Tag Archives: ACL

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The alt-right brony Christian conspiracy theory

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

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

This makes for really strange bedfellows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A religious freedom solution in our secular, pluralist, democracy

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

Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our own theology makes this a religious freedom issue.

Secular

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

Pluralistic

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

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

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

Democracy

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

The proposed solution

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

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

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

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

But it won’t work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory: It certainly is the ideal situation for all.

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

Gregory: of course, I know lots of them

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

Gregory: They already do.

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

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

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

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

Who do you believe you are? Why our ‘theological anthropology’ shapes how we do politics

I’ve spent lots of time (and poured lots of words here) trying to figure out why so many public Christian voices resort to making the case for Christian morality by appealing to nature, rather than the Gospel of Jesus. Whether these voices are trying to shape secular legislation according to the Christian view, to persuade, or simply to have a Christian position accommodated in a pluralistic democracy, the idea that somehow we’re better off making natural arguments than super-natural arguments has always struck me as odd and self-defeating, and, theologically speaking, pointless. I had an epiphany recently when I realised what’s going on is not just a question of different strategies for operating in a secular democracy (though for some this is a strategic decision (see the opening of this recent post)), what’s going on is a fundamentally different understanding of who we are as people and what makes us tick, and, from a Christian position, what is required to convince someone to live according to God’s design.

Our theological understanding of what it is to be human (anthropology) will shape our approach to politics (this is actually true even for those who think they don’t have a theology — what we think of the question of God, whether it’s the God of the Bible, the gods of other religious and philosophical systems, or the things we’ve replaced belief in gods with thanks to ‘enlightenment’… politics is a reflection of a theological anthropology.

Scarecrow or Tin Man? Are we shaped head first or heart first?

What’s going on in these differing approaches to the public square, particularly to politics, is a bit of a Wizard of Oz scenario. It’s like people making natural law arguments assume people around us no longer seem interested in a natural ordering of things because they are like Oz’s Scarecrow. Befuddled. In want of a brain; or at least, in want of right thinking. So the answer is to argue people into right thinking. I’m going to suggest below that we’re all more like Tin Man. The human condition is to be driven by the heart; specifically a heart beating for some ultimate love; a heart shaped by worship. I think this is a better accounting for why natural law has appealed, historically, when most people had some belief in a god (and where nature reflected that god), and for why natural law no longer has quite the same cachet in modern moral arguments; because we’ve filled that ‘heart slot’ with things other than God, or gods, and the things we fill that slot with shape the way we approach the natural world. Our ‘heart’… our ‘loves’… our ‘worship’… programs our actions and orients us to a certain way of seeing the world (and seeing/believing truth). When we make natural law arguments, we’re approaching Tin Man as though he’s actually Scarecrow.

The ‘Scarecrow’ view: moral problems are the result of wrong thinking about nature, so the answer is right arguments from natural law

I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers
Consultin’ with the rain.
And my head I’d be scratchin’ while
my thoughts were busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain.
I’d unravel every riddle for any individ’le,
In trouble or in pain. — Scarecrow, If I Only Had A Brain, The Wizard of Oz

Just over a month ago I had dinner with someone from the Australian Christian Lobby; I’ve long been at odds with the way the ACL approaches politics in Australia as a Christian voice, and I’ve long suspected this difference is the product of a different view of where humanity is going (in theology this is called a different ‘eschatology’). What became clear in this conversation is that the gap between what I think political engagement in a pluralist, secular, society should look like as Christians (and what might be effective) and what this new friend thought would be effective is actually the product of a fundamentally different view of the human person. A different sense, if you will, of what it means for us — and our neighbours — to be made in the image of God. It turns out how you view us as people, not just how we understand ourselves as re-created/re-born Christian people, but how we understand how humans tick, profoundly shapes the way you enter the political fray.

This seems obvious now, because at its most basic level, politics is about the organisation of people into life together in a polis (originally a city-state). How you understand people and what makes them tick will be

More recently I was discussing some politics stuff on Facebook with a very prominent Sydney Anglican who appeared to be arguing that Christians should take a natural law approach to arguing for a ‘classical’ definition of marriage in a secular context (he says his ‘classical’ approach is not a natural law approach, though I’d counter that any ‘classical’ approach from Aristotle to Aquinas looks and feels very much like natural law). When it comes specifically to this political question at hand he says:

“…the Creator plays no functional part in my case for classical marriage, other than that I happen to think that the way things ‘are’ is due to his good design, just as the fact that we can argue rationally is also merely because we are rational’

I’m not going to name them here, for to do so would distract from the point of this post, this isn’t a witch hunt, or a case of ‘discernment blogging’ or whatever people do these days when they disagree with someone… ultimately it’s an attempt to persuade them, and others, of the problems with this approach, or rather with this theological anthropology.

The approach taken by both this Anglican, and this member of the ACL’s team, is driven by a shared theological conviction about what makes people tick; one that looks very much like the Catholic conviction (perhaps best modelled by Aquinas) that reason itself will unlock, or appeal to, the image of God in all of us and allow us to know true things about nature and to act morally. Neither the ACL rep, nor the Anglican, sees this moral action as a saving work, but rather an action in line with God’s design for humanity.

This comes from a sense that a large part of how we are made in the image and likeness of God is reflected in our ability to reason. Here’s a section from the Catholic Catechism (Part 3, Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 1), titled Man: The Image of God:

“The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection “in seeking and loving what is true and good.”

By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an “outstanding manifestation of the divine image.”

