rather than Christians, leading to several conspiracy theories about sinister motives.
  7. New Zealand Prime Minister, and former Mormon, Jacinda Ardern, condemned Folau, another former Mormon, who is married to a New Zealand representative netball player.
  8. Former Wallabies coach, turned media personality, Alan Jones, and a bunch of other media commentators, have made this case a religious freedom and freedom of speech case.
  9. Former Wallabies player (under Jones), turned media personality and proud/belligerent atheist, Peter Fitzsimmons has been prosecuting the case against Folau on the basis that his tweets “vilify” the gay community and that the spectre of hell and judgment from religious players (in the junior ranks) contribute to the suicide rate amongst gay teenagers. He writes an article scoffing at religious freedom arguments, and projecting his particular views about the substance and meaning of Folau’s religious beliefs (specifically his position on Hell) into the situation; other journalists and media opinion shapers (not always journalists) express bewilderment that Folau would say such obviously hurtful things.
  10. Former Wallabies captain, Nick Farr Jones, also a Christian, meets with Israel Folau to encourage him to apologise, and comes away supporting Folau’s character and intent. Suggesting he is not homophobic and has been misunderstood by the public at large, and by the administrators at the ARU.
  11. The Australian Christian Lobby produce an election checklist for the upcoming Federal Election in Australia that essentially endorses the Australian Conservatives and One Nation on the basis of a five issue platform, and justify the elevation of One Nation on the basis of the access they give to Christian voices into the political process.

Before I try to weave a thread or two between these events, it’s clear that life in the modern west is still complicated, and despite aggressive secularisation theories, religion is still part of the fabric of life — public life even — in the west. It’s clear that modern life is super complex, and the intersection and overlap between different systems of religious belief and the modern western world is a pretty difficult thing to get your head around. It’s also clear that the western, post-Christian, world simply does not understand the nature of the religious belief it finds itself removed from. The reason people (like Jacinda Ardern, or Peter Fitzsimmons — though I’m less sure of his background) move from some sort of religious conviction or upbringing, to non-religious convictions, does not always seem to include a robust understanding of what is left behind not just from particular religious belief or expression, but from the view of the world that comes with the belief of God or gods. The modern, secular, post-religious, west — and by that I mean the section of the world deeply influenced by the European experience — including Canada, the United States, and Australia (and who knows if European includes England anymore, but for now they’re in that label) — no longer has the categories embedded in our “social imaginary” (as Charles Taylor calls it) or shared architecture for understanding religious beliefs and conversations. By this I mean that conversations that happen amongst people who do not share basic foundational views of the world (religious or non-religious) no longer have the shared scaffolding embedded in those conversations as the framework we use to give words meaning and significance. When a religious footballer tweets about hell, and its significance, a post-religious or non-religious journalist, opinion columnist, or ‘mediator of the public square’ is not equipped to substantially understand what is meant; but neither is a member of the gay community (or any other community targeted by such a post). This is as true of Alan Jones and his making this issue about “freedom of speech” as it is Peter Fitzsimmons and his making the issue about vilification of vulnerable people in gay community.

There’s a fascinating sub-thread around the different way the post-Christian world understands ‘our’ western religious heritage, Christianity (or assume we do), such that it gets misrepresented and treated as a ‘thin’ conviction where you just tick a box in the census and get on with life, and you might be an ‘Easter worshipper’ and how our mediating institutions (the media and politicians, especially post-religious politicians) engage with the non-western, Muslim, experience (fascinating too, that Anthony Mundine, an indigenous Aussie convert to Islam, defies the easy categorisation our media is comfortable with, so that his comments about race can be more readily dismissed as conspiracy). I’ve noted elsewhere that it was interesting seeing how this idea that religion is like a bit of clothing, bling, or flair, that you add to your expression, or performance, of your self, might play out with politicians wearing religious garb in ‘solidarity’ — while, actually, the deep and thick religious convictions of Muslims is actually more directly related to the experience of the deep and thick religious convictions of Christians. A ‘religious’ view of the world — one where the world is not a ‘closed system’ of material reality, but where there’s a spiritual reality or an ‘enchanted’ overlay on our everyday lives — is one we share in common, and one still commonly shared outside the western world; it’s the majority view of the world presently, and historically, and so the onus should actually lie on those in the west who want to exclude religious convictions about spiritual matters from public conversations because of their material effects, but somehow, at least in the west, this has flipped around so that religious people have to justify our place at the table in public conversations, and then the inclusion of ‘spiritual’ or ‘non-secular’ views in the conversation. This is a game we’ve now played for so long as Christians in the secular west that we’ve mostly forgotten alternatives and our titular ‘Christian Lobby’ have so thoroughly adopted the rules of the game that they create ‘political tools’ during election season that are meant to pry open the doors to the table not to make religious arguments about a wide range of policies, but to preserve our space in the world.

How we understand the cause of ‘secularisation’ in the western world, or why we’re ‘post Christian’ (or post-religious) will shape how we understand what is happening in every one of those threads. There are two thinkers I think give us pretty good grounds for understanding the landscape here. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age I’ve often quoted here, and C.S Lewis. Lewis’ academic magnum opus was a book called The Discarded Image, it’s an account of how the religious backcloth of the medieval world — where all art and stories and life itself were ‘shot through’ with supernatural significance — has been abandoned in favour of a more mechanical, finite, view of reality. In his first lecture at Cambridge University, Lewis accounted for the decline of religious belief in the modern west as, in part, a turn to a more mechanical experience of life. I’ll quote him at length, because I think it’s great.

I have already argued that this change surpasses that which Europe underwent at its conversion. It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

Lastly, I play my trump card. Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are. What concerns us more is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort.”
“But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.”

This maps neatly, with a few interesting insights, onto Taylor’s secularisation theory. In a short, Taylor describes the move towards secularisation as we experience it in the west as not just being about the rise of science, or modernity, but also the subtraction of a sense of a God who provides a cosmic ordering; we’ve turned from an ‘enchanted’ or religious view of reality — a backdrop where talking about angels and hell makes sense, and operates with certain shared understandings about reality, to a disenchanted world, where belief is contested but the default is a closed version of what he calls the ‘immanent frame’ — a view of the world that excludes God or gods from the picture, and so makes conversations about hell purely about how we treat one another here and now (and so the conversation in the secular media is, understandably, just about the impact of Folau’s words and his ‘villification’ of a vulnerable community; we don’t have to parse out what belief that a certain sort of behaviour leads to Hell if we don’t believe in Hell). Taylor also says it isn’t just ‘science’ that has done away with religion, and that, in part, the impulse comes from our visions of ‘fullness’ or the good life shifting away from God or from being characters in an ‘enchanted cosmos’… part of the deconversion stories of Ardern, and the aggressive atheism of Fitzsimmons, isn’t just ‘science disproves God’ but ‘the full human life doesn’t lie with an ancient conception of God.’

If Lewis and Taylor are right the West operates with this belief about progress, that it involves leaving Christianity behind, that it’s driven by a machine like, or ‘disenchanted’ view of reality, but this is supported by technological advances and the way they fuel a ‘progress’ narrative that celebrates the new and denigrates the old.

Cory Bernadi from the Australian Conservatives, the party most heartily endorsed by the ACL, has been beating the anti-immigration drum for a while, and while it’s not specifically targeted racially in the words in this particular article, check out the images that support those words.

“The Conservative Party has long called for a halving of Australia’s immigration rate along with a radical reform of all of the visa, immigration and welfare rorts that allow hundreds of thousands more people into the country every year, initially on visas for education and employment.”

There’s also a strange sort of dog-whistling thing going on in Bernadi’s ‘condemnation’ of Fraser Anning’s maiden speech. At this link there are significant chunks of search-engine recognisable quotes from Anning’s speech followed by a non-search engine recognisable video file where Bernadi specifically rejects the White Australia policy. But who can forget Pauline Hanson’s famous 2017 remarks about Islam. Here’s a reminder:

“Let me put it in this analogy – we have a disease, we vaccinate ourselves against it, Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.” — Pauline Hanson, One Nation

And remember. These are the parties the Australian Christian Lobby are suggesting we vote for to uphold freedom of speech and to make sure we Christians don’t further lose political influence or a place in society, or even so that our beliefs and convictions about the world are both free to be expressed and more likely to be understood. Make of that what you will, except, recognise that the way we white western people might come at these remarks, in a climate where a white, western person spouting a sort of European ideology, shot people he differed from dead in a place of prayer (and more recently, a member of a Reformed church in the United States opened fire in a synagogue). We’ve got to realise that the ‘disenchanting’ of language includes the de-spiritualising of the significance of words like ‘hell’; it flattens reality so that all battles for truth and supremacy are fought in real time and real space, not just left in the hands of something more cosmic (which isn’t to say that an enchanted view of the world doesn’t produce ‘holy war’ — see the Crusades — but that unholy war is equally terrible and a path to piece might be recognising the potential to sit at a common ‘civic’ table while maintaining our own religious ones in our more sacred spaces).

Here’s my controversial thesis — despite the western world having Christian heritage, such that many of the things we know and love in the west are directly the result of Christianity being practised as a thick religious conviction against a shared consensus that there’s a spiritual dimension to reality, part of dismissing that reality as we turned to a harder secularism in the west means no longer understanding the convictions that drive religious people; no longer recognising the links between belief and action, and severing ourselves, as a society, from the roots that have produced and sustained life. Those roots are pre-western, not western. Those roots are from first century Jerusalem (having come from the ‘BC’ era in a particular part of the non-western world. The way we Christians see the world has much more in common with our Muslim neighbours than our post-Christian, hard-secular neighbours who are now trying to set the rules by which we all live together — including people who live together in religious disagreement. If we want Christianity to truly have a place at the table in the public square we don’t need a whiter, more European, Australia — we need a more multicultural, non-western, religious, table. We need the ‘Asian century’; we need ‘more migration’ from outside of secular Europe, and we need to keep confronting the reality that we aren’t citizens of a western country that gets everything right in pursuit of liberation and progress — fuelled by the infallible churches of capitalism and liberal democracy and the ex cathedra announcements of their popes and mediators (a priestly media), otherwise the deck is stacked, and will become increasingly stacked, against an enchanted view of the world, where one can talk about hell or judgment or spirituality without only being heard on the basis those words might have on other people in the ‘here and now’. The advice to vote for parties who are specifically arrayed against that vision of our nation won’t improve Christianity’s foothold in the west, but destroy it. Bring on non-western immigration — Christian, or otherwise — that’s our best chance at re-enchanting Australia’s vision of the world, and bringing a legitimate pluralism to our public conversations; we won’t get it while post-Christian ‘liberated’ progressive thinkers from the white establishment are setting the rules (or lobbying for them to change). Churches, then, have to get serious about training and platforming non-white, European, leaders who think in non-white, European ways about the world, and how to engage with the political process and public life.

There’s no going back to a purely European, western, ‘Christendom’ (and nor should we want that, probably). There’s very little chance of re-enchanting the western world from within; what it might take is the western world hearing voices from “without” — or bringing those voices and views in and hearing, clearly, about the convictions that drive and shape the majority world towards a different vision of progress. We might colonise other countries with democracy and capitalism, and modernity, but if it comes with the necessity of ‘disenchantment’ — of seeing this world as all there is — then I’m not sure how successful that will be, but we’ll also, essentially, be reprising the role of Satan in the garden, telling people who experience life in a world where God or gods exist as divine beings that they, and they alone, are divine — and all they should be concerned about is what can be grasped here and now.

A grief observed… online

Rachel Held Evans was something of an internet phenomenon; a voice of a generation of Christians, especially women, who felt sidelined and marginalised by an institutional church and a form of Christianity many have struggled to reconcile with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. She took twists and turns that made many (including me) uncomfortable, but her desire (whether you think she got there or not) to take Christianity back towards the heart and example of Jesus was undeniable, so too, her impact on the broader church, especially women and other people the status quo of how the church operates (especially in America). I’m reminded, in moments like these, that it is by grace, through faith in Jesus, that people are part of God’s kingdom, not (mercifully for me, and others) by ticking the correct doctrinal boxes. One just has to glance at the hashtag #BecauseofRHE to see this. She’s an interesting and powerful testimony to the way the internet destabilises the status quo in the church in a similar way to the printing press, giving a voice, and power, to those our structures might exclude.

Rachel Held Evans went to hospital for an apparently routine matter, and complications in the procedures, or with the medication, left her in a pretty dire, ultimately fatal, set of circumstances. The story about her health broke on twitter when an acquaintance published a private Facebook post, without permission, which led to a Twitter wide prayer vigil, and an incredible outpouring of support. The internet collapsed our creaturely separation from these events. Medical procedures happening a world away, to one individual, were suddenly occupying the attention of people around the globe; me included. I refreshed the page updating her condition daily; praying as I did. A new ‘daily office’ of sorts that compartmentalised a small part of my attention; and thus my embodied life, placing it in a virtual hospital waiting room a world away. It did this for many people. One life, a life I have no creaturely, physical connection to, a person I do not know, occupying attention that is limited, and probably has prior claims put on it by those in my more immediate, embodied, orbit.

And then Rachel died. Those updates and the outpouring of prayer and support changed, and there’s now an outpouring of genuine grief; the vast majority of this grief is being expressed by people who had no physical connection to Rachel Held Evans, but rather a spiritual connection. A sense of a connection to her built by her writing, in her questions, in her activism — in what she represents in terms of a challenging of status quos — she represents so many others, especially women who are often deplatformed by the evangelical status quo (and so turn to the Internet for a sense of community and a space to talk, and question, and be recognised). For good or for ill, for most of us grieving, we are grieving the loss of a persona as much as a person, because for many of us, our access to Rachel was always mediated by pixels and in words. All interactions with all people are mediated and the idea of getting an intimate knowledge of who a person truly is requires not simply embodiment, but vulnerability; Rachel’s writing and her approach to the internet in general, has been celebrated as being exemplary human, and vulnerable. Her impact on the church is real, even if virtual. Her loss is being felt by many — even those who had sharp theological disagreements with her online. The questions she confronted us with are not just questions of the content of our beliefs — where I was as likely to disagree with things she said as I was to agree — but with questions about our forms and practices, both in the physical church community, and the virtual space we now occupy.

What’s clear is that while many people are grieving the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s presence, mediated online, there’s a family — especially a husband and two very young children — and friends, for whom this loss, this grief, is more palpable; more tangible; the hole left by this tragedy will not be filled by hashtags or pixelated stories.

Grief is a strange thing to observe; and the internet makes it stranger. In the outpouring of grief around the death of one loved persona we’re seeing the best of the Internet, but also the weirdness of our increasingly disembodied, ‘excarnated’ age — where a local community of believers has, in many cases, for many people outside the norms, been a disappointment, such that comfort, community, and the sense of being known and loved has led many online, and many to voices like Rachel’s. It would be a tragedy for us, as the church, not to learn something from the expressions of grief from around the world, especially from women, and those our communities marginalise (including those seeking to reconcile their faith in Jesus with their sexuality), and to ask questions about where we might have failed locally; where there might be other women like Rachel, or who felt championed by her, in our midst; and where we might need ongoing reform of our church practices — our forms — to align them with our content.

As I’ve spent my emotional energy watching the reaction to this tragedy roll out around the Internet, reading far too many awful, negative, ‘gotcha,’ pieces alongside the genuine expressions of lament, and loss, and connection to Rachel Held Evan’s and what she meant to real people, I’ve felt a little like an outsider; not to the expressions of grief, but to its embodied reality. I’ve felt like one affected by the loss of a persona rather than a person. I’ve been detached enough to start asking questions about the nature of grief, of personhood, of spiritual community, and of the Internet, I’ve not been able to escape the title of C.S Lewis’ writings about grief: A Grief Observed, and wondering if Lewis has much to say about how the Internet and this grief might be doing strange things to our personhood. I’m not without empathy; the thought of Rachel’s husband Dan having to publicly mediate his wife’s last few weeks to a legion of fans, while working through the medical process, and his personal grief, and now the thought of him raising two children who may forget their mother hits me pretty hard; harder than the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s voice — which will live on not just in the mediated pixels of the internet, but in the way her thoughts and experience were ‘incarnated’ into her books. But I also feel like a stranger who has walked in to the back of a church during a funeral service, or who has wandered into a wake and been handed a drink and caught up in what is quite a human experience that properly requires a body and some deep connection to a physical person who is now gone.

In A Grief Observed, Lewis, writing about his wife, H, reflects on how quickly in the absence of her embodied presence, he is left grieving — and recreating in his mind — an image of his wife; a persona, rather than the real person. And how much the reality of a person’s presence overwhelms the versions of them we create in our imagination.

“I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.”

How much more will this phenomenon be exaggerated by the Internet? How much more will our re-creation or re-imagination of a lost person be accelerated so that they become a sort of avatar if we’ve not been physically connected to a person? These questions aren’t to deny the attachment to Rachel Held Evans, or the reality of the grief, or the deep reality of a spiritual connection shared across time and space by those who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them — but to ask questions about how healthy, or human, such attachments are, and to ponder if this virtual reformation prompted by pioneers like Evans would best happen locally, with those our systems marginalise but who are still in our midst?

