Category Archives: Culture

,

The climate apocalypse is real, and here’s why we need a different sort of climate apocalypse that begins with Jesus (and us Christians)

11,000 scientists from around the globe have joined forces this week to declare a climate emergency, signing a paper warning of catastrophic threat to humanity. It’s a pretty apocalyptic sort of vision.

Are you listening?

I’m not a scientist, so I tend to leave science to scientists. Which means I am listening.

I am open to questioning the worldview or default assumptions underpinning some science — in that, as someone who is a Christian I do also believe in a supernatural realm and a God ‘in whom we live and breathe and have our being’ who ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ and I’m skeptical of scientific overreach where conclusions are drawn about the legitimacy of such a being because of ‘science.’ As a quick tangent — science as we know it is born out of theism — Christianity specifically in the western world, and Islam in other parts of the world. For Christians, from the Bible (for eg Romans 1:20), through Augustine, the Bacons, and other pioneers of the scientific method science was a way to study the cosmos as ‘God’s second book’ — understanding God from what has been made. When we observe natural operations and order in the cosmos (like mathematics and natural laws) we are seeing God’s handiwork. Part of the problem, in the Bible, is that we can’t always get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ because we humans are so busy writing our own stories into the fabric of the universe as we build and break, but also there’s this dynamic right from the first pages of the Bible where that good order is thrown into ‘disorder’ or decay, frustration, and curse as a result of human sin. Plus, a sensitive reading of Genesis 1-2 suggests there are bits of creation that are less than perfectly ordered in that the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are meant to “cultivate and keep” this garden, so probably to expand it over the earth as they “be fruitful and multiply.” The Garden, Eden, does not yet cover the whole earth. There’s space for some chaos existing outside the garden in a plain reading of the text of Genesis.

Christians have typically understood God’s first book — the Bible — as the primary authority in a way that shapes (and underpins) the scientific endeavour. If there appears to be a conflict we’re either reading one (the Bible or the science) or both books (the Bible and the science) the wrong way. When they line up we can be pretty confident, as Christians, that there’s something to pay attention to. We don’t need to reject or be suspicious of science simply because it is ‘science’; or to conform every bit of what we believe to be true about the universe to what scientists tell us (or the conclusions that naturalistic scientists then might seek to draw from the data).

So when 11,000 scientists — and plenty of Christian scientists — tell me that the world is heading towards catastrophic change, and I can see a pretty direct link to individual and systemic sin — particularly greed or selfishness or our culture of instant gratification and taking what we want from the world rather than stewarding it sustainably as an act of love for God the creator, and our neighbour — as a cause then I’m happy to take note. I’m not, for the record, a Young Earth Creationist TM  so I’m not inclined to reject science simply because it is science, but I do take Genesis very seriously as a text that informs my position on this question. I’ve been puzzled for a while about an apparent link between young earth creationism and rejecting anthropomorphic climate change because it seems to me that a plain, literal, reading of the text of Genesis directly links the state of the planet to human action (the subsequent promise not to wipe out humanity with another flood in the Noah narrative notwithstanding). Here’s what God says to Adam about sin and the climate. The fall itself is a sinful, self-serving, grasping, pillaging approach to the created world — the taking of the fruit God had forbidden to use for Adam and Eve’s own ends.

“Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

This seems to be a big deal for Paul in the book of Romans, who spends a bunch of time showing that Jesus is a new Adam, who brings a new pattern for humanity (a new image of God to be conformed to), where we become the ‘children of God’ that the creation itself is longing for. Or, as Paul puts it:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. — Romans 8:20-22

The command for humanity to ‘be fruitful and multiply, rule the earth and subdue it’ is not a command to rape and pillage the creation, but to interact with the created world as image bearers of the life giving, life creating, God who makes things good and hospitable; it’s a call to cultivate Eden across the face of the earth not strip mine it to build little palaces for ourselves that mitigate the harsh conditions we find ourselves living in. The post-fall, cursed, world is the reality we exist in and have to figure out our ethics from. We don’t pretend the creation is not cursed or frustrated as a result of the fall of God’s image bearing rulers (we’re certainly not universally pursuing fruitfulness and the sanctuary where God dwells with his people post Genesis 3). We also can’t totally pull the conditions of the new creation — described in Revelation 21-22 back into the present. We should expect fallen people to be producing cursed conditions rather than life-giving ones as they depart from bearing God’s image in the world. This is one of the things that was most beautiful about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah movie a few years ago; the way it showed how the sinfulness of the generation God wiped out in the flood expressed itself in the treatment of the world; it’s what is beautiful about Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the way that Mordor is a picture of the destruction of the planet through the idolatrous pursuit of control, wealth and power (this link is to a great piece exploring this dynamic, but also check out the Eucatastrophe’s episode on why they’re called The Eucatastrophe for more on this). Human sinfulness damages the world, and you don’t have to be an expert on ecology to know that there are cycles in nature that can be thrown into different patterns as we tinker with or destroy the natural order — it shouldn’t surprise us that pumping anything into the air that wasn’t there in the same volume before has an impact (I mean, it’s obvious with air pollution and air quality in cities right? And in water quality when we pump stuff into rivers or oceans).

The Noah promise that I’ve seen politically conservative Christians rely on to reject climate change is one piece of Biblical data pulled out of the context of the rest of the Biblical narrative. You don’t even have to leave the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, a literary unit of which Genesis and the Noah story is a part) to find evidence supporting a relationship between human sinfulness and the state of the climate. What’s going on in God’s “never again will I curse the ground” with Noah is clearly not a return to Eden, and clearly not a restoration of a universal image bearing people — the children of God — who will live rightly with creation. It doesn’t prevent human intervention in messing up the world. God’s sovereignty doesn’t ever seem to totally try to wipe out the human impact on the world except at the flood. Maybe that’s significant in our interpretation… in fact, from this point onwards, fruitful, blessed creation where the conditions for human flourishing are most present in the world (not withstanding God sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous) are promised benefits for people living in harmony with God again — whether that’s Israel and the promised land (eg Deuteronomy 28:1-11), the promise that the land will become hostile to life if Israel becomes hostile to God (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), and restored if they return to God (Deuteronomy 30:1-11), Ezekiel’s description of the barren land produced by Israel’s profaning God’s name and subsequent exile, and the promise of a new Eden when God re-creates a new image bearing people who serve him from the heart… the conditions of the world are, from Genesis on always linked to whether or not the people living in the environment are in relationship with God or not; when they aren’t, curse and destruction follows.

The Bible’s approach to the natural world and its hospitality for life is anthropomorphic not simply about God’s sovereignty; though God’s sovereignty plays out in blessing and curse. Here’s a sample from Deuteronomy 28, which comes, of course, after the Genesis 9:11 passage that climate change skeptics love to quote. This is the sort of doom and gloom apocalyptic vision we now hear from scientists — talk about uninhabitable for human life…

“The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” — Deuteronomy 28:22-24

Oh, and there’s this cheery bit in Deuteronomy 29…

The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in fierce anger. All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer will be: “It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.” — Deuteronomy 29:23-28

If God, in his sovereignty, says this is how he will respond to sin — and sin often expresses itself in a failure to steward creation or to seek the flourishing of others (selfishness/self-gratification/pillaging) — then who are we to insist that climate change is not a result of human behaviour and not consistent with God’s sovereignty?

Now, these curses are just promises to Israel, God’s people — and it’s not a great principle to extrapolate from such a curse to a universal principle; but nor can we use the words in Genesis 9 to establish a universal principle that Deuteronomy 28 explicitly rejects. Especially when Romans 8 seems to still see a universal frustration of creation linked to humanity not universally being Adam-like children of God who bring fruitfulness. There’s also, in Genesis 12, the promise that God’s blessing on the nations — their flourishing — is connected to Israel. We see a slice of that in Joseph’s relationship with Egypt, but more with Solomon’s international relations (not the marriage bits, their coming to him for wisdom on how to live in the natural world (you know, the world he compiled proverbs about)). But this promise to Abraham is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus (which is where Paul goes in Romans 9), so that real blessing and the real people of God who really start unravelling curse is found in those united to Jesus as the new Israel; the people of God who bring life and relate to the world differently because we have the Spirit (which is the fulfilment of the prophecies in Ezekiel that start the new Eden project).

Jesus is the new Adam, the New Israel, who is faithful — whose heart is inclined to God so that the restoration promised in the Old Testament is possible. As a cool bonus detail, in his resurrection appearance he appears as a ‘gardener’ a new Adam bringing a new image of fruitfulness and, ultimately, the liberation of creation from sin and curse (Romans 8, Revelation 21-22). His obedience means that he and the father pour out the Spirit and re-create people who are children of God.  People who are called not to conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed (Romans 12). People who are part of a liberating project that will ultimately be fulfilled in the return of Jesus and the complete revelation of the children of God.

Here’s a fun fact about Romans 8:19, which says “for the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” That revealed word is ‘apocalypse’ — apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — but creation is waiting for the apocalyptic children of God. People who will help creation meet its ‘end’ or fulfilment (as the children of God are revealed) and live in a new beginning for the created world too. The point of Romans is that the apocalypse doesn’t just arrive with the return of Jesus but with the coming of the Spirit into his people. We live in this apocalyptic, revealing, age pointing to the ultimate end (both purpose and future) for creation — and to where creation goes when we humans use it for our own godless ends.