Or as Pope John Paul II expressed it in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (a papal treatise basically on how natural law, revelation, and the image of God imprinted on us, must keep shaping our response to moral challenges of our time):

The moral law has its origin in God and always finds its source in him: at the same time, by virtue of natural reason, which derives from divine wisdom, it is a properly human law. Indeed, as we have seen, the natural law “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation”. The rightful autonomy of the practical reason means that man possesses in himself his own law, received from the Creator…”

And then:

“But God provides for man differently from the way in which he provides for beings which are not persons. He cares for man not “from without”, through the laws of physical nature, but “from within”, through reason, which, by its natural knowledge of God’s eternal law, is consequently able to show man the right direction to take in his free actions. In this way God calls man to participate in his own providence, since he desires to guide the world — not only the world of nature but also the world of human persons — through man himself, through man’s reasonable and responsible care. The natural law enters here as the human expression of God’s eternal law. Saint Thomas writes: “Among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in the most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, being provident both for itself and for others. Thus it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end. This participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called natural law.”

The Church has often made reference to the Thomistic doctrine of natural law, including it in her own teaching on morality. Thus my Venerable Predecessor Leo XIII emphasized the essential subordination of reason and human law to the Wisdom of God and to his law. After stating that “the natural law is written and engraved in the heart of each and every man, since it is none other than human reason itself which commands us to do good and counsels us not to sin”

Let’s call this a Scarecrow view (though I’m trying very hard not to argue with a straw man). In this view the image of God is closely tied to our capacity to reason and understand nature or ‘the order of things established’. And the image of God in us means we can think our way from nature to truth. We think, therefore we are, and when we think right we become more godly. This is why Catholics love the idea of natural law and natural revelation; because they truly are a path back to God (not simply evidence of God’s divine nature and character that should point us to God, but ultimately convict us for our failure to see and worship him (Romans 1:20-25)). In this view, a political issue like marriage, a ‘moral issue’ about how we approach the ordering of things (or people) in this world, is held to be more like math than music, such that its reality should be self evident, as indeed it has been, ‘classically‘… and the best strategy to argue for marriage, in this anthropology, is the way the ACL and this Anglican approach it… with good natural arguments. In sum, it’s the belief that right thinking about nature leads to moral action, and right thinking is possible for all of us because we’re fundamentally rational and reasonable beings. The anthropology at play here is essentially the anthropology of Descartes; we think, therefore we are (and we do). Our conscious, rational, reasonable, brains are in the driving seat and lead us towards right actions when logic and true thinking take over.

And this presents a challenge. Not just to smokers, drug junkies, and porn addicts who know what they do is wrong but do it anyway… but to those trying to make a classical case for marriage from natural law and failing. This is what the ACL does, what this Anglican does, and what other supporters of classical marriage keep doing. They argue for classical marriage on the basis of natural truths like men and women are different, and that difference produces children, and children have both a mother and a father, and marriage is the context that brings those things together… and those things are naturally true and yet thoroughly unconvincing for whole cultures of people who no longer believe that what is natural ought to be what we do as people. In fact; not only are they not convincing, but the very act of trying to articulate a natural law argument is howled down as hateful. Mounting a natural law argument earns you the sort of treatment typically reserved for heretics in theocracies (only we have laws against putting people to death in Australia… we are quite prepared to kill companies though… just ask Coopers Brewing).

The limits of a ‘Scarecrow’ view

This idea that nature reflects God and so understanding nature is possible for us as God’s creatures isn’t just a Catholic view. It is, as this Anglican calls it, a ‘classical view’ in that it’s a Roman view, or an Aristotelian view. It could just as easily be from the pages of Cicero’s On The Nature Of The Gods. But here’s the thing. We aren’t in classical Kansas any more. Natural law — the idea that there’s an ordering of things, and that this order, this ‘is’, ‘ought’ to shape how we do things — is fine in a context where people are theists who share ‘classical’ views about the relationship between nature and God (or gods), but post-Hume (who said that such ‘naturalistic’ thinking about morality is a fallacy), and in this ‘secular age’ where simple ‘belief in god’ (a default in a ‘classical’ age) is contested — natural law, or natural theology, just doesn’t cut it in politics. It’s a totally different language to the one people are speaking.

Natural law arguments have been compelling for much of human history, that’s why they’re the classical approach. But I’d suggest that’s, in part, been God’s common grace on display (including some part of the image of God still being at play in the hearts and minds of every human), and that it is, in part, that our rationality and the ordering of the universe is a reflection of who God is. It is true that we are capable of seeing truth about the world and behaving rationally (and we do this lots in science, or mathematics), but we seem, as humans, to be inconsistent in our approach to nature when we move beyond these ‘pure’ types of observation and into their application (like in the development of technology, and economics). When we start being able to be self-interested, rather than rational, with these natural laws we start putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, and shaping nature according to some other conviction.

When it comes to marriage, this classical ‘natural law’ model describes the approach taken to the world in many human cultures throughout history, but it doesn’t describe all of them, and it doesn’t account for what is happening now in the secular west. And, I’d argue, any theological anthropology worth its salt will account for human belief and behaviour everywhere and everywhen. 

Whatever model we adopt for understanding the human person, it needs to be able to account for human reality. Both human behaviour as we observe it at present (and through history), and for why natural law arguments — classical arguments — were once convincing, but no longer seem compelling or convincing for so many in the modern west. Why these totally coherent arguments, convincing for so long, now fail. I’m not totally sure this can be attributed to a failure to reason, or even a failure to understand (as though understanding the argument would be definitive and convincing because that’s how natural law works). The prominent Anglican making a rearguard case for ‘classical marriage’ said, with regards to a piece he is writing (this is part of the opening):

“The case for maintaining the traditional understanding of marriage is neither dumb nor mean, and nor does it depend on religion. But given the passionate nature of the debate, that case has rarely been understood before it was shouted down… I offer here my ‘eulogy’ to a venerable old argument that lost without ever really being understood.”

In this Scarecrow account, the problem with the case for ‘classical marriage’ is not inherent in the approach itself (and the underlying anthropology) but in the reception of the argument (or the coherence of the argument). Our problem has been a failure to make a rational case. I don’t believe this is true. It’s interesting that these words actually do hit the nail on the head when it comes to why the argument has not been received when it identifies ‘the passionate nature of the debate’… somehow our passions drive us more than our intellect.