Lewis ponders this some more in the same chapter:

“Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years. And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well—how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said. The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely. Not that he had changed. On the contrary. I kept on thinking, ‘Yes, of course, of course. I’d forgotten that he thought that—or disliked this, or knew so-and-so—or jerked his head back that way.’ I had known all these things once and I recognized them the moment I met them again. But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years. How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H? That it is not happening already? Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”

Love, in some sense, is, and must be, bodily, not simply imagined or excarnate. When the Apostle Paul speaks about love in that most famous of passages, 1 Corinthians 13, he describes not just the physical, expressed, characteristics of love from one person to another; but paints a vision of love as being completely known, not simply imagined by another, not simply a reflection or a persona, but known. This is a picture that describes a future — the renewing of all things, the hope of the new creation.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12

Until that time all our knowing of an other, all our loving, is mediated — we encounter personas who are on the journey of becoming persons to us; the hope of those of us who believe in the resurrection is that, in the course of eternity, those we know now only virtually will be made real to us, and we to them. There’s certainly a longing for this to be true being expressed by those grieving the death of Rachel Held Evans this week; but also in all our grief.

But I wonder how healthy it is for us, as humans, to pour so much attention and affection — so much love — into pixelated personas; into people across the world where our hope for deeper connection is to be eternally, rather than temporally, realised? I wonder if the accounts I’ve read — and my own experience — feeling gut punched by this tragedy a world away might be time, emotion, and attention better spent locally, in my own (or your own) embodied, incarnate, existence.

As well as talking wisely about grief, C.S Lewis talked about how the invention of the car and the proliferation of international news via the newspaper, had a profound destablilising affect on our human experience — and not always for the better. In Surprised By Joy he wrote about how new technology — the car — led to the ‘annihilation of space’ — a breaking down of our embodied creatureliness and natural barriers; how much more is this true of the Internet? And how much should we be concerned by how that might disintegrate our attention and thus our affections and our relationships, so that we find our ‘deepest’ sense of being known with people we are not meeting face to face. Lewis said, of the car:

“I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room’. The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space’. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from travelling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.”

Distance is an essential part of being human; but also of our ethic — of our ability to love well. In a letter to a friend, Bede Griffiths, Lewis talks about the affect of the newspaper — the way news and views from across the globe suddenly, and more immediately, occupy our attention, first because of the connectivity brought about by the telephone, and telegraph — connecting newsrooms around the globe, but now on steroids via the Internet, the 24 hour news cycle, and the citizen journalism of the Internet. Is it healthy or helpful for me to obsessively refresh health updates about a woman across the globe when surrounded by the sick and dying in my city? Or to give attention to Rachel Held Evan’s family not just at the expense of my own, but at the expense of families in my community? These are, perhaps, questions that in our increasingly excarnate age, fuelled by the “annihilation of space,” that we need to keep asking ourselves lest we be lost; disintegrated, broken up into pixels that fly around the world, mediated by glass screens. Lewis said:

“It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know). A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise. As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so. Pray for me always.”

Sound advice in an age not just of outrage, but where the suffering of others we have no embodied connection with is beamed into not just our lounge room, or our study, but our pockets. As the philosopher Iris Murdoch suggests, virtue lies in deciding what to give attention to; and then in how we act; the internet makes the stakes different in this, it brings us closer to those who are far away, but at risk of making us further away from those who are near. The question ‘who is my neighbour’ has always been a vexxing one when it comes to suffering around the globe, and to not ‘annihilate space’ but live a hyper-local life seems to be just as problematic in reinforcing our blindness, but I wonder if the right use of the Internet rests in something like C.S Lewis’ affirmation of the goodness of the car; a chance to journey to far off places, but not forget where home is, a chance to, in our travels to meet ideas and people “clothe them with memories and not impossible desires,” to recognise the power of these ‘memories’ or ‘ideas’ to unite us and make us feel recognised and so not to minimise them, but also to remember that a persona is something slightly different to a person to us and more of a person to those in their proximity, for whom they are embodied.

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Hey ACL: If your “Christian Values” endorse One Nation, you’re doing it wrong

It’s election time in Australia, which means its time for various Christian pundits and thought leaders to put out their ‘how to vote’ guides, because, clearly, most of us can’t possibly work out how to participate in the democratic process without some sort of pre-packaged checklist highlighting where the parties stand on the issues we’re told we should care about. If you’re after advice from me I’ll stand by my how to vote in (not) easy steps post from the 2016 election, and leave you trying to work things out.

Long time readers (if there are any) of this blog (if that’s even what this is) will know I’ve been a strident critic of the Australian Christian Lobby for various reasons; but mostly because they, historically, never spoke about Jesus, or about why a particular policy direction they took was a particularly Christian approach. There were some observable changes when former chief Christian, Lyle Shelton, left to fight for marriage with the Coalition For Marriage, and then to run for the Australian Conservatives. The new chief Christian, Martyn Iles, has been doing a creditable job making Christian arguments for various (conservative) positions on various issues, he even made promises to broaden the platform a little (as the former chief did when tackling penalty rates). The change has been, I think, a breath of fresh air and represents at least a desire to enter the political realm or public square in a pluralist, secular, democracy as Christians, rather than as people who neuter ourselves and argue for and from status quo assumptions given to us by a hard secularism that assumes religion doesn’t belong in the public life of any individual or society.

The breath of fresh air turned fetid and stale overnight, for me, when the ACL issued its ‘how to vote’ card for the May election. They’ve picked five, that’s right, just five, ‘key’ battleground issues for Christians in this election. And there are certain issues that seem particularly self-serving for Christians, which then frames how our positions on issues like abortion and euthanasia might be understood (that we care more about being in control than being considered as a voice in the mix). The ACL’s “Policy Analysis” considers abortion and reproductive health, euthanasia, religious freedom (specifically for Christian schools), sexual orientation and gender identity, and keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament. Picking just these five issues seems an interesting narrow cast; and perhaps it’s because on all the other big issues all the parties are exactly the same? Maybe that’s it? But given the ‘wings’ of this table are ‘all green ticks’ and ‘all red crosses’ it does appear at least to be about contrasting the ‘Christian’ options (the Australian Conservatives) and the ‘non-Christian’ options (the Greens). It’s weird to devote so much column space to Derryn Hinch, and not the many, many, minor parties throwing hats into the ring this election. But what’s perhaps most beyond the pale for me is that picking such a narrow agenda ends up not just endorsing Bernardi and Shelton’s Australian Conservatives, but Hanson’s One Nation Party.

I’m going to put it out there that if your policy platform ends up endorsing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a ‘Christian vote’ in the current climate, there’s probably a problem with how you’re defining your platform. Especially if you don’t prosecute a party’s platform, persona, or character beyond those issues that serve your own interest — or worse, beyond the way that party promises you access to the political process. This is the mistake evangelical Americans have made as they’ve been co-opted by the Trump administration in the U.S; a failure to maintain a distinct sense of Christian character and virtue beyond what is politically expedient, and what is happening to the church in America. These politically active Christian conservatives in the ‘religious right’  have done significant, measurable, damage to the reputation of Jesus amongst the general populace of the United States (and possibly globally) because of the way they’ve jumped into bed with a bloke who literally embodies the vice list in Colossians 3 just because it’s politically expedient to do so; because we Christians, like our neighbours, have bought into an ethic detached from a ‘telos’ or from life in a cosmos where God and his nature defines what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and started pursuing politics like good little utilitarians; jumping on board whatever train will deliver our political ends, no matter what that means.

When I pressed Martyn Iles about this expression of a ‘preference’ for One Nation on Facebook, he justified the position with the following remark:

“…their doors are far, far wider open to Christians than most of the groups listed. They are easy to deal with, are often convinced to do the right thing, and they happen to line up on the social policy issues listed here.

I am pretty happy to defend where they’ve landed in our flyer just on the basis of how willingly their elected politicians work with Christians.

I get it that they have their problems (including serious ones, like their support of euthanasia), but I’ll take 10 One Nation Senators over Palmer, Hinch, or the Greens any day of the week.”

Their relationship to One Nation is, then, analogous to the relationship between the big end of town and the major parties, and the sort of insidious relationship we keep seeing exposed between foreign ‘soft power’ and our parties; the kind that leads people to suggest banning political donations from such quarters. Votes for access is a terrible pathway to the worst kind of democracy; the craven type where elected representatives act based on what will secure votes, rather than what is good, true, and beautiful, and where lobby groups that aim to distort the process for the sake of special interests urge for votes not based on what is best for all, but what is best for them — measured, predominantly, by questions of power and access.

If you chuck virtue and character out the window when assessing what party to vote for, in the name of results, you are making a bed that the rest of us have to lie in. If you end up platforming a party whose leader consistently appeals to the worst ‘angels’ of our nature; who promotes conspiracy theories rather than truth at every turn, who blames the media when her chosen representatives are exposed as degenerates, whose party cosied up with the NRA to try to soften Australia’s gun laws, whose positions on issues affecting the most marginalised members of our society or the global community are well documented, and who moved a motion in the Australian senate using a phrase (“it’s OK to be white” typically used by white supremacists). Hanson is a climate change denier (and the Australian Conservatives come pretty close), she is opposed to foreign aid (in all its forms). The party can’t seem to keep an elected representative in its folds, let alone in parliament. And according to the Australian Christian Lobby they’re the party who’re the second most deserving of your vote, because of what we Christians might get from the deal. Donald Trump might embody the vices in Colossians 3 solo, One Nation’s candidates prefer a cooperative approach.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.  You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other… — Colossians 3:5-9

I’m not suggesting that One Nation’s elected representatives should behave like Christians, or that we should expect them to… but I do think Christians should behave like Christians and exercise our participation in the political process as Christians who are ambassadors for Christ — and so not endorse vice for the sake of being closer to worldly power. I’m suggesting that virtue matters for us (and that it’d be nice to elect politicians who display virtue rather than vice, or to call for those sorts of standards rather than pure utility). A Christian vote is not about how they behave, so much as how we behave, and about what it is we express is important. There is no current political party that exhaustively embodies “Christian Values” (even the ones that have Christian in their name), which means a ‘Christian’ vote is not about who we vote for, but how one votes (and participates in political life) as a Christian.  Here’s what should mark our participation in public life.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

If you want to “vote for Christian values” then those are the values, or virtues, you might want to see on display in the people you’re electing and expressed by their policies. What’s tricky, in the way politics happens in the modern world, is that these virtues are thoroughly embedded in a life where a community ‘lets the message of Christ dwell among them richly’… And perhaps a better way of framing our participation in politics (beyond just the ballot box) — a politics built from “Christian values” — would be for us to push for Christians to deliberately and transparently bring Christian virtues into public life. The problem is we’d be bringing them into a “public” that has largely rejected virtue for the sake of utility, and where the key, distinctive, Christian idea that virtue comes not just dispassionately from ‘nature,’ but from a relationship with God is even more remote. To embrace a politics of utility enforces this chasm, which is the very chasm our Christian witness seeks to close.

In his work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor makes this observation about the ‘field’ public life, including politics, now takes part on, or at least about the way we think about how we should live as people in the modern world.

“The dominant philosophical ethics today… conceive of morality as determining through some criterion what an agent ought to do. They are rather hostile to an ethics of virtue or the good, such as that of Aristotle. And a Christian conception, where the highest way of life can’t be explained in terms of rules, but rather is rooted in a certain relation to God, is entirely off the screen.”

Taylor suggests the stakes of playing the game with these rules and assumptions are high; they reinforce the view that reality is a ‘closed system’ or an “immanent frame” that excludes God from the picture. There’s a real danger that the way we do politics, if we embrace ‘utility’ or the idea that being good is about obeying certain rules, or having a certain moral framework, rather than imitating the character of God, actually serves to reinforce the assumption that God isn’t in the picture, Taylor says that promoting a morality (or politics) that arises from ‘an impersonal law” or “impersonal order” — rather than from “a personal relation” is a problem for Christians. He says: “All these forms of impersonal order: the natural, the political and the ethical can be made to speak together against orthodox Christianity, and its understanding of God as personal agent.” Playing the political game this way, as Christians, takes the game further and further away from a Christian view of reality.

“On one level, we have the natural order, the universe, purged of enchantment, and freed from miraculous interventions and special providences from God, operating by universal, unrespondent causal laws. On another level, we have a social order, designed for us, which we have to come to discern by reason, and establish by constructive activity and discipline. Finally the Law which defines this order, whether as political/constitutional law, or ethical norms, can be expressed in rational codes, which can be grasped quite independent of any special relationship we might establish with God, and by extension with each other. The human relationships which matter are those prescribed in the codes (e.g., Natural Law, the Utilitarian principle, the Categorical Imperative).”

Christian values are going to be the ones that push back on the idea that we should make political decisions simply about what’s going to be convenient for certain groups — including us — here and now, they’re going to be the ones that say there’s more to life than just political success, or lawmaking, or winning, they’re going to be the ones that point to an actual, not just mechanical, relationship with God being at the heart of reality. And while keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament could be a nod to this higher ordering of reality, I’m not sure that having a bunch of politicians pray the Lord’s Prayer — including the line ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ (which is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come, and for the sort of kingdom ethics expressed in the Sermon On The Mount, where the prayer is found, to be lived) — who are then going to do their best to do the opposite — is the sort of pushing back on this closing of the system that’s required. Hypocrisy is not a “Christian value” and I think we should avoid the enshrining of ironic hypocrisy, especially given how Jesus opens up his teaching on prayer when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5). If we’re going to ask our politicians to keep praying the Lord’s Prayer, we’ve also got to ask them to both believe it, and mean it, and to turn their attention to the sort of ethical vision and kingdom that the prayer entails.

I’m not going to cast my vote just to secure an ‘open door’ and a few key ‘ticks’ on policy areas that serve my interests. A Christian vote is not the vote that secures the best possible result for us on certain positions, or the best access to those in power, no matter the cost. A Christian vote is the one that looks to our relationship with Jesus as Lord, to his example, and to his commands, where we vote with integrity and character and virtue — the highest of those virtues being love. This will certainly mean that Christians consider the elderly, the sick, and the unborn in our political matrix — but also the refugee, the foreigner not on our shores, the widow, the poor, the not yet born (whose natural environment our decisions affect), and just about any ‘other’ — given that they all fall into the category of ‘neighbour’ or ‘enemy’ and Jesus calls us to love both (but first to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength). Here’s the paradigm that’s meant to mark our politics as Christians because it’s what it looks like to be a citizen in the kingdom of God — the kingdom Jesus launched in his death and resurrection, at the cross.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” — Matthew 16:24-27

Cosying up to One Nation might gain us the whole world in terms of political access and power (it probably won’t); but what if the cost is not just our soul, but our witness to our crucified king? Is it worth it? Or is it the equivalent of trading our birthright in God’s family of promise for a bowl of gruel?

UPDATE: A friend connected to the ACL has reached out to suggest the take put forward by this piece on the flyer is less than charitable, and that a statement posted by Martyn Iles might clear up what the aim of the flyer is. Iles says:

“There is an important difference between an education resource and a political tool.

A political tool has to effectively appeal to people who are disengaged and influence them.

An education resource is for people who are engaged, and it takes them on a much bigger journey.

If our flyer were primarily an education resource, it would include all parties and all conceivable “Christian” issues (which I do care about – anyone who follows my vlogs and blogs will know that). It would also have a small distribution, targeted to rusted-on Christians.

But it is not.

(Actually, it wouldn’t be a flyer at all – it’d be a website).

There are a number of good resources of that kind already available, which most people who are that engaged will already have seen.

The flyer is for middle-Australia, marginal seat, politically disengaged, Christian-sympathising voters. It has a mass distribution.

It’s for a target that other groups are simply not reaching. It is for a target that is not in yours or my mindset.”

I’m not sure I understand how this makes my post unreasonable, I’ll let you be the judge. There’s a little more in his post.

I will say, briefly, that I think this explanation makes things worse, not better. If this is designed to present a ‘Christian values’ approach to politics to people who are largely not actually Christian, but might share some Christian values, then this misrepresents the heart of Christianity (and Christian political concerns). It might be politically expedient (or utilitarian), but it is not helpful for the wider mission of the church (or the Kingdom of God, of which the ACL is, universally, a part). I’d also point out that there is a website that goes with the flyer, and lots of opportunities for the ACL to be clearer in its repudiation of One Nation, especially for the sake of those who receive this flyer in the mail who might be confused about how Christians stand with regards to that political party.

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Is James Faulkner going to Hell? Or are we?

Aussie cricketer James Faulkner set tongues wagging this morning with an instagram post; a post that in many ways may have initially seemed a breath of fresh air from the Folau controversy, but, that ultimately will just further entrench the axiom that our athletes probably should get off social media, or we should stop holding them up as champion representatives of some ‘ideology’ or ‘ideal’ rather than just as representative players of sports.

Faulkner posted a picture from his birthday celebration with his mother and “boyfriend” — and the internet (including some teammates) went gangbusters seeing this language not in the way that women can talk about each other as ‘girlfriends’ without it being immediately sexualised, but as a coming out; this reading was especially fed by his hashtag #togetherfor5years. Faulkner seemed to initially seek to bring clarity and to temper the reaction when he edited the post a few hours later to add the words “(“best friend”)” next to boyfriend.