Some Christian political visions do pretty odd stuff with Revelation as a text; Revelation is a pretty odd text. But Revelation is an ‘apocalyptic’ text (again, that word). It reveals true things about the world as it is; not just as it will be. It is a profoundly political text; a rejection of the beastly human empires that kill God’s children, including his son, Jesus, and who use God’s creation for selfish gain. It’s a text that offers a similar commentary on reality to the Lord of the Rings; especially in the first century. If you want more on this, check out Richard Bauckham’s work on Revelation. He’s got an interesting chapter on Revelation 18 and its economic/apocalyptic significance in a book called Image of Empire (though I think a better reading of Revelation than he offers has Rome as the beast, and idolatrous Israel who sold her soul to Rome and conspired with it to execute Jesus as the harlot).

Here’s an interesting promise, from God, about the nations and the climate… 

‘Come out of her, my people,’
    so that you will not share in her sins,
    so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
    and God has remembered her crimes.
Give back to her as she has given;
    pay her back double for what she has done.
    Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief
    as the glory and luxury she gave herself.
In her heart she boasts,
    ‘I sit enthroned as queen.
I am not a widow;
    I will never mourn.’
Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her:
    death, mourning and famine.
She will be consumed by fire,
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her. — Revelation 18:4-8

Sound familiar? Now, people have all sorts of positions on when this will happen (or has happened) — the ‘apocalyptic times’ — but the point of Romans and Revelation is that the apocalyptic times are now. This is life now because it is life opposed to God. John in Revelation describes the cargoes of all the merchants who belong to Rome/Babylon — they get rich from the things they dig up and produce from the world; things specifically mentioned in Eden in Genesis, but also recalibrated to give glory to God in the vision of the new Eden and new temple in Revelation 21. Revelation is a condemnation of the empires that set themselves up grasping and destroying the world and living for self and self-gratification and the moment, rather than living for God with eternal fruitfulness and the kingdom of Jesus in view. The message of Revelation is that kingdoms — lives — built on pillaging and destruction and greed and the rejection of God — the kind of lives it describes as belonging to Babylon — the nation that took God’s people into exile — will not last. Lives that seek to control the frustrated creation by building human comfort through making ourselves little gods, and through the robbery and misery of others will be destroyed… and that Jesus will make all things new. Jesus will, ultimately, fix the climate. And when this is our story, the lives we live now — and our interaction with and understanding of the natural world — will look different to Babylon; and we’ll expect Babylon and its sin to have an impact on the world.

The vision that is to animate Christians against the beastly Babylonian backdrop the first Christians found themselves operating in in Rome, and that we find ourselves operating in today (which includes economic and political powers that destroy the planet); is the vision of a new Eden; a new Eden requires a world that is broken by sin and curse — by human actions and God’s punishment for our sin — a world longing to be renewed.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3

Those of us who are Christians now live in these ‘apocalyptic’ times differently. We live as those restored from exile from God — the exile that began for humanity in the loss of Eden, and for Israel in Babylon. We live as people with God’s Spirit in us; people living in the dawn of an ‘apocalyptic’ end times age. People knowing where things are going; but our neighbours don’t. And the world is still frustrated and will still be messed up by ‘Babylonian sin’ — by those exiled from God who aren’t bearing his image, but the image of the destructive idols we pursue instead. Those who don’t fruitfully multiply by cultivating the earth, but bring death and destruction by pillaging it. We live as a kingdom called to be different, with our vision of the future shaping how we live now, and the kind of solution or apocalypse we proclaim as we ‘garden’ and serve the resurrected gardener. Our apocalyptic vision is the new eden project.

When scientists say ‘we’re heading towards climate catastrophe’ and the reasons we get look a lot like us taking creation and trying to be God with it from sinful, selfish, hearts — then we Christians are pretty well positioned to say “amen” and offer a solution that isn’t just human-driven salvation, but a return from being exiled from the creator to being the image bearing gardeners we were created to be, who in partnership with God, spread the conditions of life through the planet again; that’s one way Christians might bear witness not just to the creation but to the new creation we see depicted in Revelation; where Jesus returns to make ‘all things new’ — until that happens, in a Romans 8 sense, we have the job of being ‘children of God’ who are mini pictures of the returning Jesus, being transformed into his image by the Spirit because we have faith that he is our Lord and king and the pattern for our humanity. Maybe we need to re-read or re-watch the Lord of the Rings and commit ourselves to a certain sort of heroism; maybe fantasy might help us see nature as part of a cosmic battle between God’s design and the patterns of the evil one. We can bring little pockets of life-giving liberation and resistance in those parts of creation we occupy and cultivate. We can commit ourselves to stewarding creation for our neighbours, and their children, as an act of worship. A friend of mine from church has launched a project aiming to live a carbon positive life; he’s blogging his way through it. Another friend is blogging through her own journey in stopping what I’d call ‘Babylonian’ practices and starting ‘Eden’ ones. We can do our bit to resist the systemic and individual patterns of life that bring destruction. We can do this while preaching the Gospel, proclaiming that the resurrected Jesus brings new life, and launched the new Eden project, that is the ultimate solution to human sinfulness and its impact on the world, and the end of God’s curse.

We need to embrace a different sort of apocalyptic way of life, one that sees the world and its patterns as they are, a source of death and curse, and Jesus and his patterns as they are, a source of life and blessing.

,

Returning to the table: on being the church, and disagreement, in an inhospitable age

There’s a beautiful metaphor of unity in the Gospels.

The table.

This is a particular thread in Luke’s Gospel where we witness Jesus going as a guest into the house of sinners, feeding people abundantly, and eating with his disciples and offering bread and wine as a picture of our participation in his death and resurrection and being made children of God who can eat at his heavenly table. The table, and who has access to it, has been a powerful picture of belonging in church history — different church traditions have different approaches to the table, some open it to all, as an invitation to be part of God’s family — an altar call of sorts, others ‘fence’ it, offering it to those members of the community the leaders of the community know to be Christians — taking seriously Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about ‘discerning the body’ in the meal (and understanding that both being about discerning the body of Jesus in the bread, and the body of Jesus being the community one shares the meal with — believing a person must be able to do both to truly be celebrating unity with Christ and his people).

There’s a backstory to this idea of sharing at the table that goes right back to the Garden at the start of the story of the Bible; the Garden where God as host declared all the fruit of the trees he’d put in the garden ‘good for food’ — except for one tree — and Adam and Eve decided that despite God’s prohibition, despite God being the good and generous host of an abundant table, they would declare what he called evil “good for food,” and they took it, and they ate it, and they were expelled from the table. God’s abundant provision of hospitality and a feast was celebrated through Israel’s history in various ways, including at the temple and through feasts and festivals, and Psalm 23 is a poetic picture of God’s abundant, overflowing, hospitality that must surely have had Israel salivating when they too found themselves cut off from God’s table during exile. Jesus restoring people to God’s table is a big deal; a deal the tables we operate in our churches points to — a return from being banished from the garden and exiled from God.

The table is a powerful picture of God’s hospitality to his family. But it’s also a powerful picture of relationships where difference is acknowledged. The tables Jesus eats at in Luke — those of the pharisees and tax collectors — are not the table Jesus operates as host. His presence there does not make the people he eats with part of God’s family, but it makes them people he loves and wants to eat with in order to love his neighbours and his enemies and invite them to the greater feast. This culminates, of course, with Zacchaeus, the lost tax collector who comes home to God as he invites Jesus to eat at his table. This difference is a really significant feature; we Christians sit at tables with different people at different times and express different things in that sitting; the table I eat with my church family and the table I share with my family in our home, and the tables I host with my friends, and the tables I am hosted at in public place, or the tables in the homes of other people all mean different things, and I occupy a different seat and a different role each time. To invite someone into my home, or to share in the Lord’s Supper (or communion) in church, is to invite people into the life of my family or the family of God, and the latter is in a different way to the way we might invite people to share dinner with us at church.

I wrote a few things during the debate about same sex marriage in Australia, and around the position the church was occupying as scandals around church abuse and domestic violence broke in the media to make the point that Christians now don’t occupy the place of honour at the public table we might have once assumed. We need to relearn the art of receiving hospitality in the Australian community, and indeed, it’s possible we’re now so on the nose, and that our social capital is so low, that we might need to learn what it looks like to be excluded from that table all together; it’s not a table that operates with the same grace that our Lord’s table operates with, we actually might need to earn our place at the ‘public table’ in the public square.

The table also has some interesting dynamics in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church beyond how Christians treat the table when it comes to sharing dinner and sharing the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the Eucharist, depending on your theological tradition) (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The sorts of tables Christians eat at as guests matter; how joining a table is perceived and what it represents to others, and for themselves, matters.