The rational natural law case for marriage is basic biology (the anatomical difference between genders), and sociology (the relationship between marriage and ‘natural law’ families)… and if all we are is thinking creatures it should be an easy case to make. It has been an easy case to make, historically, when people have typically been theistic in their outlook, but has also, at least according to the Bible, not been so straightforward in times when that theism has looked like idolatry. There are a couple of pretty clear examples of the relationship between wrong worship and a rejection of the natural order of things in the Bible. First, in Leviticus 18, and then in Romans 1.

Both of these passages describe the utter rejection of natural law norms (sexual and otherwise) that come when people reject a God who orders things in the way the God of the Bible, and the gods of Aristotle, Cicero, and Islam ie the ‘classical view of God’ orders nature.

It seems to me, when it comes to marriage, that the problem isn’t that our arguments are incoherent or misunderstood, instead, that there’s some underlying change that has happened before we even get to the stage of engaging reason to begin with; natural law seems to be ruled out before arguments are even mustered, and I’d suggest this is because somehow in our belief about who we are as humans we are no longer simply subject to nature, but masters of nature, and natural laws can now be broken to deliver us our wants and desires. If Charles Taylor’s account of the place of religion in the public/political sphere in the secular west is right, then the classical view itself is now contested, and the starting assumptions in our political discourse are very different indeed.

What’s gone on… what gets us to where we are… is, I think, described by a different theological anthropology. A different understanding of who we are as humans and what makes us tick; one that explains both the power of natural law, and the strident and visceral reaction against natural law arguments in the modern west; one that includes reason, but sees our reasoning about the ‘order of things’ shaped somewhere before we engage the rational part of our brains. While this prominent Anglican pushes us towards a ‘classical approach’ to marriage drawing on Greek and Roman philosophy, and the theology of thinkers like Aquinas (a genuine philosophical and theological giant writing in a time when belief in a God underpinning nature was uncontested), and while this member of the ACL’s team builds his political strategy (making sound natural law arguments) from a Catholic anthropology, I’m going to suggest there’s a fuller picture of who we are as people that should be shaping our approach to politics (and this also underpins why I think playing secular politics by secular rules is a bad idea for Christians).

Where I think this view fails is that our approach to nature, at least according to the Bible but also in my humble estimation of reality, is twisted. We don’t look at nature and so see God. We look at nature and want to play god (pushing God out of the picture), or we look at nature and want to make it god (pushing God out of the picture). Natural Theology will fail us so long as we’re worshipping wrongly before we think about the ‘order of things’…

Ultimately, I think the problem with the Scarecrow Approach is that it does the same thing with ‘created things’ that the idolater in Romans 1 does. It looks to the natural order rather than the orderer of nature as the basis for understanding right living; there’s certainly, if we were blank slates, a reason to connect the natural order with the natural orderer (Paul explicitly does this in Romans 1), but the path back to Godliness or morality is not nature but God. At least, that’s the logic of Romans.

The Tin Man model

When a man’s an empty kettle he should be on his mettle,
And yet I’m torn apart.
Just because I’m presumin’ that I could be kind-a-human,
If I only had heart. — Tin Man, If I Only Had A HeartThe Wizard of Oz

So what if the Scarecrow model is actually inadequate; that our brains actually kick into gear not as the primary function of who we are, but as a secondary thing. What if we’re not first rational creatures (though we are rational), but rather passionate creatures. What if it’s our capacity to love and to sacrifice for that love, and to approach the world through a grid created by that love, that makes us truly human. And what if that love is actually first, and ultimately, a question of worship.

What if the best arguments for changed behaviour/morality are not rational arguments from natural law but arguments geared at our worship; arguments that challenge our affections; arguments that apprehend us with the nature of the divine and ask us to consider what we’ve popped into our ’empty kettles’ to push and pull us around the world. This isn’t to say reason isn’t part of reflecting the image of God, or part of how the world works and can be comprehended, but it does explain why when belief in God or gods (theism) is replaced with belief in the self (or gods of sex, pleasure or freedom) natural law goes out the window. It does explain why, in Romans 1, Paul describes the exchange of God for idols as resulting in our thinking shifting so that we perceive the natural as unnatural and the unnatural as natural… this comes because we first see ‘created things’ as the things to pop into the driving seat of our lives (and our thinking).

Natural law made sense in the context of widespread theism, especially monotheism (even in Plato with his ‘demiurge,’ and Aristotle with his ‘unmoved mover’). But people no longer recognise this ‘unmoved mover’ in the west; we are the movers and the shakers. We are in control. We westerners still worship, we are still driven by our passions, but our passions are directed at the things (and relationships) of this world; and this ‘religious belief’ includes the same sort of approach to heresy practiced by the church for many years. Heretics are dangerous, they challenge orthodoxy, and must be no-platformed, or destroyed.

Historically (and Biblically) when people worship idols they think wrong things about nature; they reject natural law (eg Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, which aren’t just about homosexuality, but about people moving away from the Genesis 1-2 ‘ordering’ of creation and relationships). According to the Bible (both in the Old Testament and the New) our failure to live according to the created order is the result of our hearts turning from God. The prophets (and Deuteronomy) anticipate a new heart that will allow God’s people to live right… not just the facts. This explains both the rejection of any sort of classical version of marriage, why ‘natural law’ arguments fail, and why there’s such an outcry when, say, the Bible Society teams up with a couple of Liberal Party politicians (one a gay agnostic, the other a natural law wielding conservative) and has them talk civilly about marriage as though it is even a legitimate conversation to be having.