One of the conditions of our hyper-sexualised age is that we don’t do platonic relationships; every relationship is shot through with sexual tension and re-interpreted through that grid. This gives rise to, for example, the ‘Billy Graham Rule’ where men won’t be in a room alone with a woman because the sexual tension will be impossible to overcome, and to the re-reading of historical same sex friendships as homosexual (think David and Jonathan in the Bible, or Jesus and the disciple he loved — or Jesus and Mary Magdalene). This view of the world is fed by a culture of objectification and pornography that does turn any innocent scenario or engagement into an opportunity for an interaction to degenerate into sex. We saw this play out on the sporting field a few years back when football legend Craig Foster put his hand on a pre-teen girl standing in front of him during the anthem, and twitter blew up, and continued to blow up as people doubled down even after it was revealed she was his daughter and he was comforting her; we also saw the ‘objectification’ culture play out closer to home when fly-in-fly-out T20 star Chris Gayle hit on a reporter as she tried to do her job in a post-match cricket interview.

In our new view of the world, every relationship, unless clearly defined otherwise, is inherently possibly sexual, so it doesn’t take much for us to jump into assumption.

So Faulkner has had to ‘come out’ today as straight; clarifying that the bloke in the photo has been his housemate for five years, that he’s his business partner and best mate, and also having to, with Cricket Australia, find ways to appease the LGBTI+ community or Spirit of the age, lest his clumsy wording become a transgression worthy of judgment.

There seems to be a misunderstanding about my post from last night, I am not gay, however it has been fantastic to see the support from and for the LBGT community. Let’s never forget love is love, however Rob is just a great friend. Last night marked five years of being house mates! Good on everyone for being so supportive.

We know what happens when athletes are insensitive about the culture’s sexual gods on social media. Cricket Australia has jumped into damage control with its statement.

“His comment was made as a genuine reflection of his relationship with his business partner, best friend and house mate of five years. He was not contacted for clarification before some outlets reported his Instagram post as an announcement of a homosexual relationship

“James and CA are supportive of the LGBQTI community and recognise coming out can be an incredibly emotional time. The post was not in any way meant to make light of this and, though the support from the community was overwhelming and positive, Cricket Australia apologises for any unintended offence.”

An apology for ‘unintended offence’ is an interesting one; and while I suspect Faulkner was probably playfully transgressive in his presentation of his relationship in the terms he used, complete with heart emojis, there’s a real fear at the heart of this apology that Faulkner has committed a transgression that will earn him the judgment of the modern day online inquisition. He’s definitely been potentially unhelpful in playing with an issue that matters in substantial ways to real people (and starting to see some backlash on that). Whether that backlash translates into outright condemnation and being ‘excluded’ — tossed into the fires of the modern day Gehenna — does remains to be seen at this point. But this scenario is super interesting coming on the heels of the Folau scenario, and one has to ask whether Faulkner faces Hell on Folau’s terms now for lying rather than for homosexuality, but more than that, what sort of hell his casual instagramming will earn in the form of judgment from the modern world. Will he escape the treatment Folau has received for his insensitivity, or is his repentance (and the vicarious repentance on behalf of his peak sporting body) enough to earn him ‘salvation’ from the Internet, and perhaps more importantly, the games’ sponsors.

Perhaps instead of asking questions about Faulkner’s future, or social media policies for our national athletes, we might start asking ourselves questions about the role sexuality and sex play in the ‘spirituality’ of our modern age, and if they can bear the weight of defining who we are, and what is sacred, to the extent that a new orthodoxy wants to insist they do; perhaps we could be asking how healthy our view of the world is if every relationship has to be interpreted through the grid of sexuality, and if we might all end up running the risks of pornifying every interaction (seeing and collapsing all relationships the potential for sex), and so avoiding intimacy or deep friendship (boy friends and girl friends) as a ‘Billy Graham Rule’ that will ultimately rule out any deep connections with anybody. We can’t say “love is love” about a friendship when our prevailing culture believes and teaches, in a reinforcing echo chamber/circular force, that love is sex. Faulkner runs the risk of elevating his friendship with his housemate to a place that only a sexual relationship is allowed to hold in the lives of the modern ‘believer’ in the sexular religion; this post was potentially a form of sexular idolatry. A heresy.

For us Christians this presents some interesting challenges because we’ve adopted the sexualised view of relationships in our churches in pretty damaging ways; ways that idolise marriage as ‘the relationship’ that carries all the expectations we have for intimacy (and sexuality), and correspondingly reduce friendships to superficial, we’re just as likely as the world to sexualise the relationship between James Faulkner and his housemate (and to ask questions about David and Jonathan). We’re also likely to have the Billy Graham Rule operating as a cultural norm in male/female relationships, so we’re not ‘brothers and sisters’ first — spiritually in a way that is truer than biologically — but every relationship was the capacity to be sexualised (partly because we’ve been ‘formed’ by our pornofied culture, certainly, and how to unwind that is tricky)… but we haven’t yet come to terms with what that looks like for the same sex attracted in our midst. Bizarrely, it’s probably actually the voices of the only people our present culture might consider more transgressive than Folau, or, now, Faulkner, those who refuse to participate in our ‘sexual’ worship at all; the celibate, same sex attracted, Christians who can guide us through this journey. Voices like Ed Shaw in his book The Plausibility Problem, or Wesley Hill in his books and blogging, especially at Spiritual Friendship, or the Revoice movement and its statement, or locally, someone like my friend Tom Pugh who has just launched The Integrate Project. He posted yesterday about why the church needs Same Sex Attracted/LGB+ people.

“If marriage and the nuclear family has become an idol in our churches, then how important is the celibate gay Christian in reminding The Church of central Gospel truths regarding sacrifice, waiting, and community? And if sex has been elevated to the level of godhood in western culture, then this kind of person is testament to what it is to be whole and human outside of our sexual obsession, confusion and entitlement.

The LGB/SSA Christian often finds themselves in the crossfire between the most prevailing narratives in our culture: the heteronormative narrative versus the sexual liberation & gender non-conforming narratives which usually go hand in hand.”

I think this is true, but I’d also add that it’s not just marriage and family that is idolised, but sex and sexuality as the ultimate forms of meaning and our ultimate access to ‘transcendence’ or something ‘heaven-like’ — and that part of teaching us about waiting and community is about teaching us about seeing these created goods as having an ‘ends’ beyond themselves, but also teaching us the practices of intimacy and friendship that aren’t defined by the sex act (though they might involve ‘attraction’).

Our whole culture is going to Hell. Hell isn’t ‘other people’ as much as it’s ‘other people with no intimacy, love, or friendship’… because it’s other people without God… and we’re all heading there together if we don’t start repenting and trying something new. Perhaps something more like James Faulkner and his housemate. Good on them. Happy anniversary. But more than that, it’s about finding how our desire for intimacy, friendship, and sex aren’t ends in themselves, but part of our human experience that echo the image of the Triune God who is, in the three persons of God, love, intimacy, and friendship — and from whom these characteristics flow as blessings to us; and alongside those blessings there’s an invitation out of ‘hell’ or even the false-heaven of sex, and into that eternal intimate relationship through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The ‘oneness’ or intimacy he offers is a fuller experience than any romance, or bromance… Check out these words from Jesus (the sort of thing where if we were to express them about another person some questions might be asked on Twitter).

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…I have made you[e] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” — John 17:20-21, 26

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The rugby field and common objects of love

Rugby Australia’s Inclusion Policy, published in 2014, is specifically designed to ensure LGBT+ people are included in the rugby community, and especially on the field as participants in that community.

Rugby Australia’s goals, as stated in the policy, are:

“Rugby AU’s vision is to ignite passion, build character and create an inclusive Australian Rugby community. Our vision can only be achieved if our game is one where every individual participant, whether players, officials, volunteers, supporters or administrators feel safe, welcome and included.”

And so, the Inclusion Policy codifies ‘inclusion’ as ‘freedom to participate… without fear of exclusion’  — and broadens the focus beyond sexual orientation to include gender, race, and religion.

“Rugby AU’s policy on inclusion is simple: Rugby has and must continue to be a sport where players, officials, volunteers, supporters and administrators have the right and freedom to participate regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion and without fear of exclusion. There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words both on and off the field must reflect this.”

It’s perhaps a sad thing that the history of sport is littered with examples of exclusive policies around exactly these categories; this sort of policy is, in the face of history, a necessary policy. It ensures people can gather around a common object of love — Rugby — and form a community.

Theologian Oliver O’Donovan wrote a book called Common Objects of Love unpacking a bit of the philosopher/theologian Augustine’s thinking around how shared loves build communities, and how these communities are a necessary part of our social fabric — they bring together people who are different in a certain sort of unity. O’Donovan (building on Augustine and before him, Cicero), defined community as: “a multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.”

Note, this doesn’t say anything about the areas where we don’t agree, or where we have different loves, it holds out the hope that a ‘common unity’ might foster the coming together of a multitude; and when this happens it is both good and beautiful. When Muslims and Christians set aside difference and take the field together as opponents with a shared love of a game, or even better, as a team, great things happen. I’ve witnessed that first hand in the football league I play in in Brisbane. One of the first things I talk about when meeting refugees or asylum seekers in Brisbane is our shared love of sport — even if they’re Real Madrid or Arsenal fans — but there’s evidence beyond my particular experience. When Israeli and Palestinian children take the field together through a program run by a group called Mifalot, this produces real changes in attitudes towards the other, through that shared experience. So after participating in a program, and being surveyed:

  • Among the Palestinian children, a 35% increase in trusting all or most Jewish Israelis, a 23% increase in hating none or almost no Jewish Israelis, and a 22% increase in thinking that none or almost no Jewish Israelis hate Palestinians.

  • Among the Jewish children, there was a 20.5% increase in those who trust all or most Palestinians, a 16.5% increase in those hating none or almost no Palestinians, and a 17% increase in thinking that none or almost no Palestinians hate Jewish Israelis.

The ‘commons’ being inclusive, or holding common what can be held in common, while other things might divide us, is a vital thing for human flourishing; and arguably, for the reduction of exactly the sort of issues Rugby Australia seeks to eradicate with its Inclusion Policy. If Rugby Australia was to hold to a robust, generous, pluralism that allowed people who have different views and backgrounds to take the field together around a shared love of Rugby, that wouldn’t just be good for the individuals involved, but for the people the players selected for those teams ‘represent’ (on the power of ‘representation’ consider Black Panther or Wonder Woman and the impact those movies had).

How our ‘common’ or public institutions function has real potential to shape the way we interact with one another around loves we do not share.

The problem we’ve seen in the Israel Folau case is that inclusivity runs into a bit of trouble if the ‘common objects of love’ aren’t clearly defined and limited (ie rugby), or if the ‘centre’ — the shared love — of the community changes in such a way that it excludes people it claims to be including such that, perhaps, rugby becomes a means to the ends of inclusion, rather than inclusion being the means to the shared ends of rugby. In Folau’s case, potentially, someone who, from a ‘religious object of love’ has expressed a different moral position on homosexuality in that sphere/love (ie the religious sphere), the question is then how inclusion is defined. If the inclusivity platform seeks to go beyond the shared love, it is no longer aimed towards community (a common unity) but something else; and if the insistence is that LGBT+ players will not feel safe or welcome with players who hold religious convictions (about supernatural, spiritual, matters like heaven and hell) that don’t impact that individual’s approach to the Rugby field, or community, then this is a problem that must surely lead to an amendment of the Inclusion Policy to exclude religion as a protected category. It’s clear that, in this case, these religious views do not stop the individual in question being prepared to take the field with, or support the inclusion of LGBT+ athletes on the Rugby field — Folau was a former face of the Bingham Cup, described as “the biennial world championships of gay and inclusive rugby,” tournament organisers said he was a “strong advocate for ending all forms of the discrimination in sport.” It seems to me that Folau is better able to embody the inclusion policy of Rugby Australia than the leaders of Rugby Australia.

Here’s the perennial disclaimer I include in every Folau post — I think his social media comments were irresponsible, as a fellow Christian his views on the way the good news of Jesus should be articulated, and probably on what the Bible prohibits in the passages he mashes up on Instagram, are fundamentally at odds with mine. The Bible had no conception of ‘homosexuality’ as an orientation or identity; this is a relatively modern development of ‘identity’ built from desire; it does, however, provide a framework where our ‘chief’ or ‘ultimate’ love will shape the way we use our bodies in relationships and sex, and it prohibits same sex sex. This is to say, I wouldn’t say ‘homosexuals’ are condemned on the basis of identity, orientation, or attraction, but like all people, we stand forgiven or condemned based on what we do with Jesus, and whether we hold the God who made the universe as the chief, defining, organising love of our life; ie whether we worship him. I note, having chatted to a friend this morning, that it’s interesting that a bloke with a $4 million contract posted a meme that omitted greed from the list of sins that lead to hell… and that this is a bit of a blind spot in our Christian culture, that we’re happy for a champion to say hard things about sexuality, but we’ll give him, and each other, a pass on how we approach money. I think, if reports of his contract and agreements with Rugby Australia are correct, they’ve got good grounds to terminate his contract.

While I disagree vehemently with Folau, I’d still ‘take the field’ with him if I could tolerate Rugby Union (and if I had the ability; a national sporting body has to draw a line somewhere). This is because communities built around common objects of love are necessary not just for finding common ground, and reminding ourselves of our shared humanity, but because relationships built on connection and trust are also vital for having the sorts of conversations that will change attitudes and hearts.

Rugby Australia needs to decide if it is a public organisation or institution, or a private business. It needs to decide what ‘good’ it is pursuing in its vision and what ‘inclusive’ really means. It needs to decide if, as a private business, it must make decisions based on what is commercially beneficial, or as a public institution, it must make decisions about what sort of society it imagines, and what sort of virtue or character it wants to build. It has a real chance to lead Australia towards a generous picture of community; where people feel safe and welcome even while disagreeing in other spheres; where deep and significant conversations can take place face to face, amongst embodied humans — rather than disconnected conversations happening where we are mediated to one another as pixels, and where it is so easy to dehumanise and shout past one another. Rugby Australia has to ask itself if it wants to exclude Folau because he failed to ‘represent’ a version of an ideal (held by the powerful), or if in excluding him they also set an exclusive standard that might ultimately trickle down and exclude all those who hold his views who are lacing up their boots and taking the field next to LGBT+ players all over the nation, sharing a love of rugby, and building the sorts of relationships and connection that change hearts about one another across things that divide. The media needs to ask itself if trotting out condemnation after condemnation from Folau’s teammates actually reinforces the sort of ‘exclusivity’ that is ultimately damaging from the grassroots up, not just the top ‘ideological champion’ representative players down.

There are significant dangers with exclusivity — and these are dangers Christians need to stare down in places where we run the show. Firstly, when the parameters for exclusivity are set by the powerful, on their own terms, the inclusivity isn’t genuine, it’s colonisation; it requires people to be included on terms other than their own. This is where I suggested the Folau furore, and his condemnation by ideologically drive, white, upper management types, is a bit racist. One must, when seeking to include LGBT+ members in a community, consult and understand what it is that leads those individuals to feel unsafe; what homophobia looks and feels like, and what the gay experience involves; one hopes the leaders of Rugby Australia have done that work, that they are framing inclusivity in the interest and from the experience, of the outsider or minority… but this is true for all forms of inclusivity; one hopes they’re also consulting women about what inclusivity in an historically male sport would look like, ethnic minorities about inclusion in a sport that has been the property of exclusive, typically white, private school education in Australia’s sporting class war, and, people with religious convictions about the nature of religious conviction — of loves other than Rugby, and how they cascade in to the approach people take to Rugby. It’s tricky in a culture where sport often occupies the chief place in the heart of the Australian, or a space that competes with other loves, to conceive of itself as something other than an ultimate love, but an inclusivity program that recognises that people aren’t rugby players or members of the rugby community first, but come to this ‘common ground’, the rugby field, from other spheres is a good start.

The second danger of exclusivity is one that should be familiar to people in the Rugby fraternity — when you exclude a certain class of people from taking the field under your rules, they set up a parallel (and in the case of Rugby League, superior) field. Community fragments when you try to broaden what people are gathering around from a common love, to contested loves. And fragmented community is not a great thing where common grounds might exist (unless, like me, you believe League is superior to Union). In my submission to the Ruddock Review of Religious Freedom, just as in my response to the Benedict Option, a book championing a form of Christian withdrawal into parallel communities, I suggested that the last thing we want in our shared, civic, public, life is for people who disagree to further withdraw into exclusive communities built around not just common loves, but common dislikes. This is part (but not all) of how we get contemporary Christian music, Christian schools, and all manner of parallel institutions (including Rugby League). Rugby Australia, in adopting a more exclusive approach, runs the risk of those it excludes forming (or joining) alternative ‘fields’ where they might seek a more radical inclusion, but are more likely, on the basis of human nature, to be equally exclusive and to lead to more fracturing of our common life, more polarised convictions, and more conflict. The problem with setting up ‘exclusivity’ in the public field, or commons, is the same problem Christians are now running into because we tried to be ‘exclusive’ with our definition of marriage; it sets up a ‘zero sum’ game where the disenfranchised party no longer seeks compromise in relationship, but victory at the expense of the other. And it builds a cycle of resentment, rather than peacemaking, which builds the conditions that allow common love, fraternity, and persuasion in pursuit of goodness and truth.