Christians are not to eat in idol temples or share at tables of idol temples in Corinth because they belong to God and his kingdom; to eat at an idol’s table is to unite yourself, to commune, with that idol — or to be seen to by others, whether the idol is nothing (which is why Paul is happy to eat meat bought in the markets that had been sacrificed to idols), or there is something more substantial going on (which is why Paul says not to ‘share in the cup of demons’ in the idol temple). Christians shouldn’t participate in the hospitality of other gods, and eat at their tables — both because of whatever Spiritual reality is at play, and the perception that would create about the exclusivity of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:16-21) — but they should enjoy the hospitality of those who follow other gods, their neighbours. We’re also to put the unity experienced at God’s table above all other forms of unity — his table shapes our approach to all other tables. We’re not to eat at tables we might feel free to if it destroys the conscience of the members of the body of Christ who share God’s table with us (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). So Paul expects Corinthian Christians to eat in the homes of their neighbours as guests and do so freely until their host tries to make the table a table belonging to an idol, so that to eat is to participate in idolatry, or express a ‘belonging’ to that god’s table (1 Corinthians 10:27-28). We’re not, with our table manners or our eating to call evil “good” with our actions, but nor should we call what God has declared good “evil.” This is the line Jesus trod so artfully as he ate with sinners, despite the Pharisees believing that ‘bad company’ corrupted. Israel had some pretty intense table fellowship laws that ruled out ever eating with gentiles and especially ever eating ‘unclean’ or idol food.

David Fitch has this really great picture of three types of table we Christians participate in as individuals, that maps nicely onto a corporate metaphor of the table — how we run tables, and participate at them in a more ‘institutional’ way. In his book Faithful Presence: Seven habits that will shape your church for mission, He talks about this in terms of ‘circles’

The first table

He talks about our churches operating the table where the Lord’s Supper is served as a practice that forms us as Christians, where we invite people to put their trust in Jesus, return from exile from God, and receive his hospitality as children. It’s like Jesus holding the Last Supper with his people, those who belonged to him who share in his body and blood and will share in the heavenly table. There’s a picture in the Gospel of someone who is grumpy at just how far the invitation to this first table extends — the older brother in the story of the prodigal son who grumbles that the father will let anybody who comes home and is recognised as part of the family eat, no matter how far into the world of exile they’ve wandered (partying it up in gentile cities and then wanting to eat pig food is about as far from Eden or the promised land as it gets).

The second table

This formative practice of sharing at what is essentially God’s table, where we extend his hospitality, then shapes how we operate the tables in our homes, or the meals we conduct as hosts. We get caught up in the hospitality of God and generously invite all comers to our tables, not just those who might give us something (like increased status — which was a sort of Roman hospitality practice the Corinthians were falling into), but those who can’t, and not just those who belong to our household or family (another Corinthian practice) but those who don’t. This table though doesn’t mark out the people of God; it marks out the people we extend love to and invite; it’s perhaps more like Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a picture of being the good shepherd who ends exile. It isn’t really just our neighbours either, the great act of Christian love is that we, like Jesus, invite our enemies to the table with us, to practice hospitality at this table is to invite all comers, to not draw lines or boundaries, to not exclude but to welcome, include, and to feed. There’s a picture in Luke’s Gospel of the sort of person who refuses to share this sort of table with others who belong — the Pharisees who mutter and complain that Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, or that he lets an immoral woman wash his feet. They don’t want this sort of relationship building with others to happen. This doesn’t mean turning our guests into co-hosts though, that’s a different sort of table.

Everybody worships; everybody has a ‘temple,’ but not every table is a temple; not every meal is an ‘idol feast’ — not every one of our meals is ‘the Lord’s supper’ — we are called to share a table with all sorts of people. Like Jesus did.

The third table

Fitch says our practices at these first two tables also shape how we operate in situations where we are guests — and I’d suggest where we are co-hosts (those times where it is not so clear that hospitality is being extended, but where participation at a table is mutual). When we eat as guests, with our neighbours, like Jesus with both the Pharisees and the tax collectors, our eating does not signify that we belong to their ways of seeing the world, we eat as those who belong to another table, bringing the virtues and values shaped by experiencing that love and hospitality, and being prepared to lovingly challenge the sin of those we eat with, but also to invite them to enjoy a taste of God’s hospitality at the other two tables.

The tables and the institutional church

When it comes to public, institutional, Christianity. Church institutions or organisations decide who and how the first table operates — whether it is open to all without prior expression of faith and an indication of belonging to God’s people, or fenced normally requiring baptism or membership in a particular community. Church institutions, through their leadership and history (depending on the structure of the church), “discern the body” and decide what marks out someone as ‘included’ in the body or not — this can be justified along the lines of the church having the keys to the kingdom, or the table, and if we’re to have any sort of institutional church, which has arisen as the church has developed through history, someone or some set of rules, ends up holding those keys. Different church communities, and different denominations, apply all sorts of different standards on who is seen to be part of the body — the line is drawn through discernment. This seems to be a totally normal function of our creaturely limits and church history. There are significant disagreements within the church — amongst Christians — around significant questions such that some churches would not let me share at their table, while I am given (by ‘ordination’) the ability to decide who gets to participate at this table in our community. The first table, Biblically, is one that it is right to limit to Christians because of what we participate in as we eat (but I think it is legitimate to invite people to express their trust in Jesus and participation in the Gospel by sharing in the Lord’s supper as a first step, and to wrap baptism up in this sacramental package). This means that churches have to decide who they believe is a part of the body, and who isn’t. Again, different churches have different ways of drawing this line — different understandings of the Gospel and the way it works to unite people to Jesus, and different understandings of the sort of maturity required before one participates in the sacraments (so lots of Christians don’t baptise infants, and don’t invite them to participate at the table for various theological reasons). Those I am prepared to share at this first table with are those I consider to be Christians eating at the Lord’s table, not idolaters sharing in idol worship. This, too, requires discernment. My Presbyterian tradition (and the broader Protestant tradition) considered the Catholic Mass and the Catholic Eucharist to be in the latter category; if I were to visit an Anglican, Pentecostal, or Baptist church while communion were being taken, and I was invited, I would participate, just as I invite people from traditions outside of Presbyterianism to participate, based on an articulation of the Gospel, if they come to our table.

The church also participates in ‘second tables’ — and where it gets tricky is that we participate at second tables with each other, through ecumenical partnerships in politics, mission, or just seeking to acknowledge unity in the Gospel that might be expressed in something other than the table we run in our churches. To host, or participate at, a ‘second table’ doesn’t say anything substantial about the faith of the other, or whether they belong to God’s table or not. Such a table should be, if it is shaped by the Gospel, broad and inclusive. We don’t do anything to fence the dinners we host at our church every week; we invite all comers — we show that we are ‘hosts’ though by giving thanks to God for the food we receive and share. When I’m eating, and praying with, my friends who pastor Baptist, Uniting, and Anglican churches in Brisbane’s city I don’t lose my Presbyterian distinctives nor do I insist they become like me; there is differentiation and there is a pluralism at play in such gatherings that is not present when I invite people to table 1 at church. If we were jointly operating a ‘table 1’ type deal in some sort of combined service we could only do that (I think) if we agreed on some of the parameters; some parts of the ecumenical movement, historically, have — I think — failed because they failed to realise that these commonalities couldn’t be assumed and were legitimate distinctives. To that extent I think ecumenical cross-denominational boundaries fellowship should operate at ‘table 2’ acknowledging the capacity for many of us to share relationships at table 1 in different circumstances. We can also share table 2 with people who are not Christians at all — and indeed we should, but our operation of table 2 as hosts which is alway shaped by our table 1 practice should also have table 1 as its telos; we should want people joining with us in union with God. The ultimate expression of Table 1 is not in the church gathering, but in the heavenly feast those gatherings anticipate.

The institutional church can still sometimes participate in ‘third tables’ — examples are when institutional leaders speak ‘institutionally’ into public discussions, like contributions to debates about political issues. Sometimes third party groups — like lobby groups — represent a sort of ‘table 2’ Christianity; whether that’s a good idea or not depends on how deep the unity is, and how much such a contribution inevitably eradicates important distinctions and ends up pretending there’s a table 1 unity on political or social or moral issues where there is not (and where there isn’t even a table 2 type unity). Churches, and Christians, can sometimes even host third tables and invite other churches, and other neighbours, to participate at this table as guests, this happens when the emphasis of the table is not that the Christians are hosting as Christians, but as citizens — with some sort of ‘political’ ends not oriented (directly) to the heavenly table.

Our time’s table problems

We are, as Christians, and society at large, facing some major problems operating around various tables. Our society increasingly buys into a sort of ‘cancel culture’ such that people running table 2 and table 3 type tables are very prone to exclude others from the table where those others don’t buy into a particular way of seeing the world. There is no ecumenical spirit outside the church even with public catch cries of ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity’ — these are extended so long as people obey the table manners our age expects.