While there’s a rich and coherent anthropology at the heart of the Catholic tradition that stacks up in a theistic environment, the protestant, reformed, systematic — the reformed anthropology — actually contains a fuller, richer, more compelling anthropology. It is more compelling because it sees us not just as computers who’ll function right with the right data fed into our brains, but as creatures who feel our way towards truth as well. It is also more compelling because it does a better job of describing what is real because it does a better job of understanding the relationship between image bearing and worship, and the relationship between our passions and our ‘rationality’. That before we are ‘rational’ beings we are ‘glorifying beings’ that we ‘have a God’ at the heart of our loves, and lives, and what we put in this slot shapes the way we think, and act, in the world. Romans 1 definitely has natural law or natural revelation (the sense that we can know about God from what he has made) at its heart; Paul is not just talking about morality derived from special revelation in Romans, and when he describes the corrupting power of a wrong natural theology (namely, the worship of nature) the way back isn’t just to look at the world right. In Romans 1 Paul says ‘the Gospel is the power of God’ and in Romans 8 he says (and just notice what he says ‘sets the mind’ here):

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

The Reformed Tradition calls this effect of sin on our thinking ‘the noetic effect of sin’ — this is the idea that even our rationality is tainted by our desire to make things other than God ultimate things in our lives, the idea that we treat all things subjectively, rather than objectively. There are all sorts of models for what this looks like in real terms. I like the approach put forward by Swiss theologian Emil Brunner. I think this is a good explanation of why our ‘natural law’ arguments about ethical stuff falls flat, and why the solution is to see us as more like Tin Man — needing a heart correction — than Scarecrow — needing our thinking fixed.

“The more closely a subject is related to man’s inward life, the more natural human knowledge is ‘infected’ by sin while the further away it is, the less will be its effect. Hence mathematics and the natural sciences are much less affected by this negative element than the humanities, and the latter less than ethics and theology. In the sphere of natural science, for instance, as opposed to natural philosophy — it makes practically no difference whether a scholar is a Christian or not; but this difference emerges the moment that we are dealing with problems of sociology, or law, which affect man’s personal and social life.”

Our politics needs to grapple with this. Because at one level this is why we keep talking past each other if we’re relying on natural law and not connecting that the people we’re speaking to have fundamentally different ‘worship’ driven frameworks. Different ‘ultimate loves’…

If this is true then not only is engaging with the political realm with the Gospel a good strategy in a pluralistic democracy where it’s vital our views be properly represented in solutions that allow different communities to live well together, it’s also the best strategy to secure moral behaviour. Moral behaviour isn’t secured through reason unless people are bending the knee, and pointing the heart, towards gods that look much like universal reason and order, it is secured, rather, by the Spirit of God changing someone’s heart and kicking out other loves (what an old puritan preacher called ‘the expulsive power of a new affection). The Gospel is the wisdom and power of God; the message that invites us to apprehend the face of God displayed in Jesus, and so to worship him; and the thing that brings with it the expulsive power of a new affection)

Why I won’t “divorce” my wife if the state recognises gay marriage

Yesterday Nick Jensen became an internet sensation when he promised that he and his wife would divorce if the Australian government redefined marriage.

In sum, I think this is a dumb idea.

In slightly longer sum, I think this is a dumb idea because I think the government recognises marriages according to a definition, rather than ‘defining’ marriage.

Marriages are defined by the people entering into the covenant, according to the organisation that conducts the solemnisation of the agreement.

It’s only after the couple, and the organisation (or celebrant) notify the government of the already existing agreement that the government recognises and registers the relationship. Church ministers are not officiating marriage ceremonies as representatives of the state, but of their church. The proposed changes to the Marriage Act do not involve a change to this status quo, but a broadening of the relationships the state will recognise as marriage.

When I married my wife I made promises before God, in front of witnesses, with the understanding that our marriage was a lifelong commitment built on our promises, and understanding of marriage, that our government chose to recognise as a legally binding commitment.

Any move to undo the government’s recognition of this commitment, while not undoing the lifelong commitment or the promises, is pointless, and a misunderstanding of the government’s involvement in the initial process. They aren’t defining the relationship, but recognising it.

Marriage has value because of the people entering it, and the promises they make, on the basis of their understanding of the relationship being entered. For Christians, it has value because we’re entering into a relationship that reflects the character of God — the united oneness of different persons, and the story of the Gospel, sacrificial love offered to bring lifelong relationship secured by faithful promises.

As an aside, the argument that somehow heterosexual marriages will be damaged or altered by this redefinition has always seemed somewhat specious to me. If you think your marriage is valuable because the state thinks so, I think you’re doing it wrong.

I’ve met Nick Jensen. He seemed like a reasonable guy who made cogent arguments about Christian participation in the political sphere, just with a different theological framework to me, and a different understanding of the relationship between church and state. My issues with the Australian Christian Lobby, with whom Jensen is affiliated via the Lachlan Macquarie Internship, are pretty well documented. In fact, that’s why I met with Nick.

I’ve not doubt he’s a rational guy who is behaving quite consistently according to his theological and political framework when it comes to his announcement this week that if the Australian Marriage Act changes to recognise same-sex marriage, he and his wife will attempt to legally divorce. Here’s some of what Nick says in his piece in Canberra’s CityNews:

So why do this? It will certainly complicate our lives as we try to explain our marital status on the sidelines during Saturday sport. The reason, however, is that, as Christians, we believe marriage is not a human invention.

Our view is that marriage is a fundamental order of creation. Part of God’s intimate story for human history. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman before a community in the sight of God. And the marriage of any couple is important to God regardless of whether that couple recognises God’s involvement or authority in it.

My wife and I, as a matter of conscience, refuse to recognise the government’s regulation of marriage if its definition includes the solemnisation of same sex couples.

The State (initially England) only got involved in marriage laws in 1753. For the 600 years before that in Europe, the Church acted as the official witness. Before the church had this role, marriage was simply a cultural norm ensuring children had the best possible upbringing.