Our national rugby team represents a vision of the sort of society we hope to be as a nation. The players who take the field are our ‘representatives’; and so the approach Rugby Australia takes to its vision is more important than some of us might like to think, but perhaps, less important than they’d like it to be (if they’re pursuing an ideology in a zero sum way, and people can just take their ball, and participation, elsewhere). Rugby Australia is, at a micro level, facing the same challenge that our nation’s leaders are facing as they work out ‘religious freedom’ and what that means in a contested landscape. So, as my submission to the Ruddock Review said, “surely the best future for our nation is one where our diversity produces richness and resilience through civil disagreement and tolerance, rather than a fragmented nation where different communities withdraw into their own bubbles such that we are able to find less and less in common; less to unite us as citizens?”

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Wanting ‘hymns’ without ‘him’ is a ‘secular’ myth of ‘inclusion’ that will eat itself (and it’s just a bit racist)

At the 2013 Rugby League World Cup Fiji demolished their pacific friends, Samoa, 22-4. The result was unremarkable in many ways, it was what happened after the game that felt remarkable and somewhat unprecedented. The 17 players from each nation, who’d just been pummelling one another in the name of Rugby League, linked arms, with the support crews from each team, in the name of Jesus. The two teams shared a time of prayer together, captured on film.

This was one of the most iconic moments of that World Cup. It cut through the cynicism and competitive cut and thrust of modern sport and reminded us that the ‘combatants’ aren’t just humans fighting for particular tribes or nations, but friends and brothers. It showed the real power of a shared humanity… at least that’s how this sort of thing gets framed in the secular age where religion is a ‘thin’ concept and tribal identity, marked by ethnicity or something innate like sexuality, is the ‘thick’ stuff that defines who we are. Religious belief in this modern world is something like a thin piece of fabric you don to show solidarity… But maybe there’s something more going on here than that. Maybe these players aren’t linked by a ‘thin fabric’ of religious unity, but rather, it’s the jerseys they wear — markers of their nationality — that we’re seeing exposed as ‘thin’ and their spirituality — their shared belief in a transcendent God — is actually what provides a deeper, thicker, solidarity. A shared identity, even, that’s both culturally embedded, and transcultural. It’s significant, and will become more so below, that what we’re seeing here is how much the Polynesian identity is not just along ethnic unity, but that spiritual unity is part of that fabric. It’s not a thing dropped on top. That rather than seeing ‘the real power of shared humanity’ here, we’re actually seeing ‘the real power of shared religious belief’.

In the more recent Rugby League World Cup, in 2018, the Fijian Rugby League team won hearts and tingled spines with their pre-game rendition of the hymn Noqu Masu. I was at Suncorp Stadium for the semi-final Fiji played against Australia, and the absolute highlight for me was this song before the game. It was one of the most remarkable parts of Fiji’s remarkable World Cup (and was often remarked on by the secular media, like here, and here this one is particularly notable because it’s the NRL celebrating how important religion is to the Fijian team). Had I not rushed out of the ground at full time to avoid the post game ‘peak hour’ conditions, my highlight would’ve been when the Australian team joined the Fijian team for their post-match prayers. When you watch the footage you see Fijian players wearing Australian jerseys, and Australian players wearing Fijian jerseys, and players from both nations singing a hymn together. It’s beautiful. It’s spine-tingling stuff.

But the NRL’s commitment — and the modern ‘secular world’s’ commitment — to this sort of spirituality is only skin deep. Religious commitment — and the singing of beautiful hymns — in this age, are just like a jersey. Something that can be removed in the name of a ‘greater’ unity. Something one might be asked to remove for the sake of ‘inclusivity’. For the Polynesian community it seems much more than that; but it seems the NRL, like the Australian Rugby Union, and most modern sporting organisations are going to be asking Polynesian players to remove something that, for them, isn’t like a jersey — it’s more like being asked to remove their skin. Religious commitment is not just skin deep; it goes to, and comes from, the heart. It’s tied to an account of what it means to be human. People who don’t hold religious commitments about a ‘sacred ordering’ of the world — about the existence of a divine being, or transcendent reality, just can’t come close to understanding this — especially when they have ‘religious’ commitments of their own that these older forms of religion conflict with.

Roy Masters, one of Rugby League’s national treasures, recognised this would be an issue for Rugby League (and for sport in general) back in 2009, when he wrote a story about the religious beliefs of the Polynesian community, observing that 40% of NRL players had Polynesian heritage. He covered the growing number of overtly religious Rugby League players last year too (and the phenomenon of players from different teams praying together), again linking this phenomenon to the Polynesian identity.

When Peter Beattie speaks out against Israel Folau for failing to meet Rugby League’s ‘inclusiveness standards’ — he might be talking about a clumsy expression of belief, but it’s hard not to see that as coming from a misunderstanding or religious belief as largely about ‘expressions,’ and for a religious person not to understand that as a rejection of their core identity. It’s also hard to understand for a religious person to understand why the NRL will celebrate hymn singing (as an external ‘marker’) but reject other things that come from the same heart level convictions that lead to hymn singing. The modern secular world wants hymns without a ‘him’, and prayers without an object. This won’t work for Polynesian athletes (or any other religious athletes), and to force it, frankly, is a form of racism. Folau’s church, the Truth of Jesus Christ Church is a Polynesian church. Its Facebook page features Bible readings and songs from Tongan and Samoan members, worshipping in their heart language. It features videos of men preaching in Polynesian dress. Folau’s religion like the religion of many other Polynesian athletes, is fundamentally integrated with his cultural identity

Though this has, thus far, been about Rugby League, it’s also an issue in Rugby Union. Not only because Folau published an unfortunate Instagram picture that took some of the New Testament out of context, but because his post has received likes from Polynesian Rugby Union players around the world. A couple of fellow Wallabies, and, notably, English representative Billy Vunipola. Vunipola liked Folau’s post and was then pressured from certain corners to unlike it (if sports journalists are ill equipped to commentate on religious matters, as they appear to be, the weird mix of religious matters and social media conventions represent a totally new world order). Vunipola, instead of backing down, expressed support for Folau’s views because they represent a shared conviction. He’s now facing his own issues over in the UK. England’s equivalent to the ARU, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) issued a statement, that echoed Beattie’s, and again modelled the new ‘virtue’ that will ultimately exclude any who don’t get on board.

“Rugby is an inclusive sport, and we do not support these views.”

True inclusion would grapple with this and find ways to include people with fundamentally different understandings of what it means to be human — even when those differences are conflicted and at odds. Sport could be a powerful way of finding paths to our shared humanity and our ability to occupy a field not just as opponents who stand together after a conflict is over, but as teammates who co-operate despite deep divisions. This is a generous pluralism. Our sporting bodies talk that talk, but they don’t walk that walk. True inclusion would issue a statement that ‘Rugby is an inclusive sport’ and not feel the need to define whether an organisation supports certain views or not.

There’s an idea at play in ‘identity politics’ (and I don’t mean this pejoratively) called ‘intersectionality’ — it’s that all excluded and oppressed classes or identities share a common experience (oppression), often from a common oppressor (western power, or patriarchy… typically male and white), and that all identities ultimately ‘intersect’. There’s lots to this, and it’s important that we recognise that there are ways that a certain sort of ‘status quo’ assumes a central position in determining who gets what status in the western world. The problem is not with ‘intersectionality’ in this case; it’s that intersectionality defined by a particular class of people isn’t being ‘intersectional enough’. It’s that modern ‘intersectionality’ doesn’t have a thick enough concept of ‘religious identity’ to see it as a real thing. It could be that this shows some fundamental problems with trying to build an ‘inclusive’ life without a robust account of difference and different identities, and an appeal to a ‘thin’ concept like ‘our shared humanity.’ It’s fascinating to see those so opposed to western power, and so interested in ‘inclusion’ now wielding ‘western power’ against polynesian athletes; Folau won’t be the first. The question is how long it will take for the game’s administrators to catch up — and I suspect it will take as long as it takes for our ‘secular’ institutions, including our media commentators, to catch up.

Intersectionality built around a centre of power will ultimately eat itself. Much like the LGBTQ+ umbrella is a fraught ‘unity’ when certain trans- or queer activists want to undo the categories of gender that are so fundamental to a homosexual identity, a commitment to ‘inclusivity’ that requires people check important aspects of their personhood or identity at the door is not actually inclusivity at all. And that ‘inclusivity’, at the moment, is being pushed by powerful, white, middle-aged (or older), people is a bizarre irony. There’s something both patriarchal and colonial about imposing a westernwhite, view of religion upon the Polynesian community, much as there would be if we sought to impose western religious values on Hindu, or Muslim, athletes.

I don’t share Israel Folau’s understanding of God (he doesn’t believe in the Trinity). I don’t share his understanding of the passages of the Bible he cites (I think they’re for Christians who have already accepted the Lordship of Jesus over all of their life). I don’t share his understanding of how best to articulate the Gospel and why somebody would repent, and, thus, what repentance is. I would be much more careful using ‘homosexual’ as a category of person to pronounce judgment on people than Folau is (based on how I understand the Bible, and sexuality). I know lots of homosexuals who are Christians, who grapple with their sexuality at that point and resolve their identity in a variety of ways, some I agree with, some I don’t. I think his blanket, un-nuanced, statement is unhelpfully obscuring when it comes to the reality of people’s lives. I have a different view of Hell to him. I believe, ultimately, God judges us based on whether or not we reject the (fully divine) Jesus as Lord, not on how we live if we reject that (the substance of Folau’s post)… But I have no doubt that his views are thoroughly consistent with his religion, and that for him, religion and identity are intertwined. And if we’re going to talk ‘inclusion’ we need to really mean it, and include positions and opinions we ‘enlightened’ white westerners don’t like — especially if we claim ‘religious inclusion.’

What’s interesting, in the realm of ‘inclusion,’ is that it’s actually the Polynesian communities who seem to model it best, at least in sport. It’s the Polynesian teams built around a Christian faith that bring people together across divides. Israel Folau doesn’t just tweet and instagram about homosexuality (in ways I’ve been outspokenly critical of), he also takes the field for, and acts as the face of, a tournament that aims to stamp out homophobia in the game. It’s only when you’re utterly sure of, and convicted about, who you really are, that you’re able to generously include others without feeling threatened. In those pictures and videos of people coming together in prayer and song — there’s stacks of people in those pictures who don’t share the same religious belief as the Christian players, but they’re being brought in, loved, welcomed, and included — maybe those players are the last people our powerful, white, organisation leaders should be excluding as we navigate these new cultural waters together.

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The Greens are right: Easter is political

The Australian Greens have announced they won’t join a tradition as old as the World Wars  — joining a cease fire over the Easter weekend(ok, so it was Christmas in World War I, but there are modern conflicts where the combatants lay down arms for the Easter weekend) — but they will hold back their political cannons over ANZAC Day.

This is fascinating; one, because it reveals that in the ‘post-Christian’ landscape, the new national ‘holy day’, recognised by all parties, is one connected to our national mythology, ANZAC Day, not to our Christian heritage. Two, because the Greens point out that Easter has already been de-sacralised in our national calendar (even if our retailers keep a certain sort of liturgical year that marks out the period between Christmas and Easter as ‘hot cross bun’ season).

Greens Leader, Richard Di Natale, says:

“We’ll be campaigning hard through the Easter period and be doing everything we can to make this a climate change election.”

The major parties have agreed not to campaign over the Easter period as a mark of respect to its ‘sacred’ nature. There’ll no doubt be many Christian, or conservative, pundits who’ll cry foul at this sacrilege. But there’s something fundamentally real being recognised in the Green’s approach — it’s not that ‘nothing is sacred’ any more, in our secular age, it’s that everything is religious. Every day is sacred; which is something Christians can agree with — because every religious action is political. Every act of a religious person, every word, is an articulation and embodiment of a certain vision of a political kingdom. Christians, as we live in the world, as we speak and proclaim the lordship of Jesus and obey him as king, are living out a political vision; which means that rather than being ‘not political’, Easter is profoundly political — it’s the moment that Jesus, our king, was crowned and enthroned as king of the Kingdom of God.

It’s not that no day is ‘sacred’ — it’s that there’s a growing realisation, or revelation, that every day is sacred. That we live in a time where the soul of our nation is being contested and contended for, and where we’re trying to figure out how to live together with different holy days; different understandings of what is sacred and what is profane.For the Greens, digging up coal and destroying the environment is an act of sacrilege, of desecration, of destruction of their material ‘god’ — the natural world. It would be easy for Christians to see the Greens choosing to protest the Adani coal mine as an act of ‘sacrilege’ that cheapens the holiness of Easter, but many Christians will see their actions being in line with the Lordship of Jesus, the king appointed by the creator who called humanity to steward his good creation.

What’s changed in our culture that brings about political campaigning on Easter — brazenly campaigning for other gods — is a loss of consensus in our institutions and our calendar that Jesus is king; this is contested — political contests (religious contests) don’t just happen at election time; because every moment is sacred, every moment is also political. 

There’s a challenge here for Christians as we engage in the politics of our nation — to have our participation shaped by our primary political identity; our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, where the call is for us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, before working out how we love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We have a larger view of the sacred than our neighbours, one that might allow careful participation in their political institutions, but we need to be careful not to become polytheists. God’s people were, from even before the 10 Commandments — but specifically in them — called to live political lives that articulated a certain vision of a kingdom, and behind that, a vision of God. Their neighbours were doing the same — the first two commandments deal with this reality.

You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” — Exodus 20:3-6

Part of the nature of the prohibition in the second commandment is that we humans are meant to be the images of God — living, breathing, ones — and to make other images and then worship them distorts who we are, and how we understand God. The other part of the problem with worshipping created things is not that they aren’t sacred, the ‘heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19), it’s that their sacred purpose is being profaned and cheapened by false worship. Israel failed to live out this distinction; their commitment to God’s kingdom was undermined by their worship of foreign gods, and their buy in to the politics and way of life that came from that. Man made religions — the ones that replace God with things he made, or with other gods — always lead to damaging systems of power that ultimately, as they stop God being God, stop humans being seen fully as humans. Distorted politics ends up not just desacralising, but also dehumanising. When Paul talks about this in Romans 1 he argues that false religion — taking that which is sacred (created things), that which is made to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God’ and worshipping those things, leads to broken humanity and, ultimately, death. The decision to worship ‘other than God’ in systemic terms, leads to politics and political kingdoms that reject God, and reshape humanity to different ends. This was the problem with the nations surrounding Israel in the Old Testament, but also in the New. Kings in the ancient world consistently set themselves up as ‘the image of God’ (using the same words the Bible prohibits, the claim of the Old Testament is a polemical claim against ancient political visions where other humans were plebs for the powerful to use and abuse as they saw fit). Nobody did this more than the Caesars — Augustus turned ’emperor worship’ into a new art form, and by the time Jesus was tried and killed, the Caesars, by then Tiberius, had mastered the art of promoting their divine image (Jesus’ statements about coins with Caesar’s image on them are particularly pointed and political against this backdrop — give Caesar what his image is on, and give God what his image is on — our ultimate ‘political’ allegiance belongs to the God who made us). When Jesus came he came making claims that put him specifically at odds with the Caesars; and with all other would be ‘images of God’ who were not worshipping the God of the Bible, the God of Israel. He came making political claims. He came calling people into a kingdom. He came announcing that attempts to divide the political from the sacred were nonsense… because the sacred has always, and will always, be political. The people who killed him, and the people who wrote about that, were very clear on this. Here’s the political Easter story, as told by John.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.

Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” — John 19:1-6 

This is political, not just religious.

Pilate has a chat with Jesus at this point, trying to figure out why the Israelites are so keen to kill Jesus. The same Israelites who are meant to be God’s representatives, his kingdom, turn on this king, and turn to another one…

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:13-16

Jesus was killed on the basis of political claims — he claimed to be king, and Rome — the leading political vision of this world — wasn’t interested in a ceasefire. Its politics was also religious… and so is ours.

So if there are political parties who are honest in their desire not to participate in that kingdom, but to work towards some other religious agenda, we should welcome that — rather than those who pay lip service to Easter and its essence, without political fidelity to the Lord Jesus. This isn’t to say there aren’t Christians in any of these parties, but that so long as these parties aren’t lining up their agenda with ‘the kingdom of God’ their ‘politics’ — especially when they want to distinguish ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ — are fundamentally religious, and are in competition with the Easter message — the coronation and enthronement of ‘the King of the Jews.’

I’m not ceasing fire this Easter. I’ll be proclaiming the very political message that Jesus is Lord, and that Easter isn’t just about his death bringing about some obscure spiritual transaction where my personal sins are forgiven (though it does do that), it’s about his resurrection and then the pouring out of the Spirit, being what launches a new kingdom in this world with a new politics that we get to be part of as his kingdom of priests, his ambassadors, his nation.