The question of hospitality and who it is extended to is used to exclude when a Rugby player shares a religious meme consistent with his sectarian views and is excluded from the ‘table’ of the national Rugby team, or when a TV talk show host goes to a football match with a former U.S President (who some believe should be tried for war crimes), or when a U.S political aide is asked to leave a restaurant as a result of her politics, or when a football player’s cousin is removed from employment from a religious institution he calls a synagogue of Satan, or when a religious school wants to hire or fire staff based on their personal convictions and behaviour, or when a Christian political lobby invites said Rugby player to share their public platform when that player explicitly denies the Trinity, or when an Archbishop of a diocese gives $1 million to a campaign about who our society will recognise as married, or when that same Archbishop asks people within his denomination who wish to change the platform to keep with public pressure to leave and start their own table… the issue is that in each of these issues, especially as they relate to how Christian relate to others (whether other Christians, or those we don’t consider to be Christians as we discern the body), there’s a different sort of ‘table’ at play and there are different principles governing who should and shouldn’t participate.

When Israel Folau instagrammed his meme I had an argument with a progressive Christian friend about whether or not it was legitimate for the National Rugby League (note, a different code) to pre-emptively refuse to register him as a player again on the basis of its ‘inclusivity policy’ while they were happy to re-register a player convicted of serious violence against women (Matt Lodge). I had an argument with a conservative Christian friend about whether or not Israel’s stance on the Trinity was a significant issue. In both cases those friends ‘cancelled’ me — blocking and unfollowing me — or uninviting me from a certain sort of table (a virtual table 2). I believe both would still welcome me at a table 1 situation if they were operating as host, but I suspect both would like me also not to have a seat at the ‘public’ table, sharing my particular views on the matter in the public square (given that the conflict arose in both cases because I did so, not because of the merit of the actual point I was making in each case). I would, for what it’s worth on the Folau case, exclude Israel Folau from my ‘Table 1’ scenario (because he denies the Trinity), invite him to ‘Table 2,’ and am happy for him to have a seat at Table 3 (in the Rugby team and on social media), so long as it isn’t labelled ‘Representative of Christianity.’

What happens in these virtual, personal, relationships happens on a wider, tribal, scale when it comes to denominations, but also theological movements — progressive and conservative — within denominations. Conservative denominations seem to be responding to pressure from outside their bounds by tightening the boundaries, while some people within such denominations — either because they see this change happening and want to preserve something good, or because they are compelled to change for reasons of progress or reform — are looking to push for change. Both forms involve change to who gets a seat at the table. Progressives in positions of power in denominations have often silenced, excluded, or expelled those with conservative convictions; or, in the course of progress, made belonging so untenable or a lack of welcome so clear, that more conservative people and churches have been pushed out. Conservatives do the same. There’s, though painful, a legitimate Table 1 reason to push for such change, and opposing parties, would, I believe, be better off generously parting ways, and sharing table 2 relationships (pluralism) rather than having different approaches to God (polytheism) under the same umbrella (which at times might be tantamount to creating circumstances that are the equivalent of ‘sharing the cup’ in idol temples — and I’ve seen plenty of rhetoric from progressive Christians suggesting Davies and the Sydney Anglicans have departed from the Gospel).

When Glenn Davies gave $1 million to the No Campaign it was, I believe, a bad decision because it was a decision that seemed to me to be seeking to hold a position close to the head of table 3; a position Christians no longer occupy in a post-royal commission world. It was a decision to invest not just financial capital, but social capital, in a cause that sought to exclude people from a type of table 3 (the public institution of marriage), in a way that communicated such people were not welcome at table 2, or table 1. It prevented the problem, in many cases, of having to navigate table 1 fellowship with the LGBTIQ+ community — whether married or single — by functionally communicating a lack of welcome. The Anglican church does historically have a place at Table 3 in a Commonwealth nation that other denominations do not; it is an establishment church. The Queen is its head. I think this was a mistake because it was essentially an act of inhospitality in those tables that are not closed off to the people of God, or invitations for people to join the people of God. Tables 2 and 3 should be, as a matter of participating in a civil way in a pluralist society, as open, inclusive, and hospitable as possible and we should model that. Table 1, on the other hand, should be welcoming in a way that is not as inclusive because it excludes those who are not part of the body of Jesus.

For me the way I think this paradigm plays out, where Table 1 shapes one’s participation in table 2 and 3 (and where one does not participate), I think ‘Table 1’ is a feast for God’s family, with an invitation to come home. Not all are included. Table 2 is a feast for all to ‘taste and see’ that God is loving and hospitable, and all are not just welcomed but included at the table. Table 3, which isn’t our table to host, is our table to serve not to run, and where we have power or influence our job is to look to those being excluded and find ways to include them at that table, by giving them space at our table 2s (this is why I think the line the institutional churches in Australia ran in the postal survey, on the back of a history of Christians excluding LGBTIQ+ people, particularly in terms of legal recognition and protection, was such a problem). Where there is disagreement amongst those operating table 1s it is a matter of discernment; we have a responsible to be part of a table 1 that we believe ‘discerns the body’ appropriately, and leaders have a responsibility to set clear boundaries (by teaching and shepherding), and also by identifying ‘idol temples’ (like, for example, Folau’s church). Where one discerns that a ‘table 1’ is not an expression of the body, one must not share ‘table 1’ type fellowship, but one must still share table 2 and 3 type fellowship (Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors).

The Anglican church is often described as a ‘communion’ — and that presents interesting challenges when it comes to the question of table 1 and the discerning of the body. Lines have to be drawn. I’m much more sympathetic to Archbishop Davies in the furore around his speech to synod which I believe was a (clumsy) attempt to ‘fence’ table 1 in a particular way, consistent with his appointed duties, and appropriately in a table 1 setting. Davies, as Archbishop, occupies a challenging position in that he has a sort of authority invested in him when he speaks on Table 1 matters for his diocese, that might communicate things about who he (and they) are prepared to sit down with in table 2 scenarios (as hosts or guests), and what tables they might avoid in table 1 scenarios as ‘idol temples.’ He also, for good or for ill, is often an authoritative, representative, Christian voice in table 3 settings — like the $1 million donation scenario — and that inevitably frames how his public proclamations about Table 1 are heard.

The challenge for the rest of us in parsing the reaction to Davies’ Synod speech on social media is that there are lots of different denominations and even local communities who operate their ‘table 1’ in very different ways to the Anglican communion, and it’s easy to apply our own standards to him and his speech in ways that might exclude him from any table. I recognise too, that his speech is a pitch to run the Anglican table — at least in Australia — in a particular way (one that is narrower than currently seems to be its mode). It’s not just that we hear him excluding vulnerable others from tables 1-3 as host — and he has been heard that way — others both inside and outside the Anglican communion have since turned around and sought to exclude him from tables 2 and 3. Davies has a particular responsibility for ‘his table,’ and it is within that responsibility, and the discerning of the body, that he made the speech he made. The reaction from the more progressive wing of Christianity has been stunning to me; mirroring the reaction to Ellen for daring share a table with Bush (and I’m sympathetic to the idea that Bush, in exercising the office of President, did some things that office required of him that were evil, I’m just not sure you can occupy any sort of office in a modern military state and not commit evil), perhaps because part of the progressive view of the world is seeing reality in systemic rather than individual terms, hospitality is something offered categorically rather than personally, there’s also an echo in the progressive celebration of a restaurant in the U.S refusing to serve Trump staffer Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There were think pieces pondering whether Jesus would eat with Sanders (I believe he would, at the very least in a table 2 and 3 way), and whether it’s ever right to share hospitality with an ideological enemy (it is if you’re a Christian so that person is also your neighbour). The New Yorker ran a piece asking ‘Who deserves a place at the table’ (the nice thing about Christianity is it starts with the assumption that nobody does). It noted:

“Jesus—at least as he is reported, or invented, by the author of the Gospel of Mark—was the Kropotkin of commensality, blowing up the long history of Jewish food rules by feasting with publicans and tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners of all kinds. It was nearly the whole point of his ministry.”

It’s a piece that ultimately explores the paradox of tolerance, and lands on the solution proposed by the political theorist who proposed it, that a tolerant society cannot tolerate — or make space at the table for — the intolerant. I’m not sure the Gospel conforms to that paradox. Jesus did, indeed, blow up the food rules and eat with everybody — both pharisees, and tax collectors and sinners. But he also established a table that had boundary markers; the people who put their faith and trust in him and so received a spot at the father’s heavenly table, and those who don’t. He broke Jewish table fellowship rules in order to create a table that included gentiles; but it excluded plenty of Jews (the Pharisees, for example), and gentile idolaters. It’d be a mistake to see Jesus’ dining practices solely in terms of eating with sinners and tax collectors; he ate with people previously excluded to show they might be included in his kingdom by grace. Table 1 sets the agenda for Table 2, and Table 2 practices are a gateway to Table 1, but they are not the same table.

I’m also not suggesting Conservatives are better at hospitality; they tend to run ‘Table 2’ institutions as though they are ‘Table 1’ ones and to occupy positions of influence in Table 3 scenarios that don’t match up with reality (the ACL has a particular approach to this that could be its own post). I’m also not suggesting that Table 2 type hospitality is about denying difference or patching over serious disagreement; civility is not the goal, persuasion is, love is, unity is, and civility is the means. To not sit at the table together, whether for the pursuit of common cause, or to hear one another, is guaranteed to entrench polarised communities of ‘others.’ If, for example, Bush is a war criminal who should repent and be tried, but he belongs to a tribe that views him as a champion, how will his views about himself ever change without hearing voices outside his tribe in a context that recognises his humanity?