This otherwise odd move of the State into marriage was ultimately permitted as long as it was seen as upholding a pre-existing societal good. Families, as the basic building block of communities, benefitted from the support and security of formal legislation.

When we signed that official-looking marriage certificate 10 years ago at Tuggeranong Baptist Church, we understood that the state was endorsing marriage, as currently defined, as the fundamental social institution – with all that this implied.

But if this is no longer the case, then we no longer wish to be associated with this new definition. Marriage is sacred and what is truly “marriage” will only ever be what it has always been.

It’s worth saying that our decision is not as extreme as it may seem. We will still benefit from the same tax and legal provisions of the state’s “de facto” laws.

However, what is significant is this issue will echo the growing shift from state education to private religious institutions.

This shift is no doubt because the majority of Australians, who are people of faith, believe their children are better served there. If the federal government pursues a change to the definition of marriage it will further alienate and divide the community.

For example, there are many Christian denominations that will simply stop officiating for any civil marriages rather than go along with the government on this.

Many Christians, like my wife and me, as well as people of other faiths, will simply reject the need for the State to recognise their marriage. Instead they will look to the authority of their church, mosque or temple. But there are broader implications for everyone, not just people of faith, to consider on this issue; for example, children’s rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and the broader fundamental rights of conscience and association. With our media’s relentless push to get this “over the line”, these issues have barely been noticed so far in the national debate.

Like I said, I’m sure Nick’s decision is consistent with his beliefs, I just think these beliefs are wrong.

Nick and I — and the Australian Christian Lobby and I — have fundamentally different understandings of the role of government, the extent of the authority of government, and how much we, as Christians, should expect to have any impact on secular government apart from the proclamation of the Gospel, so I won’t unpack everything I think is wrong with that article, or this idea.

I think the history lesson is interesting, but I’m not sure the way things were necessarily has any bearing on the way things are now, or the way things will be, except that it’s where things came from. I’m sympathetic to the idea that the state should not be defining marriage at all, but they do.

I’m also not sure “the majority of Australians” are “people of faith” regardless of what box they tick on the census form, and I’m also pretty sure a significant number of people who identify as Christians are supportive of committed same sex relationships, and as a result, see no problems with redefining the definition of marriage.

Here’s my problem with Nick’s idea. It’s caught up in this sentence here, and what I think is a fundamental problem with his view (and the view of others) about what the state is recognising, or doing, when Christians marry.

When we signed that official-looking marriage certificate 10 years ago at Tuggeranong Baptist Church, we understood that the state was endorsing marriage, as currently defined, as the fundamental social institution – with all that this implied.

The state does not solemnise marriages via the church, the state recognises church marriages as legitimate forms of marriage, just as it recognises civil marriages as marriages. If this is the case then I don’t think there’s any reason to “divorce” because our weddings aren’t two agreements or contracts – it’s one agreement, between two people, that is made and witnessed by God, those in attendance, and the state. It’s a fiction to think you can “divorce” in the eyes of one of these groups of witnesses simply because their understanding of the sort of relationships they recognise changes.

In order to be consistent, Nick would also have to divorce his wife if one of the people who stood as a witness to his marriage, and signed the paperwork, changed their own understanding of marriage, or at least tell his friend he must no longer consider them married.

When Robyn and I married we didn’t make an agreement with the state, we asked the state to recognise our agreement, made before God, with each other.

Nick’s definition of marriage is great, and I agree with it:

“Our view is that marriage is a fundamental order of creation. Part of God’s intimate story for human history. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman before a community in the sight of God. And the marriage of any couple is important to God regardless of whether that couple recognises God’s involvement or authority in it.”

But this definition can’t possibly be meaningfully applied to people who do not believe in a creator, even if such a marriage, as Nick acknowledges, is a good thing and that couple is important to God. This is also the understanding of marriage that is proclaimed in a marriage conducted and solemnised via most church marriage rites, including those conducted by the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

As a minister of religion who is a recognised celebrant under the Marriage Act 1961 I am “registered as a Minister of Religion authorised to solemnise marriages,” I conduct marriages under the rites of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, which, presumably includes conducting marriage according to the way we define marriage.

Indeed, the Act itself, in defining my participation as a Minister of Religion says the following:

“a person recognised by a religious body or a religious organisation as having authority to solemnise marriages in accordance with the rites or customs of the body or organisation”

In section 45 it says:

(1)  Where a marriage is solemnised by or in the presence of an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, it may be solemnised according to any form and ceremony recognised as sufficient for the purpose by the religious body or organisation of which he or she is a minister.

And, when it talks about the obligation of civil celebrants under the Act, in Section 46, it provides a specific exemption from stating the definition adopted by the Marriage Act, for ministers of religion.

Subject to subsection (2), before a marriage is solemnised by or in the presence of an authorised celebrant, not being a minister of religion of a recognised denomination, the authorised celebrant shall say to the parties, in the presence of the witnesses, the words:

“I am duly authorised by law to solemnise marriages according to law.

“Before you are joined in marriage in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter.

“Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”;

or words to that effect.

There are a couple of other important provisions, like this one, in Section 47:

Nothing in this Part:

(a) imposes an obligation on an authorised celebrant, being a minister of religion, to solemnise any marriage;

It’s pretty clear to me that at least as far as the Marriage Act works in its current form, churches are defining marriage as they see fit, and the government is recognising these relationships according to their understanding of marriage. I don’t see any changes to this arrangement in the proposed amendments to the Act, even if the state broadens the relationships it will recognise as marriage.

I wonder if, for consistency’s sake, Nick, and others advocating and adopting this withdrawal approach, would withdraw if the debate was about recognising Islamic polygamous marriages under Australian law.

I can’t get my head around how people pushing this sort of idea think a secular government should govern for people who are not Christians, and so don’t share our fundamental convictions about what marriage is, which starts with the God of the Bible (who many in our nation do not believe in, and do not claim to follow).