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Yo, Christian, our world doesn’t understand religion, it’s time to make sure you do

Jacinda Ardern is, from what I can tell, a lovely lady and an inspirational Prime Minister. You can tell a lot about a leader by how they respond in the crucible of a crisis; and Ardern responded to the recent Christchurch shooting with grace, poise, and a tonne of empathy. She won praise for her speeches, for her leadership in bringing people together across religious and ethnic divides, and for her humble empathy, especially when she wore the Hijab; an outward sign of solidarity with her religious neighbours. A religious symbol that she wore, not because she decided to subscribe temporarily to Islamic doctrine, but as a symbol of another sort of religion; unity and solidarity. In Ardern’s speech at the memorial service she said the answer to the problem of terrorism lies in finding our shared humanity, and that the events in Christchurch now form part of our shared experience, and that this comes with a new responsibility.

“A responsibility to be the place that we wish to be. A place that is diverse, that is welcoming, that is kind and compassionate. Those values represent the very best of us.”

She finished her speech quoting the national anthem; a call for unity across creed and race, and a call not just to our humanity but a prayer for divine intervention.

Men of every creed and race,
Gather here before Thy face,
Asking Thee to bless this place
God defend our free land

From dissension, envy, hate
And corruption, guard our state
Make our country good and great
God defend New Zealand

The attack on a mosque, a place of prayer, was for many in our modern age a racist attack (and though I haven’t read the shooter’s manifesto, race was certainly a part of it). But there’s something more insidious about such an attack for those who have beliefs about the nature of religious belief; that exploring religious questions is part of what the podcast The Eucatastrophe described in an episode that discussed Christchurch as the fundamentally human ‘religious quest.’ For those of us with religious convictions the attack on a place of prayer is not just a hate crime, it’s a different sort of sacrilege; an attack on something so profoundly located at the core of our experience of being human that we should have a deep empathy, even across religious or doctrinal divides; not simply because we believe our muslim neighbours are made in the image of God, but because they were killed while pursuing something so intimately connected to the fabric of reality; an experience we, as religious people, can relate to with a different lens. Our ‘solidarity’ with our muslim neighbours at this point should be of a different depth to the solidarity expressed by our secular neighbours, not because they care ‘less’ about the humans involved, but because they care less about the religious experience and religion as it defines our personhood. Though our ‘secular age’ might see religious belief, or any belief in the supernatural as contested or superfluous for understanding life in the material world; religious people see more to this world than just the material, more robust motivations for and solutions to ‘terrorism’ than just ‘our humanity’ (though most religious belief gives humanity a certain sort of sacredness), and more to the hijab than simply a marker of cultural practice that can be appropriated to whatever narrative we see fit (though, it’s true, that there were people in the Muslim community who appreciated the expression of solidarity).

Ardern’s use of the headscarf, and the praise she received for it, reveals something about how the modern world understands religious belief. Religious belief is just one commitment amongst many; one consumer choice, that we use to construct and perform our identity; one path to our ‘authentic self’. Again, The Eucatastrophe digs into this brilliantly, but they, like the book Disruptive Witness, are digging in to Charles Taylor’s work not just in A Secular Age but in Sources of the Self. When something ‘transcendent’ or divine is removed from our common ‘social imaginary’ — the backdrop of beliefs and ‘things’ that give our life meaning and help us understand who we are — we’re left constructing meaning for ourselves. We can don religious garb without it meaning anything deep, because religion is no longer a fundamental driving part of our personhood — God and the ‘givenness’ of our life no longer constitutes who we are; religion is a market choice. That it is viewed this way explains, in part, why religion always loses out to sexuality in clashes of identity. Our modern world is not equipped to see religion as inherent to a person’s personhood in the same way we understand sexual preference. You don’t don your sexual attraction like a hijab; we can’t, following a shooting at a gay bar, adopt those things that constitute a ‘gay identity’ the way we can use the words and symbols of religion after a shooting in a house of prayer.

It’s interesting, with Islam, that it’s so often understood in public dialogue in ethnic or ‘race’ terms; a reality that became starker as Sonny Bill Williams, a muslim, publicly participated in the mourning process around the events in Christchurch. Here’s a man who obviously believes things deeply, but who also, when he isn’t on the football field, is comfortable wearing the symbolic markers of his faith.

It’s also interesting, with Islam, that because it’s understood in ethnic or race terms, so little is said about Islamic doctrine on social issues; one can, it seems, don the Hijab in the western world without asking what that symbol means in other parts of the world; one can express solidarity with muslims without sharing any belief in the substantial elements of religious belief (that prayer isn’t just to an empty room, but is part of a search for the divine); and one can do that only so long as one never has to come into contact with not just the question of the reality of a transcendent God, but the particularity of the sort of creeds brought together under the human banner ‘New Zealand’… While I believe in a fundamentally different God to my Islamic neighbours, I believe in the one revealed in the divine person of Jesus, and so my doctrinal commitments are utterly different to other religious commitments, there is a ‘shared quest’ that I recognise in this community, and a shared framework of sorts, that stands at odds with the modern secular account of reality. I can stand with my muslim neighbours the same way the Apostle Paul stood with the religious philosophers in Athens, recognising this religious quest, while making a claim about the exclusivity of the truth found in Jesus, see how he balances this ‘religious quest’ with this claim of truth, while engaged in dialogue with other ‘very religious’ people:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

Paul speaks in categories almost universally shared by religious people; an assumption that there is a transcendent reality out there, and that the human religious impulse is not simply an act of identity construction, but the pursuit of something real and true. Something that will, ultimately, define who we are and shape the way we live. Not just a ‘tack on’ or a fashion accessory, but something fundamental to how we understand our personhood. Our muslim neighbours understand this in a way that our ‘secular’ neighbours do not.

It’d be curious to see how Sonny Bill would respond on Twitter if someone asked him what God’s plan for gay people is. And curious to see how long people comfortably don the Hijab when confronted with genuine religious conviction. Which is an interesting hypothetical because of what is happening at the moment with Israel Folau. Another footballer. Another religious believer for whom religion is substantial not just symbolic; for whom religion is public, because it is part of his understanding of his personhood, not just private, and not just a consumer choice that he’s made to look good on Instagram.

Israel first kicked off controversy because he was asked just that question, and he responded according to his beliefs (note, again, he responded in a way that I wouldn’t). He ‘doubled down’ on that after much discussion, and apparently a new contract with a social media clause, and now he has been fired because he’s in breach of his contract; because his comments (an articulation of his religious convictions) are in breach of Rugby Australia’s inclusiveness policy (and, apparently also the NRL’s own ‘inclusivity’ principles, that will allow a bloke convicted of a violent rampage in New York, and accused of domestic violence, to be registered to play despite public outcry). This is the same Rugby Australia who are sponsored by QANTAS, whose CEO is a well known activist for inclusion and rights of the LGBT+ community (as he should be). QANTAS put pressure on Rugby Australia last time Folau spoke up, and were vocal again this time, but this is the same QANTAS who partner with nationalised airlines from Islamic nations where homosexuality is a capital offence; it seems their real religion might actually be the more conventional god of ‘mammon’ (money), with ‘inclusivity’ a convenient piece of religious garb to don when it will make more dollars.

Rugby Australia’s inclusivity policy includes religion as something they’ll include… here’s part of the statement they made in announcing they were going to no longer include Folau in the Rugby family:

“Rugby is a sport that continuously works to unite people. We want everyone to feel safe and welcome in our game and no vilification based on race, gender, religion or sexuality is acceptable and no language that isolates, divides or insults people based on any of those factors can be tolerated.”

It’s clear from the Folau case that it’s not a definition of religion that would be shared by religious people with the sort of conviction about reality expressed by Paul in Athens; it’s the approach to religion that sees religious garb as a bit of bling added to make an ‘authentic’ you, but a ‘you’ with a pre-commitment to a different religious framework — the one where ‘humanity’ is our solution, and where ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ mean sameness (or a conviction to those things as ultimate ‘goods’ not as ‘means’ by which we live together through thick disagreement. If Folau’s religious commitments were more like Ardern’s hijab — something he’d hold loosely so that he could reach out to the Islander community, or the Christian market, and there was a dollar, or a fan or two, in it, then Rugby Australia might not come down so hard. But the reality is, Rugby has its own religious commitment to uphold, and Folau is now a heretic. One could ask if some of the commentary around Folau comes pretty close to intolerance and vilification of Folau based on his religious beliefs; but to do that, you’d have to convince the people you were asking that they’ve misunderstood religion.

But to come full circle, Ardern, who led her nation through a time of mourning; who modelled empathy and compassion to the religious other, showed that while she might be happy to grab a Hijab, so long as it doesn’t mean anything substantial (or so long as she can re-appropriate it to mean what she wants it to mean), isn’t really a fan of actual religious conviction. She, too, was asked about Folau’s views:

“Obviously at a personal level I clearly don’t agree with what he said, and … very mindful of the fact that he is for many a role model. He’s a person in a position of influence and I think that with that comes responsibility. I’m particularly mindful of young people who are members of our rainbow community, there is a lot of vulnerability there. As I say, I totally disagree with what he’s said and the way he’s using his platform.”

She could’ve said something like: “our unity as humans comes from our capacity to hold different creeds, and profound disagreement — even about each other — and still be united as people. I support Israel’s right to hold these religious views, even as I disagree with him. I love watching him play football — even if it’s for the Wallabies — but I believe these views are harmful to our rainbow community, and here’s my alternative vision for our society…”  But she didn’t. Because that’s not how religion operates in our society, it’s meant to be kept to privacy of the prayer house — until people who hate religious convictions (or people who hold competing religious convictions) attack religious people, then we’ll “come together.” We can’t ask for unity amongst people of different religious convictions in the public enterprise on one hand, and then exclude those we disagree with on the other…

It’s well within Ardern’s rights to disagree with Folau; I disagree with Folau, but there’s not a whole lot of ‘solidarity’ from the secular world for religious people when it comes to actual religious beliefs, or substance, and our right to operate in life in a way that doesn’t just see ‘religion’ as a thing we tack on to this new, secular, view of humanity but as the thing that most profoundly defines who we are.

And so, the question for those of us who claim religious beliefs is increasingly going to be — is this how religion operates in your life? And if it isn’t, could it be that your ‘religion’ is, to you, a ‘consumption decision’ that is about performing some identity, signalling something, just as Ardern’s hijab was for her. And if so, what’s the point? Especially if Paul’s words in Athens are right, that our ‘religious quest’ comes from a creator God, a God who wants to be the foundation of our life, but who’ll also judge us for false religion — for building our lives around ‘idols’ or ‘gods’ other than him; for taking our ‘religious quest’ and using that impulse to pursue ‘human’ solutions like “diversity,” “welcome,” and “inclusion” — good things though they are — at the expense of pursuing truth, love, and the God who made the universe.

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How the church failed Israel (and modern Australia is too)

Izzy is in hot water again with calls growing for the Australian Rugby Union and the New South Wales Waratahs to tear up his contract because of his (admittedly clumsy) public expression of reasonably orthodox, mainstream, Christian views about sin and salvation.

The ‘Australian church’ and by that I mean, those who belong, visibly, to the kingdom of God, in both its ‘institutional’ forms and those who gather on Sundays claiming to follow Jesus and to belong to communities of people who gather around certain beliefs (as expressed in statements like creeds or doctrinal statements), has contributed to the mess Israel Folau now seems destined to face alone. I’m defining ‘church’ up front, because many Christians might feel like we, as individuals, simultaneously belong to or represent the church while not being complicit for, or responsible to, Israel Folau… and I’m going to make the case that those of us who share similar orthodox, mainstream, Christian views (and even where we’d quibble) bear some responsibility for the tonne of hate and anger that will now be poured out on Izzy, and that we shouldn’t abandon him even if we profoundly disagree with the way he has expressed himself, in form, content, or forum.

And I’m going to paint with a broader brush and say that an entity, Australia, via its institutions — such as the press (and our ‘social media’), a Rugby fraternity including a governing body and a national representative team, and the ‘market’ — and the way this entity ‘Australia’ responds, to this (and other) expressions of religious belief is also failing its citizen, Israel Folau, rather than him failing us (even if there are ways his expressions of his beliefs, publicly, hurt others and are clumsy or even uncivil). The way we collectively respond to incivility expresses something about our ‘civilisation’.

How the church is failing Israel (Folau)

Our current cultural milieu believes that religious belief is a private matter that shouldn’t be expressed publicly — so Israel is transgressing on this front, and while we might want to point the finger at ‘society’ or ‘Australia’ for this problem, it’s a problem that begins with us; it’s a problem because on one hand we Christians, ‘the church’ have bought into and promoted an individualistic understanding both of what it means to be a human and of what it means to be a Christian; the Gospel Israel preaches is a Gospel of personal salvation, with personal, individual, implications (salvation), and little corporate or communal impact. Israel is a preacher of this Gospel it would seem appointed by nobody except our celebrity driven culture (that cares far too much about what celebrities say or think on instagram), and a church that wants its celebrity members to operate as public champions of Christian belief simply because they are Christians with a platform. If Israel was a Christian whose approach to promoting the Gospel I found more personally compelling (and my take on Israel’s public Christianity hasn’t changed since last time), wouldn’t I be encouraging him to use his platform to promote the Gospel? Of course I would; but is it his responsibility? Is this actually his calling (or the way we view how Christians should operate in the world?).

We fail Israel when we want him to be a solo point-scoring champion for Jesus off the field, rather than freeing him to be point-scoring champion on the field, and part of a bigger team, the church, off it.

I don’t want to be a broken record banging out quotes from James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World, but he makes a point towards the back end of his book about our particular corner of the church (evangelicals) and our view of work being not super different to an anabaptist view of work (which he takes umbrage with) even while we have a more robust doctrine of creation in the reformed theological tradition. In identifying a certain sort of Christian posture with regards to the physical world, to culture and politics (basically to what we would see as ‘secular’ rather than ‘sacred’) that he labels ‘defensive against,’ he writes:

“In the “defensive against” paradigm, it is the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who have fashioned a somewhat unique approach to these issues. The backdrop for their approach is the dualism created by the division between public (and secular) and private (and religious) life inherent to the modern world. As we know, this dualism is both embedded within social institutions and legitimated by political philosophy and they mutually reinforce each other in powerful ways. Though in theory Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe God is sovereign in all of life, in practice their traditions of pietism actually reinforce this dualism. All of this has resulted in a peculiar approach to faith and vocation. For generations of faithful Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, vocation in the secular world was at best a necessary evil. To the extent that work had “kingdom significance,” it was as a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized—it was regarded as simply a means to spiritual ends. Thus, if one achieved some distinction for the quality of one’s work in any field or for reason of an accomplishment, its significance was primarily because celebrity brought attention and credibility to the gospel. As Eric Liddell’s father says to him in the film Chariots of Fire, “What the world needs right now is a muscular Christian—to make them sit up and take notice!” “Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder!” Likewise, if one achieved any disproportionate influence in a sphere of life or work, this had significance primarily as a bulwark against the tide of secularism or liberalism.” — To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

In sum, for Israel to feel like a full participant in the life of the church — as a good ‘religious’ person participating in a ‘sacred calling’ — we’ve set up the game in such a way that he must necessarily use his platform to evangelise (or to give generously to evangelism), because pursuing excellence of character and performance, and loving the people around him is not enough. Or not all it could be. What sort of pressure does this place on those Christians who happen to be able to make an income in fields that produce ‘celebrity’ and a ‘platform’ — how would my tweets, or blog posts, or social media presence stack up with the sort of audience Israel gets? Is it fair to expect him to champion orthodox Christianity or to ‘evangelise’ simply because he has a platform that most of us do not? Is that what ‘faithful presence’ requires of him; if so, how have we, the church, equipped him for this task?

On the ‘individual’ Gospel front; I wonder if this is precisely both how Israel has been equipped — in terms of how he has been evangelised, and discipled, but also a product of the bifurcation between secular and sacred Hunter (and others like Charles Taylor) observe; the ‘secular age’ we live in makes religion a private matter and ‘salvation’ not a call to belong to some new public order, or kingdom, with an accompanying account for human behaviour and morality that comes from a spiritual commitment or something transcendent that we connect to and belong to (that Christians would typically say comes, literally, from the Holy Spirit and a real encounter with God as a reality not just an abstract concept). We feed that by how we talk about and understand both the Gospel of Jesus and conversion; this failure is one Scot McKnight unpacks in The King Jesus Gospel, a book I might have some quibbles with in terms of the ‘bigness’ of the alternative Gospel he offers (whether the Gospel is ‘Israel’s story’ that began in the Old Testament or God’s cosmic story of redemption that began before the creation of the world). In Dallas Willard’s forward to McKnight’s book he describes McKnight’s work as addressing ‘contemporary misunderstandings that produce gospels that do not naturally produce disciples, but only consumers of religious goods and services’ — that’s not far off the problem the church must bear some responsibility for here (fascinatingly, Folau devotes much more Twitter air time to rebuking prosperity theology than he does to calling out homosexuality as a sin that leads to Hell). McKnight identifies a phenomenon that you might recognise at play in Folau’s own presentation of the Gospel where he says:

“Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.”

This Gospel, or this approach to evangelism, also makes ‘repentance’ the act of ‘making a decision’ not the life of turning to Jesus from alternative kingdoms, visions of the good, or ultimate loves. It makes repentance what Folau proclaims it to be — a rejection of sin — without the expulsive power of not just a new object of love, Jesus, but a new way of loving life. An instagram post can’t possibly capture or convey the bigness of what this looks like, or what’s at stake in repentance or following Jesus; but instagram is all the faithful champion athlete has in a world where his religious views won’t otherwise be heard, but he’s told that faithfulness for him looks like using his platform to share his faith.