For the record, I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ parishioners to leave, unless they are part of the movement to shift the boundaries the Anglican communion has traditionally established for those who can participate at table 1. Those outside the Anglican communion who practice a broader table 1 than Davies does (or than I would) have already made the decision Davies called for; there’s also a movement in Australia that has taken almost exactly the step Davies is now encouraging members of the Anglican church to take; one that absolutely fits an inclusive ethos that merges tables 1 and 2 — the Uniting Church. I’ve read comments from a stack of Baptists and Anglicans this week that basically just boil down to a wish for their denominations to become the Uniting Church, and were they all to do that, leaving those who want a distinction between tables 1 and 2 maintained, you know what they’d get… Presbyterians (just with worse forms of government). I don’t think Davies was telling LGBTIQ+ members to leave, because I’ll take him at his word — but I can’t help but agree with those hurt by his words that there is a context that frames them particularly negatively and compounds the hurt they cause.

Lots of my progressive Christian friends commenting on the Davies speech on Facebook seem to want ‘table 2’ type fellowship operating in a table 1 scenario; a broader unity and an extension of charity that goes beyond one’s (or an institution’s) discerning of the body; an eradication of a particular sort of discernment in favour of unity. There’s a danger there, at least from Corinthians, that believers eat and drink judgment on themselves, or participate in ‘the cup of idols.’ Table 2 fellowship amongst Christians of different traditions is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing precisely when it is properly differentiated and we can discern areas of disagreement, and listen well to ideas that challenge us to be humble and broader than we might otherwise be at Table 1. Table 2 gatherings of Christians won’t work if we start insisting, or trying to, that table 1 should be shaped by the hospitality we’d like to see extended in the public space of table 3, or in our private gatherings around table 2s. Table 2s will collapse under that pressure; and the formative direction of the table, for Christians, is only really meant to work one way (though we might be formed to see the beauty and welcome of Table 1 by experiencing it at other tables). How we understand the Gospel, and the Jesus it reveals, should shape how we host and participate in tables beyond his; the tables we eat at in the world aren’t meant to cause us to revise our understanding of Jesus. The idea that ‘Table 1’ type fellowship should happen at Table 2 is cut from the same cloth as the ecumenical movement; we might, for eternity, eat and drink from the same table and we should be open to that possibility and rejoice, but the worst thing we could do is convince someone that is the case and then spend an eternity separated from them because we never challenged someone outside the body to move inside it.

,

Why Special Religious Instruction should stay in secular public schools

On Wednesday afternoons each week during school term I head along to a local public school and teach a bunch of public school students about Christianity in curriculum time. I had been quite reluctant to do this initially because I know the curriculum is jam packed, and though I think helping kids grapple with religion is important, I do think that in a secular context we should be helping kids navigate pluralism without defaulting to atheism or polytheism; that is, we should help kids understand and live with difference, not eradicate difference. But I’ve been convinced more recently about the goodness of special rather than general religious instruction, especially through some research put together by an academic from Israel, Zehavit Gross, and one from Australia, Suzanne Rutland, which has led to a multi-faiths body here in Queensland coming together to support special religious education (or instruction).

Religious instruction and its place in public schools has been in the news again recently because there’s a sustained campaign to scrap it from a lobby group of parents here in Queensland; they’re echoing similar campaigns in other states, and there are polls being operated by various media outlets. There was a piece a couple of weeks ago by Anna Halahoff, and Gary Bouma on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal that argued that the important role religious difference plays in a multi-faith society means that government institutions have almost a moral obligation to ensure children are exposed to religious traditions outside their own. As a public school parent, a pastor, and a special religious instruction teacher in a local primary school, deeply committed to a secular, and multi-faith Australia, and public education, I agree with them. However, in this piece, Halahoff and Bouma argued against special religious education in public schools and for general religious education. This is the line the “secular” lobby groups are now running with. I think their use of the label ‘secular’ is problematic. Halahoff and Bouma said “young Australians can attend religious schools, or religious children’s and youth groups before or after school or on weekends to assist with religious identity formation. This is not the role of public education.”

In secular, post-Christian (certainly post-church) Australia it’s an increasingly romantic notion that children (and parents) will choose such activities outside school time. It’s possible that my self-interest as a minister of religion makes me inclined to cling to any foothold still offered where the bar for opting in and out of religious instruction does not require crossing some threshold into ‘religious’ or ‘sacred’ space; but I do think religious education is part of the role of a well-rounded public education, even a secular one, especially with the ends of personal formation, well-being, social cohesion and pluralism in view. There’s also a strong educational case to be made that understanding religion, and the role it has played in society, is vital for understanding history, not simply western, or Australian history, and that such an understanding is richer when students grasp the particulars of different religious systems. Again, this is why I agree with Halahoff and Bouma that there is a place for general religious education in our schools, but I think there’s actually a good case to be made for both special and general religious education.

Christianity has, of course, played a particular role in Australian history post-European settlement, even in the founding of Australian schooling; until the denominational schooling bodies from the Catholic and Anglican churches reached an agreement with the government in the 1840s, schooling in Australia was exclusively conducted by churches. This meant schooling was sectarian. There were Catholic Schools and there were Anglican Schools. These schools would form good Catholic citizens and good Protestant citizens; fuelling sectarianism in society at large rather than secularism or pluralism. The transition of education to the states, and to a secular model where religious instruction or education was given space in the curriculum was a positive move. Special religious instruction or education is a product of secularism, not opposed to it.

The word ‘secular’ means different things to different people; its definition is contested, the sense in which I am using it is in the sense that I believe most would understand it — the idea of a separation between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred,’ but particularly here the question is about sovereignty; whether the state, or the church, is in charge. Where multiple faith options, and the option of no faith at all, exist together in a community the state either has to be neutral on questions of religion, or religious with varying degrees of accommodation. Most religious people, particularly monotheistic people, believe that their God’s sovereignty and authority is not limited to the ‘religious’ sphere, but that the state functions within God’s world. This means ‘secularity’ is always a kind of concession from the religious, an acceptance of plurality of options, this is not to argue that religious groups occupy positions of power today, certainly not any longer, but secularism, and pluralism, arose when the church was a much more powerful source of authority in the west. Secularity in the west is ultimately a concept that emerged historically both from a Christian experience of the world, and from Christian ideas about the sacred and the profane. British historian Tom Holland made this point in his new book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, arguing that we’ve increasingly bought into a falsity that secularism emerged as a product of science and atheism.

In A Secular Age, Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor provides multiple definitions of ‘secularity’ operating in contemporary society. Secularity1 is the belief that public, secular, space is closed off to religious matters; that it must purely consider questions of material reality, such that church and state are separate because one is private and the other public. Church and state are also separate, in this view, to stop religious views shaping the public life of those who don’t share them. Secularity2 is the belief that religion is dead; that in the triumph of science and material explanations of reality, religion will fade into obscurity; we don’t need to make space for religion because religion is no longer a factor. Secularity3, Taylor’s version, recognises that religious belief and practice is declining in the west, specifically monolithic commitment to Christianity and the authority of the Church has collapsed not because ‘God is dead’ but because we now have more religious options than ever before, and the public square is not the singular domain of the Christian church, but a contested, pluralist, space; the decline of Christianity is not just the rise of ‘science’ and materialism, but the rise of choice. Religion is still a factor in public life in this sort of secularity because religious communities still persist as part of society, and a ‘secular’ approach to the public square is non-sectarian; the separation of church and state is to protect religious believers from each other, not just non-religious people from religious people, and it is to protect churches or religious institutions from the power of the state (whether sectarian, or atheist).

To be secular, then, is not to be non-religious, or to exclude religion from any place in public life or public institutions, it is to not have a sovereign power that is exclusively religious or sectarian, it is to remain value neutral on questions of the substance of religious belief, rather than to see no value.

Taylor’s account of how the conditions of belief have changed to allow this secular age to dawn aligns somewhat with the history of education, or schooling, in the west and in Australia in particular. Christians have long been supporters of schooling; one of the fruits of the Reformation and its ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a desire for literacy amongst men and women (and boys and girls), but churches have also long educated children as part of a deliberate strategy to ‘catechise,’ or raise children ‘in the faith,’ there’s some obvious truth in the Jesuit maxim ‘give me a child before seven and I will give you the adult.’ Education, or schooling, is a path to human formation, and to liberation from a restrictive social order — this, again, is a fruit of the Reformation, one charted by Taylor.