That the secular state is willing to recognise Christian marriages for the purpose of legal rights, property law, and inheritance, and that we’re able to continue to offer to conduct marriages recognised by the state for those who in our community who ask, according to a definition that promotes and advances the Gospel, is a privilege that I’m not sure we should be walking away from.

So long as we are able to conduct marriages according to our definition of marriage and have them recognised by the state, taking actions which play out like the equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum, where we chuck the toys out of the cot, gain us nothing.  We gain nothing in terms of our ability to bear witness to the Gospel, and the created order, through marriage, if we advocate either this sort of ‘divorce’, or that churches withdraw from conducting marriages recognised by the state. These courses of action simply appear to throw the courtesy of being allowed the freedom to continue to define marriage according to our beliefs back in the face of those offering it. It gets worse when we appear to be campaigning simply to prevent the secular government extending the same kind of courtesy to other sections of the Australian community.

I understand the desire to advocate the created goodness of marriage, I even understand that desire in the context of this debate. I believe that marriage is a good thing and God made it a good thing for reasons which include the one flesh, life long, relationship between one man and one woman —the bringing together of two different genders in one unit is, I think, a relationship that is tied up with human flourishing. But humans can flourish without being married, and children can flourish without both parents, and sometimes our arguments against gay marriage are just silly. Gay parents can already adopt. Infertile couples can and should get married because children are, in many ways, a potential (and welcome) biproduct of marriage rather than the purpose of marriage.

I believe that marriage as God created it is a good thing, but personally, I only think advocacy for the picture of marriage we get from the Bible (and so from God) is valuable when it is clear that we’re also advocating the goodness of the Creator, not simply about the goodness of life following his design, otherwise there’s a danger that we’ve turned marriage into an idol.

Putting a created thing in the Creator’s place as an ultimate good for our society, not simply a good thing that points us to the goodness of the ultimate good. I get the sense that that’s how Romans 1 sees all created things operating when they’re achieving their created purpose. Showing us something about God.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse… They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:20, 25

Ultimately I don’t think it makes much difference for a couple if they choose to marry following a “Christian” tradition if they don’t know Christ. I don’t think marriage is the ultimate good for that couple, and I’m not sure couples in our community (or anyone in our community) would get that sense when they hear us talking about marriage, or about this particular political debate.

These options — withdrawal or ‘divorce’ —  both seem to be based on an assumption that the state should be functioning, quite deliberately and consciously, as God’s ‘sword’ operating according to his plans (Romans 13), rather than God simply working his plans for the world out through whomever he chooses to place in government. I can’t figure out where this expectation about government actually comes from, theologically speaking (though I can historically).

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. — Romans 13:1-7

There’s no guarantee in this passage (or any New Testament passage) that the government will honour us back when we honour them. There’s no guarantee that the government will govern according to our view of the world. In fact, Peter simultaneously tells the church to live as exiles and submit to the government, with the expectation that “the pagans” will accuse them of wrongdoing, this presumably includes the government of his day. You know. Rome. Who insisted that people worship Caesar.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. — 1 Peter 2:11-15

God always manages to advance his Kingdom through, and despite, hostile governments like Egypt, Babylon, and Rome. Romans, the letter where the sword idea comes from, was written to the church in Rome, about the Roman Empire, you know. The guys who killed Jesus.

While Nick Jensen cites history to argue his case, the real historical anomaly was the period of time that the church occupied the place of honour and power at the heart of an empire. Posturing in response to the state, when they do things we don’t like, or that don’t line up with the Bible, isn’t really what the Bible seems to describe in terms of church-state relationships, or what it seems to require of us in our relationship with the state, or what it looks like for us to live as exiles and citizens of the Kingdom of God. Posturing like this, pushing our agenda as though we should hold power over the state, or the worldly state should conform to God’s agenda, is what it looks like to hold, kicking and screaming, to a place at the adult’s table, while demanding that others don’t get to join us.

On Gay Marriage, Kevin Rudd, the ACL, and “taking up your cross.”

It feels like a long time since I’ve written about gay marriage. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about Kevin Rudd. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about the ACL. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about anything much. But here goes…

The “Current” Background

The gay marriage debate is firing up again because the Australian Greens are going to introduce a bill to parliament. The bill is, at this point, destined to fail, because while the Labor party has given its members a conscience vote, the opposition is keeping their members in lock-step with their pre-election commitments on marriage. Kevin Rudd, a Christian politician, has decided to vote in favour of an amendment to the marriage act. The Australian Christian Lobby has said something dumb and inflammatory in response.

The Background on K-Rudd

Kevin Rudd is Australia’s former Prime Minister. He was knifed and unceremoniously dumped from the job by his deputy and a bunch of “faceless men”… Though he sits on the political left he’s been something of a darling to the Christian Right, because he is a politician who takes his faith seriously. Read his Bonhoeffer Essay published in Australia’s high brow “intellectual” mag, The Monthly in October 2006. Before he was Prime Minister.

I’m not a huge fan of Rudd’s. He often seems robotic and calculated. But I respect him – his approach to political campaigning was positive and refreshing, and he is a man of principle – sticking to his word in a recent leadership coup even though it cost him hugely. But I do like the thoughtfulness he applies to the question of the relationship between church and state. This is from the Bonhoeffer essay linked above:

“For its first three centuries, Christianity had represented an active counterculture, but what was to be Christianity’s message in a new age in which the church had become culturally dominant? This became the continuing challenge of Christianity in the Christian West for the subsequent 1500 years.

Over the last 200 years, however, we have seen an entirely different debate arise, as Christianity has sought to come to terms with a rising and increasingly rampant secularism. The impact of independent scientific enquiry, the increasing impact of secular humanism itself, combined with the pervasive influence of modernism and postmodernism, have had the cumulative effect of undermining the influence of the mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches across the West.