This is dangerous when coupled with a broader social trend that sees religion simply as a consumer choice in pursuit of the ‘authentic you’ — part of your constructed ‘identity’ or story you tell about yourself — rather than as a fundamental conviction about a bigger story you belong to, that shapes the way you engage with the world as a person, while also seeing religious practice as a ‘private matter’ not something you take with you into the public. If identity construction via consumer choice is where we think ‘it’s at’ and identity is performed and constructed via social media (which it is, when identity is so thin a concept and is about authenticity), then where else should Folau perform his faith publicly? It’s either instagram or the Rugby field with painted on (or tattooed) Bible verses… A ‘decision’ to be religious then is about a personal preference, evangelism about ‘the expression’ of such preference, and we, the church reinforces this in extra-bad ways when we make religious belief — the Gospel message — about personal salvation alone (rather than seeing discipleship as forming persons who participate in public together as members of the church, an alternative kingdom — ie, where I think McKnight is spot on is that the Gospel is not just about Jesus as personal saviour, but Jesus as king of a kingdom).

We’ve also, simultaneously, both had a low view of the ‘church’ so that to even speak of the church being responsible for an individuals actions feels like ‘over stating’ what church is, and we’ve contributed to a view of religious belief that sees the very nature of religion as ‘private’ not public in how we’ve, as an institution, participated in public debate. On the first, point, we’ve arrived at a moment where “church” is either an ‘institution’ that doesn’t speak for its members (because we want to distance ourselves from the worst expressions of institutional church — like the Royal Commission or the way institutions behave in public), or we see ‘church’ as an event that is only constituted in the gathering of people to worship together on a Sunday, not a community of interdependent ‘belonging’ to one another. This latter point would mean that when Israel, or anybody, speaks, he speaks for ‘us’ not ‘him’… but my first response to his instagram post this week was to seek to distance myself from him, rather than recognising the things we have in common as religious believers, and possibly as members of a universal church (though, I believe there are certain heretical beliefs he holds, and beliefs I hold, that would see both of us excluding one another — in that from what I understand he denies, and I affirm, the Trinity). I do wonder what accountability Israel Folau believes he has, as a Christian, to any particular community, tradition, or institution — because in an age of consumer Christianity and individual, personal, salvation that sort of accountability is not a thing we do any more, we don’t belong to a church we choose a church, and we leave if it challenges our ‘personal’ authentic expression of faith in ways we don’t feel comfortable with to find places where we feel a better ‘fit’. On the second point, the privatisation of religious belief, when it comes to not the moral standing of homosexual behaviour in modern Australia, but the spiritual standing of such behaviour — and those other Folau calls out as sinful — we don’t participate in public debates in good faith; ie we didn’t argue against the legislation of same sex marriage on a spiritual basis, or even for a pluralist accommodation of our spiritual position on homosexual relationships; we (the institutional church) argued on secular terms that same sex marriage was ‘unnatural’ and not a civic good (because parenting and gender are ‘naturally ordered’); once the public at large dismissed that view we couldn’t (and can’t) fall back on the spiritual account of such behaviours and expect to be understood or welcomed in society (or its institutions, such as the national football team).

If this comes close to describing how the church conceives of itself — or if it describes a complicated mess of contradictions — which is does — then what else can Israel do as a Christian? There’s no real institution behind him, articulating his views in public or shaping his sense of how to engage in public as a Christian; nobody offering a view of being part of the church that is not ‘being an individual who must save individuals using his individual platform,’ then how else is he meant to act? If there’s no ‘good news’ except ‘repent or go to hell,’ then what else should he proclaim?

It’s one thing to deconstruct how the church has failed Israel, and so, how Israel is failing to articulate the Gospel; both in content — even if what he says is totally true, it is incomplete in a way that is unhelpful and distorting (when it comes to repentance, and conversion, and the relationship between sin and Jesus), and in form, even if what he said was complete, saying it on instagram, as a celebrity, is unlikely to ultimately be helpfully geared towards actual repentance (the sort of turning to Jesus that is about discipleship — the shaping of a life around the Lordship of Jesus), not simply a decision (the realisation that one is a sinner in need of a saviour), it’s another thing to deconstruct the way Australian society is failing Israel and other religious people because of how it has replaced ‘thick’ or substantial religious belief and institutions with ‘thin’ alternatives.

How Australia is failing Israel

When I read people like Peter Fitzsimons go to town on Israel Folau I feel like I’m reading a post-religious zealot attacking a heretic. The church used to burn heretics at the stake because we realised how important orthodoxy was, and pursued unity in that orthodoxy by eradicating anybody who threatened it. This lead to some pretty dark chapters in church history, but since the modern secular mind is so keen to remove any religious influence from the way we do business we’re unlikely to see secular priests and prophets learn from those mistakes. And so, where once we had religion occupying a place in our understanding of what it meant to be human — so that our understanding of personhood came from the divine order and the ‘givenness’ of reality; now we have less inclination to look for transcendence (so religion is just one choice we make about how we understand ourselves, and it’s a private thing… see Charles Taylor, again), but we replace the role religion and religious institutions played in giving us a sense of who we are with other institutions. Like Rugby teams. Where the national Rugby team, or other Aussie institutions, used to be purely secular, operating in society alongside ‘sacred’ religious institutions like the church, they now have to carry a more sacred mythology and purpose to fill the void left by the privatisation of the ‘religious’ sacred (the same is true of things like ANZAC Day, and other common objects of love in our modern world). Where once you were chosen to play Rugby for Australia because of Rugby ability, now you are chosen to uphold certain quasi-religious values and to be a ‘role model’ for those values, especially in public. Here’s Fitzsimon’s pontificating (he’d probably like to be a pope) about Folau’s ability to hold a place in the game once he’s expressed, publicly, his reasonably orthodox, mainstream, even if un-nuanced, religious views.

In the wake of his latest homophobic outburst – gays, among other sinners, are heading to hell once more – Israel Folau has to go, and will go.

Quick. Clean. Gone. At least until such times as he repents.

His contract will be suspended or terminated on the grounds of having breached either rugby’s social media policy, or his contract.

Rugby Australia simply has no choice. They cannot go through one more time the agony of last year when Folau’s social media comments trumpeting that gays would go to hell, saw rugby lose sponsors, fans, and support.

Then it took three weeks for Folau to pull his head in, and it seemed like he got it: that you couldn’t be a standard bearer for the inclusive game of rugby and put out bigoted nastiness like that.

This time, it won’t take three weeks. Rugby must surely move quickly, or be made to look ridiculous.

All of the dynamics that applied last year – outrage in the rugby and wider community, people swearing not to go to games, volunteers threatening to leave the game, sponsors looking at tearing up their contracts – apply this year, but there is one difference.

Back then, it seemed it wasn’t clear to Folau what he could and could not do.

Rugby is tolerant and inclusive so long as we’re talking about bits that are public and part of somebody’s identity, not the bits that people should be keeping in private — but Rugby is also now part of a civic religion, and it can’t handle such heretical views being expressed. Because our public square isn’t pluralist, it’s aggressively monotheistic. Its monotheism isn’t the traditional religious monotheism, where there’s a transcendent God who sets moral standards and judges accordingly, it’s the new monotheism, where our personal, individual, liberty — our freedom to self-determine our own authentic identity through personal choice, where nobody but the self can sit in judgment — except against those who reject this view or refuse to conform.

Fitzsimons points out (perhaps poisoning the well) that there’ll be objections to Folau’s dismissal on the grounds of ‘freedom of speech’ — because all issues are now interpreted through a grid of individual freedom. He’s right that commercial ramifications aren’t actually restrictions on Folau’s free speech, but ‘free responses’ to Folau — that the market will solve the problem (and force the hand of the new ‘religious’ regime which is thoroughly wedded to the market). Free speech and ‘religious freedom’ are ultimately concerns that come from a certain sort of view about ‘the good’ being tied to unfettered personal liberty… But my argument about Australia failing Folau isn’t about freedom of speech or expression, but about a failure to accomodate or understand religious belief (perhaps as a result of the failure of the church outlined above). There’s a great new podcast, The Eucatastrophethat has been exploring some of these foundational issues in recent episodes — which I’d commend to anyone who wants to think more about this stuff.

Australia is failing Israel in precisely the way the church is — in needing a celebrity to use their ‘platform’ to promote a particular sort of ‘gospel’ — but further, in refusing to make space for other expressions of other convictions. The church failed to embrace pluralism when we were tested in the same sex marriage debate; we failed to properly account for our belief in a spiritual order and made natural arguments, and we failed to make space for different spiritualities or understanding of life. We pushed a zero-sum agenda; we pushed for monotheism (bizarrely without making a case for monotheism), and now ‘secular’ Australia, after a decisive public decision making process, has adopted that zero-sum, monotheistic, approach when dealing with opposition. We’re reaping the whirlwind, and it’s unclear how the Australian ‘public’ square is going to change any time soon, especially if we, the church, can’t recognise our failures and shift accordingly.

 

Live and let die: why leaving ‘private’ convictions behind in public health is a terribly disintegrating idea

When you were young and your heart
Was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(You know you did)
(You know you did)
(You know you did)

But if this ever changin’ world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
Live and let die — Paul and Linda McCartney

There’s a piece in the ABC’s Religion and Ethics this week about an abortion doctor who’s a Christian who checks her private religious convictions in at the door of the public hospital and so participates in abortion procedures. Doctor Carol Portmann is also appearing on an SBS show that brings a bunch of Christians with different convictions together in one house as an experiment. She’s been lauded in some quarters as an exemplary figure because what she’s doing is being the ultimate picture of a certain sort of secularism — the type where religion is only, and absolutely, a private matter — a conviction in the heart to be kept at home, or in religious space — never to be brought into the common life of our nation. It’s the same sort of secularism that saw questions raised about whether or not kids in public schools should be able to talk about religion in the playground — the secularism where our common life defaults to atheism (and where Christians wanting to pursue civic goods are left making religion-free natural law arguments rather than saying what we really believe which assumes and then reinforces the idea that religion is private not public and so leads to the disintegration of religious persons).

Doctor Portmann says:

 

“The way I look at it is: I have a job to do as a doctor, regardless of my personal feelings about something. It’s not my decision, because it’s not my pregnancy or my body. Ultimately, the one thing God really granted us above anything else is free will.
Early on in medical school, we were not given opportunities to speak with people considering termination of pregnancy. So, as a student, you tend to start off with just your own personal beliefs.

But the more that you interact through your job with these women, the more you recognise it’s just as important to provide people with support and openness, information and guidance, and being Christian shouldn’t stop me from doing that.”

I can understand Doctor Portmann’s position — she has a job to do, and an employer (ultimately the state), who are employing her to do a job; her employer sets the parameters, and, at one level, a Christian wanting to participate in the secular state and its institutions might have to make compromise (that’s my position on why Christians should join the Labor Party rather than abandoning it after Labor changed its abortion policy recently). But there’s ‘compromise’ that looks like working in an institution that conducts abortions while not conducting them yourself, and there’s compromise that is conducting the abortions yourself — the difference to joining the Labor Party is you’d be joining, as a Christian, to give voice to your personal religious convictions, seeing them as a view that must inevitably shape the ‘public’ life of a person, not just as a private matter. We need to be better at making the distinction between participating in institutions that involve sin and participating in sinful actions. So I can understand Doctor Portmann’s position, I just think it is wrong, and I think it would be wrong for our approach to public health to be built from a belief that you can separate private personal beliefs from public action.

Firstly, I think it’s wrong for Christians to adopt a position like this — to think you can have personal convictions that do not shape your public life. The New Testament approaches public ethical quandaries like this one on the issue of food sacrificed to idols. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, draws the ethical line when it comes to eating such food at the point at which the people around you see that your public actions (even if they’re in a private home) as necessarily participating in idol worship. So he’ll say ‘eat idol food that is sold in the public market’ and ‘eat with your friends’ until the point comes where your friends believe that by eating it you are participating in the public actions of idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:23-33); and he’ll say ‘don’t share at the altar in an idol temple’ because that is inevitably participating in idol worship (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:14-22). Abortion is a question of idolatry, or theology, because all beliefs about the nature of human life or personhood are implicitly linked to a belief about the nature of God or gods. Our anthropology comes from our theology.

I admit that it’s also hard for me to see a case where a Christian doctor working in a public hospital and conducting abortions is able to make the case that they are doing so according to Paul’s overarching ethical paradigm in 1 Corinthians: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). But I can see, further, that for some Christians even working in a public health setting where abortions are conducted and referring people to others, to protect one’s own conscience, is also to be complicit in some process that is not glorifying God, or that is idolatrous. I can see an argument that a public hospital could be analogous to an idol temple on the issue of abortion, if there was a very clear policy that every doctor working there must participate in abortions, and I can see, then, a case for Christian doctors withdrawing into parallel institutions (private hospitals); but so long as a Christian (or Muslim) doctor might be present in that public, common, space, holding and acting according to their own religious convictions about the public good, then we should be able to make the distinction between ‘working in a contested space’ and ‘compromising one’s integrity and so disintegrating one’s self’. Because we see the good of a faithful Christian presence in those public institutions, for the common good (in much the same way that Paul thinks it is a good thing that his friend Erastus is part of the government in idol-worshipping Corinth, Romans 16:23). The danger of creating parallel institutions that just service Christians, or that allow us to operate as Christians without compromise, is that they tend to stop us participating in the world in ways that allow us to bring the sort of change that adorns the Gospel — the sort of change that led Christians to build hospitals where there were none. Hospitals that treated everyone, not just the rich or those likely to get healthy again — that did this because of the dignity of all people, and because our story teaches us that sickness and death are marks of a deep brokenness in the world.

Now, if this position Doctor Portmann arrives at — being a “Christian doctor who helps people have abortions” — is her personal conviction about how faith and public life intersect, that’s fine. If it actually reflects a personal view where she somehow reconciles her faith with the dehumanisation of an unborn child, then it’s her right to arrive at that position and to participate in public accordingly… that’s pluralism. A pluralist approach to abortion recognises that people will come to different (theological) convictions about the nature of human life and that my own personal conviction should not necessarily be imposed on others; there’s a different between imposition and accommodation. A Christian approach to the question of abortion might be one that seeks to impose a view of the personhood of an unborn child on the public, via legislation and persuasion about what is good and true and should be a commonly held and loving position for all in our ‘public’ — but that’s not the only possible approach to a contested public space, nor is it the issue arising from Doctor Portmann’s position. It seems to me that she’s arguing that you can have your own private, personal, conviction about the morality of abortion (and the personhood of the unborn child) and not bring that to the public space or conversation, or your performance of your work, or life, in public. And I’m not sure that is ‘fine’. It’s certainly not pluralism. It’s the eradication of difference in public.

Speaking as a Christian, using theological categories, it seems she has embraced a particular view of God, and the world, that places ‘free will’ over and above any other moral categories. I believe she is wrong to adopt this particular hierarchy, and this particular approach to her participation in public life, and her example is a terrible pattern for Christian medical professionals, or any medical professionals, because it’s a terrible approach to shared, common, public, space for anybody with moral convictions.

Speaking as an Australian, using political categories, I think flattening out personal conscience in pursuit of public consensus, and making no space for objection and participation in public is a shortcut to very bad things. At risk of breaking Godwin’s Law, there’s not a huge jump from acting as though unborn children are not persons, even if you’re personally convinced they are, because the system tells you to, and participating in other systemic evil that revolves around depersonalising or dehumanising other categories of human. It seems more likely to me, at this point, that it’s not so much that Portmann has personal convictions that compete with her public role, but that her personal convictions or personal beliefs are a bit more malleable around the question of whether or not an unborn child is a person.

Now, I’m on the record as not believing abortion is a good thing; because I think it cheapens how we as a society view life, and because, ultimately, I believe it involves taking the life of a person. I would like to persuade our legislators and society to see things my way, but I also recognise that there are competing human rights at play and that the current legislative status quo is more likely to protect the conscience of religious doctors than to enshrine the views or religious people as widespread social norms… but, I hope the argument I make here is one that people of any faith conviction can agree with, and one that doesn’t actually rest on the moral status of abortion, but rather how we as a society allow people to bring their moral convictions into the public square so that each of us is free to act with integrity (within certain limits, for example, to prevent individuals doing harm to others according to common objects of love or broadly shared beliefs about ‘the good’).

I’m arguing that the ultimate good here is not ‘unlimited freedom’ that co-opts the ‘public life’ of all, causing people to act against their private convictions, but ‘integrity’ — encouraging people to live and act with their public and private (or secular and sacred) convictions integrated and aligned; I’m suggesting that forcing people to split ourselves and our convictions into ‘public’ and ‘private’ is actually not a good thing for our secular democracy because we do not want people operating in public against their private convictions. I’d suggest at least three universal reasons this is bad, and two reasons it’s a bad position for Christians to adopt. In the ‘universal’ space I’d suggest it’s bad:

First, because to do so ‘disintegrates’ people, forcing them to act without integrity in order to participate in our common life. We actually want people to be acting with integrity as much as possible rather than harbouring private disagreement that leads to resentment or builds towards a corrective ‘revolution’.