The historical development of special religious instruction as a product both of religious involvement with establishing schooling and secularism is not, in itself, an argument for keeping multi-faiths special religious instruction, it is, rather, an argument that you cannot simply remove multi-faiths special religious instruction from schools and call it “secularism.” The case for special religious instruction remaining in public schools, not simply withdrawing to sectarian private schools, or being abolished altogether is an educational one. Bouma and Halahoff made strong case for the place of religious education in public schools on the basis that it forms the types of citizens required for life in a multi-faith, multi-cultural Australia. They propose a way forward for religious education that involves “more teaching about diverse religions in all schools taught by qualified and trained teachers” and this “meaningfully incorporated into the Australian curriculum.” A fantastic proposal! Until late last year, even as a religious education teacher, I found the case for generalised religious education more compelling than specialised. As a pastor in a Christian church part of my support for the idea is that it would expose more people to the Gospel of Jesus, which I believe stacks up against other religious truth claims. As a parent, I want my children exposed to the beliefs of their neighbours, and to be having neighbourly conversations with people holding different views to our family. As a religious educator being careful not to infringe upon the school’s hospitality I was aware of the importance not to proselytise when answering questions from the children, and I was attempting to provide something like a ‘general’ account of Christianity to children whose parents had opted them in to receive ‘special’ religious education, that is, to be taught what Christians believe by a practising Christian.

The ends of special religious education are fostering belief and practice because such belief and practice is demonstrably beneficial for individual students, and the tenets of each religion taught in school, if taught and adhered to according to authorised curriculum, promote a pluralist schoolyard where children practice both differentiation from others and compassion for others, these are worthwhile educational outcomes (that children may also learn spiritual truths that are actually true is a question the state must remain neutral on lest it favour one ‘sect’ over another). The ends of general religious or worldview education are to foster understanding and empathy, rather than adherence.

My position on the place of special religious instruction, in addition to general religious instruction, shifted when I read the 2018 report ‘How in-faith religious education strengthens social cohesion in multicultural Australia’ by Professor Zehavit Gross, the UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, and Suzanne D. Rutland, a Professor emeriti in the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of Sydney. This paper made the case for the benefit of both special and general religious instruction in forming children for a secular, multi-faith Australia. It highlights particular benefits children receive not just from religious ‘instruction’ but from belief and practice; benefits I’ve observed as the Buddhist class next to my rowdy grade 5 Christians practice meditation and mindfulness. General Religious education cannot produce these outcomes, because they must disconnect religious information from religious practices, and, by adopting the secular frame, must default to a detached, objective, agnostic approach to the spiritual dimension of religious belief. Some of the benefits of religion are directly connected to actually holding religious beliefs. Religious belief and practice is connected to human flourishing. A 2018 Harvard Study by Ying Chen and Tyler VanderWeele found that a religious upbringing involving ‘religious participation’ (not just knowledge) is associated with “greater subsequent psychological well-being, character strengths, and lower risks of mental illness and several health behaviours.” These are formative benefits for our future citizens, and thus for society. These benefits come from a sort of education that already has a place in the curriculum. It seems a case must be made against these benefits as worthy, or for other more worthy educational outcomes.

If “worldviews education” is as beneficial to producing well-rounded participants in a multi-faith society as Halafoff and Bouma argue, and I believe this to be the case, then why not both? Why not recognise the personal and social value of religious belief and practice, and the knowledge of other religions, in a secular, multi-faith world? Why not recognise the fundamental place religion has in the fabric of our society and the individuals in it and devote adequate curriculum time to forming our junior citizens with a vision of flourishing that goes beyond seeing children simply as future cogs in an economic machine?

Schools inevitably form children with some vision of the good, and curriculum selection is always ideological, and in some sense always ‘religious’ in nature. The academic and author, David Foster Wallace, a man reportedly haunted by the question of what place religion, or the transcendent, should occupy in his life famously observed “everybody worships something,” and that the only choice we get in this life is the choice about what to worship. Our schools, whether or not special or general religious education are part of the curriculum, are already forming and churning out worshippers. They were built to do this very thing in a previous, more explicitly religious, age, it would be a shame (and bad for our pluralist, multifaith, society) for our schools to so favour the Gods of economic production, technological development, and wealth that there was no space left in the curriculum for children to learn about the place of religion and worldviews generally in our society, and to explore the belief and practice of one or more of these faiths particularly. I purchased a copy or replica ‘school readers’ from the early 20th century at an op shop, and was shocked by how deeply religious the content was; one (available online) features a story about Jesus titled “Our Best Friend.” These readers aimed to foster not just reading but values; to form children. State schools have recently been encouraged to purchase Suzie the Scientist readers that will teach literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the same time. This doesn’t represent the end of teaching values, but changed values in the curriculum. The case for more STEM and less religion in the curriculum is not religiously neutral, it represents the triumph of a modern religion in capturing our shared imagination and orienting us towards a vision of the good life built purely on making cool stuff, and getting wealthy, in material terms.

A secular state, and its educational arm, is not sectarian, theocratic, or ‘atheistic’, but nor does it exist to promote bland agnosticism towards religious questions. A secular state might reasonably, in the face of the evidence, recognise the vitality and goodness of religion. The individual and social benefits either come purely from the ‘immanent frame’ (as philosopher Charles Taylor describes the ‘here and now’) and limited to psychological benefits and wellbeing, or found through connection to a transcendent reality, whether that is the Christian God who reveals himself in Jesus, Allah and Mohammad as his prophet, or the pursuit of Nirvana via the teachings of the Budda. The secular state in a pluralist context is called to remain value neutral and non-sectarian on the latter questions, but not the former question about whether or not religious beliefs, practices and religious institutions are a civic good and part of the fabric of our society. It cannot be neutral on the question of the goodness of religion itself because the quest for some divine truth does not just seem hard-wired into us, but also into the DNA of the western world, producing schooling as we know it, and many of the values we cherish — including secularism and pluralism. Societies that choose to reject the place of the religious quest tend towards totalitarianism rather than pluralism. It is societies that truly value the freedom to pursue religious truth that allow more than one option on the table. Our schools might be places that reflect that, and to continue the metaphor of hospitality, they are perhaps best to do this with courses prepared by chefs conversant with the textures of their own cultural practices; offering a menu for students and their parents, rather than some sort of fusion dish prepared by a generalist, that seeks to value all flavours but ends up unrecognisably muddled.

Public schools are a great breeding ground for a pluralist, civic, democractic society where we learn to listen, empathise, and navigate genuine difference. The worst thing possible for such a goal is religious parents withdrawing their children into religious enclaves; a return to sectarian schooling. Such schools can be designed either to protect children from other religious ideas, or, increasingly because of a belief that these schools, with a commitment both to special and general religious instruction, and a vision of human flourishing that goes beyond the here and now. As a proud public school graduate I’ve unashamedly been devoted to the good of secular public education for the sake of pluralism, and exposing my children to ideas and influence foreign to those practiced in our family and our church, both through curriculum time, and relationships with children and their families whose values, or worldviews, differ from my own. I find this conviction wavering in recent times as I’ve perceived the common definition of ‘secular’ shifting from ‘non-sectarian but open to religious belief and practice’ to ‘closed off from religious belief and practice.’ Ironically, I find myself drawn to the sort of schools that offer both general religious instruction and special religious instruction (albeit typically of an exclusively Christian variety). The danger of enclaves, whatever brand of religion they form around, is that in the absence of multiple perspectives and a commitment to a pluralist vision of life across difference, such enclaves have the capacity to foster various forms of radicalism of the sort that demand a public sphere that is not multifaith, but monotheistic; not secular, but sectarian. A secular education in a multifaith, pluralist, society will involve both special and general religious education, there might even be time left in the curriculum for STEM.

,

The ACL and Luther’s “Theology of the Cross v Theology of Glory”

Be careful what you wish for…

I’m starting to think I liked it better when the Australian Christian Lobby never mentioned Jesus.

The ACL’s website describes the organisation’s mission in the following terms:

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. Proverbs 14:34

To this end, Christian institutions are being undermined. Churches are being pressured by new moral and legal norms. Individuals who speak or live consistent with truth are made a prey.

To stand for truth in public as a relentless, unquieted, and effective voice, is a leadership role that is desperately needed. It requires divinely inspired courage, wisdom, and endurance.

But the courage of one inspires the courage of others. And the truth, whenever it is spoken, will yield fruit.”

It also says:

“Isaiah 59 records God’s displeasure at the paradigm in Israel which so closely mirrors the concerns articulated in Australia. In particular, the Lord marvelled that “there was no one to intercede.”

ACL seeks to ensure that such a statement cannot be made of modern Australia. To intercede for the cause of truth, righteousness, and justice in the public squares is our burden and our core business. This includes interceding for the cause of those who are made a prey.”

And finally:

“We want to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate as a society. We want Australia to become a more just and compassionate nation.”

Now. These might sound like noble aims; the sort of thing that most Christians would want to get on board with out of love for our neighbour. This courageous standing for righteousness in the public square sounds like a tremendous thing to do, and the ‘leadership’ it involves sounds positively heroic. Glorious even.

It sounds a lot like Rodger Ramjet. Now, whenever I read anything by the ACL I’m going to be singing this theme song in my head.

Martyn Iles now likes to dish out his wisdom and leadership via his video blog and his Facebook Page. Now, I’m not really in a position to judge; I have a blog, after all. And a Facebook page. But I did read this missive from  Sunday night, reflecting on the sort of leadership the yoof of todayTM require, the sort of leadership or example the ACL and its head hero would like to bring to the public square in pursuit of truth, justice, and the Christendom way.