Where this will lead, as Christianity enters its third millennium, remains to be seen. But there are signs of Christianity seeing itself, and being seen by others, as a counterculture operating within what some have called a post-Christian world. In some respects, therefore, Christianity, at least within the West, may be returning to the minority position it occupied in the earliest centuries of its existence. But whether or not we conclude that Christianity holds a minority or a majority position within Western societies, that still leaves unanswered the question of how any informed individual Christian (or Christians combined in the form of an organised church) should relate to the state.”

Here’s Rudd’s conclusion for how Christians should engage in the political process:

“I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer’s critique in the ’30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.”

He says, a bit later:

“The function of the church in all these areas of social, economic and security policy is to speak directly to the state: to give power to the powerless, voice to those who have none, and to point to the great silences in our national discourse where otherwise there are no natural advocates.”

He identifies five approaches that Christians take to politics.

1. Vote for me because I’m a Christian.

“This is the model that is most repugnant. It is the model which says that, simply on the basis of my external profession of the Christian faith, those of similar persuasion should vote for me.”

2. Vote for me because I’m a morally conservative Christian and tick the right boxes on your sexual morality tests.

These tests tend to emphasise questions of sexuality and sexual behaviour. I see very little evidence that this pre-occupation with sexual morality is consistent with the spirit and content of the Gospels. For example, there is no evidence of Jesus of Nazareth expressly preaching against homosexuality. In contrast, there is considerable evidence of the Nazarene preaching against poverty and the indifference of the rich.

3. Vote for me because I’m a morally conservative Christian and I’m into family values.

4. Combine all of these, but then respond negatively when someone suggests there might be a political position to be taken on economic policy, not just moral policy.

5. Believe the gospel is both a political and social gospel.

In other words, the Gospel is as much concerned with the decisions I make about my own life as it is with the way I act in society. It is therefore also concerned with how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the state’s power. This view derives from the simple principle that the Gospel which tells humankind that they must be born again is the same Gospel which says that at the time of the Great Judgement, Christians will be asked not how pious they have been but instead whether they helped to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely. In this respect, the Gospel is an exhortation to social action. Does this mean that the fundamental ethical principles provide us with an automatic mathematical formula for determining every item of social, economic, environmental, national-security and international-relations policy before government? Of course not. What it means is that these matters should be debated by Christians within an informed Christian ethical framework.

K-Rudd and I share a vehement rejection of approaches 1-4. We both think there’s a roll for Christians to play in advocating for the voiceless, not lobbying for our own special interests. There’s a pretty obvious dig at the approach the Australian Christian Lobby (not to be confused with the Australian Cat Ladies) takes to politics in this article.

But fundamentally, though I will agree with our former Prime Minister on the wide ranging implications for the gospel on how we conceive of politics, ethics, and society, I don’t think he’s really grasped the magnitude of how the Gospel’s content –  the crucified Lord who calls us to take up our cross, follow him, and die to self – the qualities he so admires in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the gospel at a social and political level – applies to the moral and sexual sphere of the Christian life. Jesus is Lord over sexual morality, just as he is Lord over workplace relations policy.

Which leads me to the current situation…

Kevin Rudd’s changing opinion on Gay Marriage

Kevin Rudd has applied this rubric for the relationship between church and state to the question of gay marriage, and arrived at this conclusion (posted on his blog overnight):

I have come to the conclusion that church and state can have different positions and practices on the question of same sex marriage. I believe the secular Australian state should be able to recognise same sex marriage. I also believe that this change should legally exempt religious institutions from any requirement to change their historic position and practice that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. For me, this change in position has come about as a result of a lot of reflection, over a long period of time, including conversations with good people grappling with deep questions of life, sexuality and faith.

I’ve suggested in the past that this is, I think, the way forward in a secular democracy (short of the government simply legislating civil unions for everybody). I’m sure there are good natural arguments (ie non-Christian arguments) against gay marriage. I’m not sure those arguments are “marriage is for making children”… That would seem to rule out a greater purpose for marriage for people who know they are infertile, or people who are elderly. Which will, no doubt, bring me to the ACL. Shortly.

Lets parse the problems with Rudd’s statement from the Christian side of the ledger – rather than the political side. He’s making a potentially correct political decision, given the system he operates in, from incorrect theology. Incorrect theology that is there in the Bonhoeffer thing. If Jesus can’t make claims over our sexuality – our “natural” state – then he’s no Lord at all. He calls us to come and die in every area of our life. Including our natural, hard-wired, sexual urges.

Here’s Rudd’s narrative.

“One Saturday morning in Canberra, some weeks ago, a former political staffer asked to have a coffee. This bloke, who shall remain nameless, is one of those rare finds among political staffers who combines intelligence, integrity, a prodigious work ethic, and, importantly, an unfailing sense of humour in the various positions he has worked in around Parliament House. Necessary in contemporary politics, otherwise you simply go stark raving mad.

And like myself, this bloke is a bit of a god-botherer (aka Christian). Although a little unlike myself, he is more of a capital G God-Botherer. In fact, he’s long been active in his local Pentecostal Church.

Over coffee, and after the mandatory depressing discussion about the state of politics, he tells me that he’s gay, he’s told his pastor (who he says is pretty cool with it all, although the same cannot be said of the rest of the church leadership team) and he then tells me that one day he’d like to get married to another bloke. And by the way, “had my views on same sex marriage changed?”.”

So, to recap, for those who skip over quotes, a staffer Rudd respects, a Christian, is gay and wants to marry a man. So Rudd has had a rethink on his opposition to gay marriage.