Second, because it turns moral and political issues into zero sum games and creates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and an enslaved populace (the minority) who are forced or manipulated into acting against their personal moral convictions — and that’s a pathway to a certain sort of tyranny, or to a totalitarian state where an ideological vision of life, death and morality is imposed from the top down in a way that brooks no opposition, and refuses to make space for any public behaviour outside that norm.

Third, this also forces people who wish to act with integrity, according to their ‘private’ beliefs into ‘private’ practice, fragmenting the ‘commons’ and sending people into ghettoes, which robs us of the benefit of their skills and contribution to life together, and also serves to reinforce the views that keep us apart, and so the polarising division of groups and identities within our community. The choice to retreat into Christian, or religious, enclaves and parallel institutions is not a great one for Christians, or religious people, to make for the sake of the world nor is it a good one for the world if those enclaves are places that foster resentment and disunity where an alternative is a true commons where public life is richer because moral visions are contested and we allow people the space to act with integrity. Our public space becomes poorer if, in order to participate in it, one must adopt the positions or will of the majority against one’s own conscience. This is the sort of social engineering that makes tyranny possible because it makes tyrannical positions unquestionable, and forces people to conform and adapt until they lose their distinctives.

In terms of reasons for Christians not to follow Doctor Portmann’s lead, I’d suggest, firstly, that to adopt her position one is not choosing a ‘live and let live’ approach to public life and difference, but a ‘live and let die’ approach where it’s not just the unborn child, but the ability to believe and maintain that an unborn child is a person that dies with such a capitulation. This is not pluralism, where the public is contested, but capitulation, where the public is ideologically shaped by a particular view of personhood; a view that like all “private views” is inherently theological. Portmann is accepting a division or distinction between the secular (public) and the sacred (private) that is ultimately incoherent, because all public life expresses some view of the ‘sacred’ that is, frankly, both unChristian and unhuman — if we do not publicly embody our private convictions then either we are disintegrated hypocrites or those private convictions aren’t actually convictions at all. This also buys into the idea that there is ‘sacred’ work — that done by clergy in religious spaces, and ‘secular work’ that done by ordinary Christians in public or private enterprise. Her position is the sort of position that will force religious people of moral conviction out of contested public space — into ‘sacred’ or ‘private’ space, and so make that public space uncontested. There’s already a ‘contest’ to do this, without Christian doctors adopting Doctor Portmann’s position (and not just in public hospitals, though this is a particular battleground for a particular ideological ‘culture war’). To force Christian doctors to conduct abortions if they want to work in public hospitals, or even to argue that they should keep their personal convictions out of the job (even if they’re convinced of this stance as a personal conviction) is not a case of ‘live and let live’ but ‘conform or die’. To, act, as a Christian doctor, as though your personal convictions have no place in your public life is to disintegrate your faith from your practice; it’s to buy into a certain sort of secularism that evacuates anything substantial from religious belief.  For the Christian, convinced of the moral absolute of the pro-life position, who operates in public as a doctor there are better solutions than adopting a ‘live and let die’ posture; there should, instead, be freedom to clearly articulate one’s convictions, act according to them, and for public patients with different convictions to seek treatment from a doctor who is not acting against their personal convictions.

Second, I’d suggest that her model of public practice is not faithful presence in that while she remains present in the public space, she is not, if she does hold personal religious convictions about the personhood of the unborn child, essentially faithful; her public actions are not her expression of her own faith (as articulated in the piece), but a giving over of herself and her body to the faith, or will, of others (be it the patients or the system). In James Davison Hunter’s work To Change The World, where he makes the case for ‘faithful presence’ as our paradigm for engaging, participating in, and changing the world for the good, Hunter says that while there’s much in the world we can participate in and affirm without question, we Christians — the church — must always remember we are a ‘community of resistance’ — people who act in public in order to subvert and challenge theological or political views of ‘the good life’ that we disagree with; that our job is not to evacuate the commons or the ‘public’ but to participate in it, and in its institutions in ways that are not just negative but creative and constructive. He says:

 

“…the church, as it exists within the wide range of individual vocations in every sphere of social life (commerce, philanthropy, education, etc.), must be present in the world in ways that work toward the constructive subversion of all frameworks of social life that are incompatible with the shalom for which we were made and to which we are called. As a natural expression of its passion to honour God in all things and to love our neighbour as ourselves, the church and its people will challenge all structures that dishonour God, dehumanise people, and neglect or do harm to the creation. In our present historical circumstances, this means that the church and its people must stand in a position of critical resistance to late modernity and its dominant institutions and carriers; institutions like modern capitalism, liberalism, social theory, health care, urban planning, architecture, art, moral formation, family, and so on. But here again, let me emphasise that antithesis is not simply negational. Subversion is not nihilistic but creative and constructive. Thus, the church—as a community, within individual vocations, and through both existing and alternative social institutions—stands antithetical to modernity and its dominant institutions in order to offer an alternative vision and direction for them. Antithesis, then, does not require a stance that is antimodern or premodern but rather a commitment to the modern world in that it envisions it differently. Such a task begins with a critical assessment of the metaphysical, epistemological, and anthropological assumptions that undergird modern institutions and ideologies. But the objective is to retrieve the good to which modern institutions and ideas implicitly or explicitly aspire; to oppose those ideals and structures that undermine human flourishing, and to offer constructive alternatives for the realization of a better way.” — James Davison Hunter,  To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, 235-236.

The tragedy of Portmann’s position, from a Christian perspective (apart from the question of the social cost of abortion), is that it gives up the chance for Christians to be subversive and different — to bring our personal convictions about what is good, true, and beautiful — about what the nature and kingdom of God looks like — into the public domain as we embody it, to settle for some ideal of ‘individual freedom’ as a greater good than the restoration of all things. We Christians have a chance to be different and to model something different to our world, to bring life into our public institutions, but we won’t do this if we don’t act with integrity, acknowledging that our personal beliefs have a public dimension such that they must shape our actions.

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Christian, is there room in your church for an ____ voter? Would they feel welcome?

Our desire to verbal process the world, and our almost frictionless ability to process the world verbally in front of crowds of people on social media is a funny modern novelty. My wise old dad, he’s 60 soon, once said to me that for the vast majority of his life in ministry he’d have had no idea how his friends and ministry colleagues voted; politics just weren’t a thing that mixed with the pulpit.

How quaint, I thought.

And then I decided I’d dearly love to not know how a preacher votes. In a great twist of ironic fate, an article might come out elsewhere in a couple of days where I explain not ‘who I vote for’ but ‘how I vote’ (I’ve covered this in depth here previously). You may think you can guess how I vote from what I write, and what sort of moral matrix or grid I appear to filter things through, and that would, I think, represent a failure on my part. My prior training as a journalist, my career in a not-for-profit ‘apolitical’ lobby group, and my current vocation all require, I believe, a certain sort of objective detachment from the cut and thrust of party politics; a detachment that means it would be inappropriate for me to hold my job and be a member of a political party, or obviously partisan.

I’m not saying I’d love preachers and Christians to not be engaged in political issues — I’m with sociologist/theologian James Davison Hunter on the criticism of a modern attitude that leaves complex social and political issues to politicians and lawmaking; I’d love the church to be modelling an alternative vision for life together as the kingdom of God in this world, and for us to speak winsomely on political issues in the public square as ambassadors for Christ, trying hard to persuade our neighbours of the truth, goodness, and beauty of life with Jesus as king. I’d love us to be participating in, or creating, institutions that seek ‘political change’ or to impact the public, or commons, in positive ways as a way of loving our neighbours and testifying to the lordship of Jesus. I’d love us to speak widely, beyond just the few issues that seem to be identity markers for ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ politics to model what ‘Christ centred’ politics looks like; where there is no inch of life in this world that Jesus does not declare ‘mine!’

But I’m concerned, with James Davison Hunter, about ‘the culture wars’ (he coined the phrase back in 1991 in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America). He described these wars as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” and emerging from opposing “assumptions about how to order or lives – our own lives and our lives together in this society.” It’s fine to morally disagree with people, across political, philosophical, and religious lines — the art is figuring out how to live in disagreement, and listen to the other, without adopting a winner takes all approach to wiping out those who disagree with you. Our desire to wipe out the other, the ‘culture war’ is a product of a polarisation that treats ‘other’ as enemy, and then justifies their extermination, or forced conversion via the threat of excommunication or exclusion from ‘society’.

Here’s what Hunter wrote in 1991:

But there is still another factor that contributes to the polarisation of public discourse and the eclipse of the middle. The polarisation of contemporary public discourse is in fact intensified by and institutionalised through the very media by which that discussion takes place. It is through these media that public discourse acquires a life of its own; not only do the categories of public rhetoric become detached from the intentions of the speaker, they also overpower the subtleties of perspective and opinion of the vast majority of citizens who position themselves “somewhere in the middle” of these debates…

“Middling positions and the nuances of moral commitment, then, get played into the grid of opposing rhetorical extremes.”

The problem with this last bit is that if this grid exists, and people place themselves in a position to listen to voices that reinforce their particular cultural convictions (including a position on ‘the other’), then nothing that is said, whether extreme or ‘middling’ is ever heard properly, it simply reinforces the polarisation. This is damaging for society at large, but it is even more deleterious to the project of unity in Christ within a church community. Is it possible for a church in this cultural climate to be a place where individuals from the left and right come together in fellowship, in a way that allows both left and right — all our politics — to be transformed by our union with Christ, through the Spirit, shaped by the ethics of Jesus’ kingdom as revealed at the cross?

What makes this vision for church community even trickier is when Christians leaders, or individuals, adopt combative positions in the culture war in ways that alienate the other, or worse turn the ‘other’ into an ideological enemy to be defeated rather than embraced.

What also makes this difficult is where the ‘culture wars’, politics, and the media have gone since 1991. Hunter describes the general tone of public discourse, in 1991, pre-social media as: “…elitist, sensational, ambivalent, suspicious of new voices, and intensified and further polarised by the very media by which such discourse takes place.”

This was before social media, which exists to serve up users more of what they want, which tends to be ‘more of what they have expressed an interest in’ that the algorithm can measure, which tends to be ‘more of what they already think but packaged in more sensationalist and titillating ways that retain attention by amplifying feelings (especially feelings of outrage)’… The mass media was bad for polarisation — targeted, algorithmically driven, social media that fragments right down to the individual level is worse. I wrote a series about social media, outrage culture, and virtue back here. Especially when the sort of positions that Hunter suggests represent the majority, de-escalate polarisation, and cultivate virtue and civility, the “middling positions’ that involve nuance take time and attention and space to think and process were hard enough in traditional media contexts, but are anathema to our infinite scrolling through social media newsfeeds.

Mark Zuckerberg once described the ‘self interest’ at the heart of Facebook’s newsfeed by saying:

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

This is also why you’re likely to see more online about New Zealand than about religious killings in Nigeria; this is the algorithmically perfected editorial policy of most major commercial news services — such services exist not for civic good, but for profit. Our media platforms serve up stories that appeal to their audiences. It’s now on us, the public, to cultivate the sort of consumption of media, and lives, that de-escalate the culture wars — especially those of us in churches where we’re first focusing on relationships in church.

In a 2018 interview about where these wars have gone since Hunter coined the term, he said the cultural conflicts in this war have amplified and intensified, and this is because ‘culture’ is actually profoundly important — it sits upstream from politics and law because it shapes our moral imagination.

“That’s because culture is not a marginal concern, as many educated people profess to believe—even as they often espouse their own dogmatic cultural positions. Rather, culture is “about systems of meaning that help make sense of the world,” Mr. Hunter says, “why things are good, true and beautiful, or why things are not. Why things are right and wrong.” Culture “provides the moral foundation of a political order.”

It’s not just Hunter who predicted the culture wars in ways that seem prophetic now, especially with the addition of social media.

Back in 2006, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a prescient piece about the polarised nature of two-party politics, and how the two parties rely on such polarisation fuelled from within, and by a war footing of sorts, to continue to exist. This leads to the destruction of public, political, conversation — and especially shapes how we see ‘the other’.

“The flamers in the established parties tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious too. They rationalise their behaviour by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country. They imagine that once they have achieved victory through pulverising rhetoric they will return to the moderate and nuanced sensibilities they think they still possess.”

Sadly, he predicted what might happen if his invented ‘moderate coalition,’ the ‘McCain—Lieberman Party’ (Republican senator John McCain and Democrat senator Joe Lieberman), did not get ‘absorbed’ into the policy platform of one of the major parties. This was pre-Obama, and certainly pre-Trump.

“The McCain-Lieberman Party … sees two parties that depend on the culture war for internal cohesion and that make abortion a litmus test. It sees two traditions immobilized to trench warfare.

The McCain-Lieberman Party is emerging because the war with Islamic extremism, which opened new fissures and exacerbated old ones, will dominate the next five years as much as it has dominated the last five. It is emerging because of deep trends that are polarising our politics. It is emerging because social conservatives continue to pull the GOP rightward (look at how Representative Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican, was defeated by a conservative rival in Michigan). It is emerging because highly educated secular liberals are pulling the Democrats upscale and to the left. (Lamont’s voters are rich, and 65 percent call themselves liberals, compared with 30 percent of Democrats nationwide.)

The history of third parties is that they get absorbed into one of the existing two, and that will probably happen here…

But amid the hurly-burly of the next few years… the old parties could become even more inflamed. Both could reject McCain-Liebermanism.

At that point things really get interesting.”

And, so, Brooks predicted Trump. The collapse of the political middle into a zero-sum culture war that sees the ‘other’ side as an enemy to be polarised, whoever or whatever the other side stands for. A politics filled with political actors who’ve lost touch with the ‘moderate and nuanced sensibilities’ that produce stability and a ‘commons’ of sorts between right and left, in exchange for an entrenched flame war.

And here we are 13 years on from Brook’s piece. And the flames are burning. And violent political language and battlelines being drawn begets violence in the real world. I highlight that link only because it was particularly pugilistic, and it appeared in my Facebook feed for no reason that I could fathom. You might say ‘that’s just hyperbole’ — but it’s hyperbole that fits a trend that has been recognised and described for some time, and while it’s the nature of the business of Aussie politics, with our two party system, for politics to involve a certain sort of adversarial ‘theatre’ and an ‘us v them’ mentality, in order to divide and conquer… that’s not the business of the Aussie church.

Political idealists, especially partisan ones, whether left, or right, are now turning on the centrists — those who try not to play the culture war, or who seek moderation in all things — idealists on the extremes are increasingly suggesting that to adopt a ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ stance on an issue — to not speak or act — is to adopt the status quo. This is not just a new type of ‘culture war’ against the middle, which was previously just eclipsed (Hunter) or encompassed (Brooks). It’s a deliberate move to exclude the middle in the name of the greater ideological conflict between the poles.  It’s an insistence that to be moral one must pick side, and that to be a moderate is to attempt to sit on the fence on all things. It is to insist that the ‘other’ is evil or complicit, and to stay on the fence makes one complicit too. This classically works better from the left, who tend towards systemic views of evil, and to annoy the right, who tend to see evil as an individual, personal, choice — where if you aren’t making it, you aren’t evil… but that’s changing the more the conflict ramps up, the more there’s an apparently clear ‘us’ and ‘them’… Quite apart from this turn towards resentment of the moderate position being a damaging move when it comes to individual conscience (you ‘must’ choose a system that tells you how to think), and our creatureliness (we must act on every injustice to be moral, if to not act is to participate in evil), and our limited ability to know and form thoughtful positions on many, often competing issues (ideology is a nice shortcut to deal with this), these idealists would say (and do say) that to listen to the concerns of the ‘other side’ is to legitimise those concerns (not simply to see the ‘other’ as a human worthy of love, attention, and understanding). This move is a move to dehumanise or dismiss every other who does not share your convictions. Christian idealists of any variety — those who ‘baptise’ a particular political stance as representative of the kingdom — would have us eradicate political difference as part of the kingdom of God; this makes Christian ‘how to vote’ cards, from the left, or the right, very simple to produce because voting as a Christian, and participating in the polis as a Christianis quite simply a matter of adopting the ideological platform, and fighting the opponent. I think this approach is wrong for a bunch of reasons alluded to above — but I think it also reinforces the culture war by amping up polarisation — the way to minimise the rapid run to the poles is to resist those forces that fling us there. It’s to engage in careful listening; to pursue understanding, and to arrive at conviction making sure you’ve charitably understood the position of the other. This is where the best sort of disagreement is possible, the sort that actually has the possibility to persuade the other, not just to re-convict them of their prior convictions (in other words, it’s not just a more virtuous, less vicious, strategy, it’s also more effective). Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, talks about the polarisation of left and right and how each group tends to assess morality using different categories and frameworks that mean we often use the same words to talk past one another. He talks about how we humans are less purely rational and in control of our decision making than we might think, and how ‘wars’ and ‘tribalism’ feed our decision making instincts, which are profoundly ’emotional’ — he talks about our emotions as a rampaging elephant in our decision making and our reason as the rider trying to tug on some reigns.

He says, in The Righteous Mind, “the persuader’s goal should be to convey respect, warmth, and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case,” he says our inability to understand another person’s point of view, to see the world their way, is at the heart of the polarising force of our political ‘culture war’ — suggesting we should seek this as a baseline for political and moral conversations, or arguments.