Iles says:

I am constantly asked questions along the lines of “how can we reach young people?”

One thing I have learned over the last decade is, if you are a man, today’s young person will be drawn to your:

1) Strength
2) Wisdom
3) Goodness

Put simply, they are searching for people to look up to; people who tower over them.

Stop trying to be their bestie and their equal. Stop living like an apology to them. They don’t want friends and equals – they have people their own age for that, who will always be better at it.

They want trustworthy leaders and examples.

And here’s the tragedy: they often don’t find them.

People just need to know where to look for this sort of leader. One who stands above the fray and fixes problems not by being a ‘bestie’ to those they’re leading, or their equal…

… But by being ‘trustworthy’ — you know, not slandering women who come forward with embarrassing information that your new bestie and equal is someone you’re not equally yoked with because they deny the fundamental tenets of your faith… like the Trinity, and even your own salvation because you were presumably baptised in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit… Trustworthy, like coming forward and saying “yes, this is true, Israel’s beliefs put him outside the Christian church as we understand it, but we support his rights to hold religious beliefs we profoundly disagree with.” Instead of attacking someone as “having an axe to grind”…

I just want to very briefly unpack the problems with both the ACL’s ‘about’ page, and Martyn’s logic in this Facebook post, just for a moment.

The ACL has a strong track record of making natural law arguments and wisdom arguments for public and private morality and righteousness in the Australian cultural frame; and I tend to agree that natural law and wisdom are good things because they tend to be oriented towards the intended telos of all created things — they reflect the divine nature and character of God; nature is ordered to grace. God has two books of revelation — the natural world, and his revealed word, which culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh (John 1:1-18, Hebrews 1, Luke 24, etc). But here’s the thing; the ACL wants their leadership on moral and political issues to influence Australia, and they seek to exercise this leadership through wisdom and natural law arguments, and often through political power and legislation (they are a political lobby group, after all). Their approach to social change is ‘top down’ though they are a grass roots organisation (so they’re attempting to change the top down approach from the bottom up). Confused? Good. It gets worse.

The Bible suggests there might be a problem with this approach; the human heart. Romans 1 says that rather than creation being ordered towards grace in the human heart, creation is ordered towards self; while all things that have been made were made to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God,’ we humans take creation and worship it in God’s place (Romans 1:20, 25). This does things to our capacity to recognise wisdom, and, in fact, we humans become fools. Romans has an answer for this foolishness; the new hearts that come through the Gospel, which Paul calls the power of God (Romans 1:16). The Gospel reveals the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is actually revealed not in the law — whether natural or Old Testament moral law; but in Jesus, through the Gospel (Romans 1:17). The law, the Old Testament variety, actually reveals our unrighteousness (Romans 3:20), it isn’t so much a guide for righteousness but a pointer to its fulfilment (the same logic from Matthew 5, and Luke 24 — the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus). The ACL wants a more righteous Australia, but Paul says that righteousness comes from only one source, he says: But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22).

Without the Gospel our attempts at righteousness will come to naught and our claims of wisdom will be foolishness in God’s sight. Paul makes a similar argument about the Cross being the wisdom of God, but foolishness to the world in 1 Corinthians 1. Without the Gospel we do not receive God’s Spirit which unites us in Christ, and so gives us God’s righteousness. Without the Gospel of the crucified Jesus — God’s wisdom — and the transformation we receive by faith, there is no righteousness. Paul says this sort of endeavour is pointless.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8)

Campaigning for righteousness without the Gospel, as Christians, doesn’t make you Roger Ramjet; it makes you a kamikaze Don Quixote; flying planes into windmills.

Which brings me back to Martyn Iles and the tall man syndrome on display in his post; he has observed a pattern in creation (wisdom), whereby the ‘yoof of todayTM‘ require “strength, wisdom, goodness” and a towering presence; a Roger Ramjet like figure. Trustworthy leaders and examples who will stand strong against the dragons (possibly windmills) of modern life. Leaders like himTM who happen to be tall and chiseled; not that there is anything wrong with being tall. I am tall. There’s a bit of Jordan Peterson’s upright, shoulders back, top lobster in Iles’ observation — his suggestion that the sort of person the world wants, the type who might lead the sort of charge the ACL wants led, will be a person “who tower[s] over” others. A towering leaderly type who is strong, and wise and good. Now strength, and wisdom, and goodness are all virtues. But this towering righteous figure of courage; this dragon slayer; who is going to set an example — he’s going to have to do that in one of two ways. He can do it Ramjet style, and seek to bring righteousness to the public square through law and order (not the TV show), through politics and power, through ‘towering strength’ while people look up to them… standing up against anyone — even Christian women concerned about the Trinity — who’ll get in the way of truth, justice, and the Christendom way; or he can do it like the Apostle Paul, as he imitated the Lord Jesus Christ.

These two choices are choices Martin Luther described as the choice between adopting a “theology of glory” or a “theology of the cross”… Paul had a particular understanding of the posture Jesus took towards others; it wasn’t one of ‘towering over’ but of sacrificial service; of lowering and letting go of status; to the point of humiliating death on the cross; Jesus went as low as could be (Philippians 2). This was the example Paul followed; he saw the cross as God’s wisdom, which meant he didn’t come into the public square as a burnished up champion in armour riding a steed in triumph, towering above all, but as the vanquished captive at the end of the procession. The humiliated loser. He contrasts himself with a Corinthian church who perhaps think they’re campaigning for a more righteous Corinth, but really they’re campaigning for a more worldly Jesus; the Corinthian church is obsessed with worldly power and status and influence. And Paul wants to turn their whole world upside down by pointing them to the cross.

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.” — 1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:9-13

And when it comes to the example Paul thinks he is following in this posture — one that shapes his ‘becoming all things’ including a servant, to all people, is the example of Jesus; the Jesus he describes in Philippians 2. He says to the Corinthians:

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭11:1‬ ‭

And if it’s not clear that he means the crucified Jesus he’s been preaching about — as he has resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified; preaching the Gospel — the power of God — when he writes a return letter to the church in Corinth after they’ve signed up a bunch of Roger Ramjet type Super Apostles who keep attracting people to themselves by being tall, and wise, and eloquent and all the things the Corinthians wish Paul was… he returns fire with:

“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” — ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭11:30‬

‭And then describes his calling, from God, and his understanding of the rationale for delighting in the world treating him the way it treated Jesus.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭12:9-10‬ ‭

Paul doesn’t sound like the sort of figure who towers over others and who is looked up to; instead he follows the Lord who lowered himself.

Look, like the ACL, I’d love to see a more righteous and compassionate Australia; a more just nation. Unlike the ACL, I’d like to see those desires extend to policies that deal with refugees and asylum seekers, and to our first nations people, and to how we justly participate in the use of natural resource for life and our enjoyment and that of future generations… not just religious freedom, the Lord’s Prayer in parliament (and not even that), abortion, etc.

Like Martyn Iles I’d like to see lots of examples of Christian leadership raised up. I’d just like to see them raised up to testify to Jesus in the public square and reveal the source of God’s righteousness; and to do that by making it clear that God is revealed not in Roger Ramjets jawline and muscular heroism, but in the mess and blood and sacrificial humiliation of the cross. We’re not just tilting at windmills; there is a dragon. Satan. A dragon defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus who still has followers who like to wield beastly worldly power to fight against God’s kingdom; this is John’s apocalyptic vision of the economic and political power wielded by the Roman empire. John describes the witness of the faithful church — the ‘two lampstands’ of Revelation — and its results.

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. — Revelation 11:7-8

The inhabitants of the world look on and gloat, but then, in the very next chapter John reminds us that the dragon was defeated; that Jesus dealt him a death blow in his crucifixion and now he’s thrashing about mortally wounded. The cosmic, apocalyptic, victory has already been won; when the curtains are pulled back on the heavenly significance of Jesus’ humiliating death we see the destruction of unrighteouness secured through “the blood of the lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:7-17).

So by all means, let’s call for courageous leadership in the public square; but that looks like testifying to Jesus Christ, not calling people to law and order. The call to law and order will fail to produce the righteousness the ACL desires; their own handbook, the Bible, suggests theirs is a fool’s errand. They are bringing a ‘theology of glory’ approach to a fight that requires a ‘theology of the cross.’ Luther coined these categories in The Heidelberg Disputations, a public debate about theology (the sort the ACL tells us, or at least Martyn does, that we shouldn’t be having in public). Luther condemns those who seek to produce righteousness by ‘works of man’ — whether that be leadership, or the creation of laws or policies, or even the preaching of the law without grace — and says the works of God always appear ugly and foolish like the cross; lowly rather than towering. He notes that just recognising good and virtuous things in the world does not make one worthy and wise, or a theologian; a true theologian “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” A true theologian; a true leader who might point us towards righteousness, is one who frames his understanding of righteousness not through the wisdom and power of the world — looking for towering leaders, but through the folly and weakness of the cross, looking for self-effacing, servant leaders.

Luther says:

“A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the “old Adam,” who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his “good works” unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.

That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened. This has already been said. Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on.”