“It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.”

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across a moral divide.

It is very difficult. Imagine being called to not just ’empathy’ but to ‘having the same mind’ or ‘the one mind’ or the ‘mind of Christ’ with people where there’s a moral or political divide (ala Philippians 2:1-11). Imagine having to navigate that! Haidt even envisages the goodness that such a community might bring to this fracturing world, he’s not specifically describing the church, although he kinda, sorta, is.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

I think it’s very possible to be partisan and a Christian. I’ve often suggested one of the best things individual Christians can do to embrace James Davison Hunter’s motif of ‘faithful presence’ is join a, any, political party and then be part of policy discussions. I just don’t think the church — be it a denomination, institution, or local gathering — should be marked by a partisan approach to politics. And I fear, because I know how too many leaders of churches vote (both on the left, and on the right), that we are buying in to culture wars in a way that buys into the devil’s hands. The best form of Christian community is one where partisan Christians who are seeking to maintain a faithful presence in our political and cultural institutions shaped by convictions about Jesus and his kingdom, and personal convictions about how that plays out within and against these institutions, whether on the right or the left, can come together in fellowship in a way that models the way forward outside the community of believers — our ability to unite, to listen, to co-operate, and to disagree with one another with love and charity might be a beacon and a blessing to our neighbours. And yet, there seems to be no will to extricate ourselves from the culture wars — especially when it comes to the way Christian leaders (myself included) use social media. This is the sort of time when people say ‘you’re talking in generalities, prove it’ — and at this point I’d suggest that our denomination’s recent statement on abortion, while it adopts a position I agree with, had the unfortunate effect of equating a vote for or presence within the Labor Party as being a participant in evil, and I’d point to this cultural warrior, a Presbyterian minister, who wages the culture war in a media channel that is famously partisan, and I’d ask — could anyone outside the hard right comfortably attend a church where such views are linked inextricably to the pulpit?

Is this what we want?

I am certain that I’m perceived by many to be partisan when it comes to politics; I’ve been described by a dear Christian brother as ‘the left’s form of the ACL’. I felt misrepresented (if the interview I mentioned up top gets published you might see why), and like I was being interpreted through a particular grid, at that time, but I certainly do embrace issues and positions championed by the left (I’d like to think I also do that with the right). I’m distressed that taking a position, a political one, on an issue — even a moderate one — is seen as divisive and a reason for breaking fellowship. And I’ve experienced this as people exited our church community over my (and our) stance on the postal survey. Other friends who don’t buy in to the culture war have experienced a similar ‘exodus’ — these exoduses always end up creating little tribes within our church networks; little homogenous political communities, or demographics, that don’t have the opportunity to be the alternative polis modelling life across divides that we so desperately need. So I apologise and repent for those times when my rhetoric has fuelled partisan division, rather than calling us to a better conversation (note, I’m not apologising for convictions on issues, or for saying things people disagree with).

I fear that part of the alternative community that the church offers to the world is a community where people come together from different positions and backgrounds, with different convictions about political problems and solutions, and find unity in a king.

I fear that church is meant to be a community where people can belong and find their commitment to certain civic goods re-shaped, re-ordered, and transformed by the king — in ways that simultaneously affirm and invert good and not so good things about ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ solutions.

I fear that the church is meant to be a place of re-imagining and re-imaging life in ways that might re-animate our political right, political centre, and political left, and yet we are a place that too often has our imagination co-opted by a political ideology from the world, rather than by the life, death, resurrection and rule of Jesus.

I fear that our rhetoric and culture war fighting as ministers, preachers, or vocally partisan Christian punters fuels the division of our society into tribes even as we call people to follow the king of the universe.

I fear that whether a church leader is known for being partisan in any political direction, that the climate that creates is a drawing in of people who agree with that stance, at the exclusion of those who disagree.

And yet, I am also hopeful.

I hope that church communities can emerge that are the sort of communities Haidt describes — committed to truth, and to listening to the other.

I hope that our churches might be communities that are not ‘apolitical’ or defined by a particular partisan outlook — but rather be models of places where people can come together finding unity in Christ and his kingdom, to be sent as ambassadors into the institutions and political parties of our world.

I hope that we can lead the way for our wider community who so desperately need models of rich, loving, disagreement and co-operation around what we hold in common.

I hope that we can practice listening not just to one another, but to our neighbours who are not like us — that we can model ‘loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.’

I hope that we can steer clear of playing the culture war and power politics game that so defines our civic life now, in favour of patient listening and the pursuit of nuance and wisdom.

I hope that we can look to voices not just explaining the cost of extremes, from the other side — ie listening to those voices we most naturally exclude, but also that we might listen to those voices who are pushing back against the idea that understanding the other is evil, unnecessary, or to be complicit in some horrid status quo (the status quo that conservatives are inherently seeking to uphold and defend).

I hope that we Christians can affirm that there are good things in creation, and in this status quo, things that have been hard won through the influence of Christians in our politics (both on the left and the right, and for progressives and conservatives). I hope that we can also admit that there are areas where progress towards our vision of the good, true, and beautiful — towards the kingdom of God, or shalom, are still possible and that the way forward isn’t simply to shift to maintain some vision of political utopia that we achieved in the past.

I hope that as well as listening to the voices we might normally exclude from our thinking — the voice of ‘the other’ — we might listen more to voices like James Davison Hunter who diagnosed and predicted this cultural problem almost thirty years ago. Here’s something he wrote in his more recent To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World:

 “It isn’t just the Constantinian temptation the church must repudiate but, more significantly, the orientation toward power that underwrites it. The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicisation of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer.

A vision of the new city commons, rooted in a theology of faithful presence, certainly leads to a repudiation of ressentiment that defines so much of Christianity’s contemporary public witness.

Yet it also leads to a postpolitical view of power. It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilisation. This would not mean civic privatism but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.”

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Captain Marvel and dragon slaying

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” — G.K Chesterton

Captain Marvel is the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Captain Marvel is a woman. Captain Marvel is a human woman named Carol Danvers whose origin story is the latest instalment in the MCU because she’s going to be a major player in the next instalment of The Avengers. You can’t go far in a review or commentary on Captain Marvel as a cultural text without referring to Wonder Woman, the comparisons in terms of the function of these movies and these characters within their respective comic universes are obvious. We saw Captain Marvel yesterday, and Robyn’s analysis of this comparison was that Wonder Woman was a better movie (and funnier), and perhaps because it came first it felt more revolutionary — but that doesn’t mean Captain Marvel is not the sort of empowering movie we’d want our kids to see. Much of what I wrote in a review of Wonder Woman can be said about Captain Marvel.

Stories are powerful, and super hero movies, like it or not, are our modern myths, so stories that provide representation for people who aren’t used to seeing heroes who look just like them are powerful stories (think Black Panther). They don’t teach us that we need superpowers to save the world, because most of us know superpowers, outside of science (hello Iron Man) are unlikely to happen; they do teach us that evil can be overcome though, by good, often by love. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Stories that feature women as heroes have, until recent times, been exceptionally rare. Especially women that aren’t sidekicks. Back in 2016 I went looking for stories where women undertake what has been called ‘The Hero’s Journey’ (following a guy named Joseph Campbell) in a Facebook thread— there aren’t many, even though that thread had hundreds of comments. Finding stories with strong female characters who exist in their own right, not as trophies for men, is tricky. Which is why Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are such powerful texts — but I’d argue they’re more powerful because despite the godlike powers of Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel in these movies, they don’t function independently but in cooperation with supportive men. They aren’t stories of independence but interdependence, in a way that very few movies with male heroes pull off. There’s a danger with any super hero story that peddles a myth that individual heroism will destroy dragons (and this is where I think Jordan Peterson’s use of mythology to promote individual heroism miss fires, even if he wants a balance of “feminine chaos” (emotion) and “masculine order” (reason)). I want my daughters to watch this movie for the same reason I want them to read Rosie Revere, Engineer, or to watch this astronaut, a real life Carol Danvers, Kate Rubin, read Rosie Revere from space. Representation is powerful and it helps girls imagine their place in the world counter to the myths that come from curse.

It’s too early in the piece for substantial spoilers of Captain Marvel, but I’ll just say, as you watch it, pay attention to the way the evil empire tries to control Carol Danvers by limiting her ability to embrace her emotions — she’s basically told the same thing as Elsa in Frozen — ‘don’t feel’ — she’s told that reason will be her greatest weapon, and that her head, not her heart (or not the combo of both) is what must guide her and restrain her use of power. This is wrong. It’s when she embraces her emotions, driven by love and a pure hatred of evil and injustice, that she becomes the most powerful figure in the MCU; that’s when she escapes the voices that want to control her (embodied by the Kree General Yon-Rogg). Yon-Rogg, her malevolent mentor, wants to harness her power for himself and his ends, he’s contrasted with Nick Fury, the future leader of S.H.I.E.L.D, who’s happy to wash the dishes with Carol, to empower her, and take her lead on saving the world and beating the bad guys.

The moral to this story is that if you have great powers — like the ability to blast energy from your hands, and fly — and you have a good heart and mind — you should use them to fight against evil, joining other people who want to fight against evil.

Of course, our ‘friends’ at Desiring God didn’t see the movie this way. The man who brought you ‘effeminate men use plastic forks’ (which I responded to here) now brings you this hit piece on Captain Marvel and all it stands for. In an earlier edition he bemoaned the loss of trophy-princess role models like Sleeping Beauty (that’s been edited because someone must have pointed out the problems inherent with a story where a princess is kissed without her consent by a strong man she didn’t know she needed). This one scored a positive retweet from John Piper too. So there’s that. Here’s a few choice quotes.

“I do not blame Marvel for inserting the trending feminist agenda into its universe. Where else can this lucrative ideology — which contrasts so unapologetically with reality — go to be sustained, if not to an alternative universe? Verse after verse, story after story, fact after fact, study after study, example after example dispels the myth of sameness between the sexes. The alternative universe where an accident infuses the heroine with superhuman powers, however, seems to stand as a reasonable apologetic for the feminist agenda…”

“As I consider Disney’s new depiction of femininity in Captain Marvel, I cannot help but mourn. How far we’ve come since the days when we sought to protect and cherish our women.

The great drumroll of the previous Avenger movies led to this: a woman protecting men and saving the world. The mightiest of all the Avengers — indeed, after whom they are named — is the armed princess turned feminist queen, who comes down from the tower to do what Prince Charming could not.

Am I nitpicking? It is a movie after all. I wish it were. Instead of engaging the movie’s ideology as mere fiction, a fun escape to another world, we have allowed it to bear deadly fruit on earth. Along with Disney, we abandon the traditional princess vibe, and seek to empower little girls everywhere to be strong like men. Cinderella trades her glass slipper for combat boots; Belle, her books for a bazooka. Does the insanity bother us anymore?”

Now, there are some bits to what Greg says that I’m sympathetic to — I do think there are physical differences between men and women that play out in the world as we experience it; unlike Greg I think these differences, when met by the cursed pattern of relationships in Genesis 3:16, create a world that is harmful for women in a way that it isn’t for men (though it is also harmful for men). This is what terms like ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘patriarchy’ are describing — a world where men use their power to dominate and control women. Greg wants men to be men — for us to step up, not armed with plastic swords or forks, but real metal ones, to slay dragons on behalf of women everywhere. I do think men have a particular responsibility in a cursed world to choose to not benefit from the cursed status quo, but fight against it… Greg Morse is big on dragon slaying. It came up last time — and fair enough, because the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the story of the slaying of a dragon; but I fear Greg misses the point of that narrative. Especially, I think he misses the point that the dragon is slayed not by metal swords or heroism, but by a wooden stake (or cross), and that the design for men and women is that we take part in battle together, just as Jesus and his bride do…

“God’s story for all eternity consists of a Son who slew a Dragon to save a Bride. Jesus did not put his woman forward, and neither should we. Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. He is the Good Shepherd who laid his life down for his people. Even from the cross, God’s wrath crushing him, he saw to the welfare of his mother (John 19:26–27). Should we so cowardly send our women to protect our children and us? Protecting our women with our very lives is not about their competency, but their value.”

Greg wants men to fight battles and it seems that while he sees ‘laying down his life’ as a paradigm, he kinda wants men to do that while holding on to swords.

“Where can we more clearly display our ultimate resolve to love our women as queens than to step into hell on earth as sacrificial pawns in their defense? Generation after generation has mobilized its men to be devoured — that its women might not be.”

If a man with a sword (or gun) comes knocking on our door, I’m not going to send Robyn to face him alone… but I do wonder if there’s a better picture than the ‘solo warrior’ that Greg Morse might be blind to with his emphasis on individual heroism. I think he’s missing a vital part of the dynamic of Adam and Eve’s failure in the garden. Let me recast that story somewhat…

Genesis 1 tells us that God makes humanity — male and female — in his image; not just males, with females as trophies to be protected and kept at home. He tells us humans to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ — it’s clear that both males and females are involved with filling the earth with living images of God in procreation, why then do we think the ‘subduing’ or ‘ruling’ — as God’s regents, his living representatives — is suddenly the man’s domain? Not a thing we do together?

Genesis 2 tells the story of a particular relationship — within God’s garden sanctuary — a heavenly place where God dwells with people that Adam is told to ‘expand’ (he’s told to cultivate the garden and keep it, following Genesis 1’s instruction to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Adam can’t do this alone neither the expanding or guarding/keeping. So God makes him a ‘helper’ who completes him. They become one. There is no heroic individual in Genesis 2, but an heroic pair. Interdependent. The word ‘Ezer’ which is translated as ‘helper’ (Genesis 2:18) is used in places like these, in the name of one of Moses’ sons after God rescued Israel in his might:

“and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.” — Exodus 18:4

And, as Israel is about to enter the promised land…

Blessed are you, Israel!
    Who is like you,
    a people saved by the Lord?
He is your shield and helper
    and your glorious sword.
Your enemies will cower before you,
    and you will tread on their heights. — Deuteronomy 33:29

In both these cases ‘ezer’ is used of God and is used in a military sense; a helper is involved in the combat.

Adam and Eve were made to fight a dragon — the serpent — just as Jesus was — and they were to do that together; exercising God’s rule over the world — his dominion even over serpents. And they failed — because they failed to cooperate. And the price for their failure is that rather than cooperating and ruling together, they (or we) compete for rule over one another, the sort of male heroism Desiring God describes is cursed not blessed.

Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

The thing about Desiring God and its battlefield mentality in framing gender roles is that they’re focusing on ‘battles’ and missing the real war — the war we’re all called to fight as redeemed humans.

Note, that in Ephesians, Paul doesn’t say ‘finally, men’… but ‘finally,’ note also that he sees our enemy not as soldiers with guns but the devil and the ‘spiritual forces of evil’ — dragons are real. Note, that he also doesn’t expect women to sit behind enemy lines, but rather, to be dressed for battle. The real battle. The battle he doesn’t expect ‘the bride of Christ’ to sit on the sidelines for, but to be fighting — even as we know the real victory has been won.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. — Ephesians 6:1–18

In Revelation, John draws all this together for us, the real battle and the real victory — a victory that is secure not because Jesus took the sword, but because he went to the cross.

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon,and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power
    and the kingdom of our God,
    and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
    who accuses them before our God day and night,
    has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
    by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
    as to shrink from death.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
    and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
    because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
    because he knows that his time is short.” — Revelation 12:10-12

That’s our paradigm — that’s our  truth, our readiness, our shield, our helmet, and our sword — that Jesus has won the victory. That’s what men and women co-operate with as we bring this message of victory to the world and so see God’s image bearers spread across the face of the world in opposition to Satan. Heroic independence is result of the curse — thinking that we should maintain that approach to this real battle is a lie of the Devil. Our inter-dependent following of the example of Jesus, together, one in him because the victory is won in him is what sees the devil and his schemes defeated, and the blessing of the new kingdom coming here and now.

The Desiring God piece cites C.S Lewis as an example for why women shouldn’t go into battle — and yet, C.S Lewis gets it — he gets the power of stories, or myths, that they don’t teach us just about heroism in real world conflicts, but about the enchanted world we live in and the Spiritual battle. This is the point of the Narnia series; you know, that series where a group of brothers and sisters — Peter and Edmund joined by Lucy and Susan — go to battle, armed, against the White Witch (the serpent figure), behind Aslan (the Jesus figure), their victorious leader who wins a victory by death.

This quote is, unfortunately for the purpose of this piece, from an era where the most frequent pronoun for talking about an individual was ‘he’ — but it applies to the power of stories in all our lives, and it’s why we need Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman, and the Chronicles of Narnia.

“…the fairy tale stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — C.S Lewis

I want my daughters, my wife, my sisters, and my friends who are women to see and be inspired by Captain Marvel. I want them to be inspired by Lucy and Susan (though not, ultimately, Susan — who ends up choosing “feminine” things like lipstick and stockings (you know, what the princesses Desiring God misses would spend their time pursuing in order to not accidentally be masculine), rather than the ‘last battle’ and Narnia — the things of this world rather than the kingdom). I want my daughters to read stories and watch stories where there are brave heroes who represent them so they take up their place in the real war. Fairy tales are powerful not because they teach us how to navigate a world where bullets fly, but how to face the one who drags us in to curse and away from blessing.