We don’t need a generation of towering heroes, or Roger Ramjets, crashing their planes into whatever looks like a dragon. We need a generation of self-emptying theologians of the cross who model service and suffering for the sake of others; weakness not strength — who truly see the cross as the power and wisdom of God, not some thing to be moved past and overcome as we seek to bring God’s kingdom of righteousness through our own power, but as the very key to the kingdom and the demonstration of its ethos and power. God’s glory and righteousness is revealed in the weakness of Christ on the cross; and in his power to resurrect even in the face of those evil powers who would seek to silence the testimony of his witnesses; the church.

If you want a more righteous Australia, preach the Gospel to more Australians and trust that it is God’s power for salvation for all who believe.

,

When true Israel speaks before the courts it costs him everything (why speech is costly, not free)

True Israel came before the court committed to speaking truth with love.

True Israel boldly spoke truth to power; an exclusive truth that had significant political ramifications — it was a profound challenge to the status quo. It threatened to topple the high and mighty and elevate the humble and excluded. It was speech, and a trial, that would eventually change the character of an empire, and even the world. It felt like true Israel was on trial — but really, the whole world was.

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.” — Matthew 26:63-65

True Israel, when he’s before Rome, doesn’t even speak — he lets his opponents — the government — condemn themselves with costly words and actions. They crucify God’s king, on the weight of this testimony.

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. — Matthew 27:11-14

This speech cost true Israel everything.

It cost true Israel his life.

There was no GoFundMe page; no reneging on a promise to walk away from his rights in order to not destroy relationships.

True Israel was a model of ethical, loving, truth-speaking — courageous truth speaking performed on the basis that speech matters; that it does things — that it gives life, or kills; that it creates or destroys. True Israel spoke knowing that in the history of the world depends and came through speech connected to the imagination, life, and witness of the speaker. That the God who created the world by speaking sustains all things by his powerful word, and that the ‘true Israel’ was God’s word incarnate; made flesh in order to speak God’s word to a world that rejected him (and it).

True Israel was executed, crucified, because the government of his day did not believe in free speech, and neither did Fake Israel.

False Israel was standing by during this execution, accusing true Israel of false speech; not willing to pay the cost to be different but cosying up to the beastly regime like a harlot on the back of the beast (again, see Revelation), conspiring. False Israel wanted to be free to make ‘religious speech’ without the beast biting, but was willing to forfeit its soul, and the ‘ethos’ that should’ve matched that speech, in order to protect this right to say their own things in their own country without consequences. Fake Israel paid the price, because they went down the path of ‘gaining the whole world’ of free speech, but giving up their soul.

For Christians, those grafted in to “true Israel” as heirs of God’s promise who are united ‘in’ God’s word and called to continue speaking God’s word in the world; pointing people to true Israel, speech matters. Speech is important. Speech is costly.

When the empire shifted; when Christians occupied positions of worldly power, we knew the importance of speech. We knew that speaking words mattered, whether in prayer, or the making of covenants or promises, or simply committing ourselves to certain visions of the future life and society we wanted to create through our lives; and we knew, especially in the Reformed tradition, that speech compelled by powerful authorities — whether church, or state — is a bad thing, so wherever possible speech should be ‘free’. But Christians have also always grappled with situations in the world where we have not been in positions of influence, or control; where speech has not been free.

And perhaps Australia is increasingly that sort of context, and perhaps that’s, in part, because we’ve actually sought to limit the free expression, or speech, of others in our own self interest or according to our agendas — whether people speaking up to make accusations about abuse at the hands of church leaders with power, whenever we speak against a platform being given to people we disagree with (like the creators of My Little Pony), or when we Christians banded together to stop others calling their relationships ‘marriage’…

We Christians in Australia need to come to terms with the reality that despite the Prime Minister being a Christian… and despite the Lord’s Prayer being prayed in parliament… and despite our white establishment infrastructure still being nominally and historically “Christian” (from the monarch down)… real power in our nation isn’t ‘political’ but ‘cultural’ and ‘economic’ or ‘corporate’. This means that when our speech challenges beastly power, it will come at a cost not just politically, but also culturally, or economically.

Oh, that we would embrace costly speech.

Oh, that we would recognise that martyrdom isn’t martyrdom if it doesn’t cost us; that sacrifice isn’t sacrifice if we give up nothing.

Oh, that we would stop trying to wield political power on cultural and economic institutions in order to pay less cost.

Oh, that we would not see ourselves as combatants in a culture war, but as peacemakers who are called by our king, true Israel, to turn the other cheek, or take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Oh, that we would find ways to count the cost together, and carry one another’s burdens, that don’t inflict the cost on others.

Oh, that those who feel called to preach the Gospel wouldn’t be suckered in to wearing luxury sneakers, or pursuing a public platform in order to wield power and influence.

Oh, that we wouldn’t have photo opportunities with ‘Proud Boys’ who spread hate, but that we would be seen with those nobody else wants to point a camera at.

Oh, that we would repent, genuinely, for the failures of the institutional church, whether its with the abuse scandal, in our dealings with first nations people, in the way we’ve caused genuine hurt and harm as we’ve sought to turn our ethical position — modelled for us in Christ, given to us by the Spirit, into law, or where we’ve sought to wield economic or cultural power in beastly ways that have destroyed others.

Oh, that we would distance ourselves from Rome, rather than playing the harlot. Or live as exiles who are a ‘faithful presence’ like Daniel in Babylon, or Joseph in Egypt, rather than Herod and the Pharisees in first century Rome. That we would be ‘true Israel’ not ‘fake Israel’.

Oh, that we would speak more costly words against more than simply the way our culture has fixated itself on sexual identity and liberation from the power of Christian morality imposed by law or culture, without the Spirit.

Oh, that we could recognise where our speech is condemned for being hateful against where it is condemned for being faithful.

To speak, as Christians, should be costly. To say the words “Jesus is Lord” should be costly — because it commits us to taking up our cross in the world that crucified our Lord. It commits us to a community who’ll help carry that cost with us, certainly, but I’m not sure we’re meant to seek compensation from the world for the cost of discipleship.

Those who’ve taken up the call to vocational ministry, to be freed from the affairs of the world and supported by a community of believers, or by “tent-making” recognise that true speech has a cost; when Paul talks about this in his letter to the Corinthian church, he makes it clear that his speech has a cost, but that he doesn’t want them to pay it, so he works to support himself (1 Corinthians 9). For Paul the way a Gospel preacher, or speaker, goes about speaking the Gospel — their ethos — is to be shaped by their message (note the way his ‘giving up of rights’ becoming a slave for Christ in 1 Corinthians 9, mirrors the pattern of the incarnation of Jesus in Philippians 2). Gospel preachers have long avoided government grants for their speech — for the principled reason that the separation of church and state cuts both ways; the Gospel can not be co-opted to or coterminous with worldly power, no matter how righteous that power (this is, of course, for consistency’s sake should apply to government funding for school chaplains, and is why churches should fund chaplains if we believe in the program).

Perhaps we need to lean less on the sense that speech is best ‘free’ — though never free of consequences in terms of relationships, or what it commits us to in terms of an ethical life, where our ‘logos’ (words) are meant to align with our life and character (ethos). Perhaps we need to relearn that speech should be costly. And perhaps another Israel is teaching us this.

Perhaps this Israel should ponder what happens to faithful Christians, like our king, when they go up against worldly power.

Perhaps this Israel should, if he is going to be a preacher, pay the cost of no longer being an elite athlete; the cost of submitting to the discipline of study and financial cost of this career change.

Perhaps this Israel should ‘turn the other cheek,’ give Rugby Australia his cloak — or his jersey — and ask his brothers and sisters to invest in an education, rather than a court case to ‘test’ the law and wield the sword against his enemies at Rugby Australia. Perhaps he might be an example to us about what it looks like to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world.

Perhaps this Israel should ponder whether he is being persecuted for his faithful discharge of his calling to preach the Gospel, or for sharing an awful bit of hate propaganda and disguising it as the Gospel.

Perhaps this Israel should ask if his ‘preaching’ was more at home with the Pharisees, who sought to impose law without the Spirit, or Jesus, who, despite talking lots about sin and judgment (whether against fake Israel, or the beastly powers of the world), offered the hope of an eternal kingdom and birth from above and living water that truly satisfies, and saw condemnation not being for ‘particular’ sins like homosexual sex. Particular sins, in, say, the Sermon on the Mount, seem to be an expression, in word or desire, of our wilful, rebellious, inability to imitate God, and be perfect and holy. We’re condemned for the whole package — but primarily for rejecting God and his word, and so putting his word-made-flesh, True Israel, to death. We’re saved not by turning from sin — we can turn from all sorts of sin all the time; we’re saved by turning to Jesus and having our desires and words and actions transformed.

And perhaps those are actually ideas for all of us Christians to grapple with; perhaps Israel is the ‘everyman’ — perhaps in him, and his example, we might ponder whether we’re standing with True Israel, Jesus, or the fake Israel. And perhaps one of the distinctions is whether we primarily see our speech as costly, or as free.

,

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.

,

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).”

, ,

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.

,

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.

,

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.

, ,

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

, ,

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?”

,

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.

,

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.

, ,

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.