Very few things surprise me in life and politics anymore. But I must confess the Pentecostal staffer guy threw me a bit. And so the re-think began, once again taking me back to first principles. First, given that I profess to be a Christian (albeit not a particularly virtuous one) and given that this belief informs a number of my basic views; and given that I am given a conscience vote on these issues; then what constitutes for me a credible Christian view of same sex marriage, and is such a view amenable to change? Second, irrespective of what that view might be, do such views have a proper place in a secular state, in a secular definition of marriage, or in a country where the census tells us that while 70% of the population profess a religious belief, some 70% of marriages no longer occur in religious institutions, Christian or otherwise.

These are the two questions.

He starts to move the goalposts a little on the “Christian view” thing by playing the “literalist” card. Now. I’m a Biblical Literalist. I do not think it means what Rudd think it means, or what many extreme Biblical Literalists think it means. I think Biblical literalism means reading a text in its context, trying to understand what the author literally meant, and in part that comes from understanding what the original audience would understand something to literally mean.

“In fact if we were today to adhere to a literalist rendition of the Christian scriptures, the 21st century would be a deeply troubling place, and the list of legitimized social oppressions would be disturbingly long.”

This is a purely speculative begged question – and it ignores the contribution to the 21st century made by Bonhoeffer’s contribution to the 20th century. He also throws Wilberforce under a bus. It’ll surprise Wilberforce to one day learn that people considered he was ignoring the plain meaning of the Bible when he opposed slavery.

Here’s Rudd’s guide to reading the Bible.

The Bible also teaches us that people should be stoned to death for adultery (which would lead to a veritable boom in the quarrying industry were that still the practice today). The same for homosexuals. And the biblical conditions for divorce are so strict that a woman could be beaten within an inch of her life and still not be allowed to legally separate.

The point is that nobody in the mainstream Christian Church today would argue any of these propositions. A hundred years ago, that was not necessarily the case. In other words, the definition of Christian ethics is subject to change, based on analysis of the historical context into which the biblical writers were speaking at the time, and separating historical context from timeless moral principles, such as the injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself”.

Nobody in the mainstream church has argued for stoning adulterers, with any credibility, since Jesus stopped the angry mob stoning an adulteress, or since Jesus met a divorced, adulterous, Samaritan woman at the well. The very model of the oppressed whom Bonhoeffer says we should be looking out for – and Jesus claims to be the promised king of the Old Testament and doesn’t stone her. Clearly the plain reading of the Old Testament, so far as Jesus was concerned – and he’s better positioned to read it than we are, as a Jew, and as God.

Christian ethics aren’t subject to change. Christian ethics are the ethics of the cross. It’s not just “love your neighbour” – Christian ethics are a call to deny yourself and to love your enemy.

Rudd presents such an anaemic view of Christian ethics here that it’s not surprising his conclusion is theologically incoherent.

The call for all people who follow Jesus is that we die to self, die to our desire to base our identity on our sexual orientation – gay, straight, bi, or otherwise – there is no unbroken sexual orientation – and if we do want to pursue sexual intimacy, regardless of orientation, Jesus affirms the traditional view of marriage.

Here’s a thing Jesus says when he also shows that K-Rudd is wrong about divorce.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Some people won’t have sex because being part of the Kingdom of God calls them to that. We’re really bad at acknowledging that category, culturally, and in our church.  I suspect singleness would be much easier if we were better at looking out for those who are single. So that it’s not a cross they bear alone.

Anyway.

It’s hard not to read this following bit in the light of his conversation with his friend – and suspect that it underpins his theological move.

“Which brings us back to same sex marriage. I for one have never accepted the argument from some Christians that homosexuality is an abnormality. People do not choose to be gay. The near universal findings of biological and psychological research for most of the post war period is that irrespective of race, religion or culture, a certain proportion of the community is born gay, whether they like it or not. Given this relatively uncontested scientific fact, then the following question that arises is should our brothers and sisters who happen to be gay be fully embraced as full members of our wider society? The answer to that is unequivocally yes, given that the suppression of a person’s sexuality inevitably creates far greater social and behavioural abnormalities, as opposed to its free and lawful expression. “

Rudd’s statement would be heaps better if he just said: “We are a secular democracy, and people in our secular democracy desire something, and the only good reason not to appears to come from a religious understanding of the thing.” By trying to play theologian he has left himself a little open to criticism.

The Bible says that humanity is born sinful. That we’re born with a natural propensity to sin. It shouldn’t be a huge jump for Christian theology to acknowledge that homosexuality is natural – it’s only a problem if we think our nature is a pristine, untainted, God honouring canvas. The image we bear of God in Genesis 1 is broken in Genesis 3.

Jesus is the image of God (Colossians 1:15), and calls people to come and die. Like he did. But if you’re not coming and dying then I am not so sure you can be called not to base your identity on anything you want – including your sexuality. Including defining your relationships using the word “marriage.” That’s why Rudd should have left the theology alone and just gone with the politics. He’s better at that.

Rudd moves from the theological point to the argument from nature about children needing a mother and father. I believe that in the ideal circumstances this is true (though I’m sympathetic to the idea that an emotionally healthy child needs much more than just a mother and a father – who love them sacrificially, they need a “village”). But I also, like Rudd, believe that we’re a long way from the ideal.

“Which brings us to what for some time has been the sole remaining obstacle in my mind on same sex marriage – namely any unforeseen consequences for children who would be brought up by parents in a same sex married relationship, as against those brought up by parents in married or de-facto heterosexual relationships, by single parents, or by adoptive or foster parents, or other legally recognised parent or guardian relationships. The care, nurture and protection of children in loving relationships must be our fundamental concern. And this question cannot be clinically detached from questions of marriage – same sex or opposite sex. The truth is that in modern Australia approximately 43 per cent of marriages end in divorce, 27 per cent of Australian children are raised in one parent, blended or step-family situations, and in 2011-12 nearly 50,000 cases of child abuse were substantiated by the authorities of more than 250,000 notifications registered. In other words, we have a few problems out there.

That does not mean, by some automatic corollary, that children raised in same sex relationships are destined to experience some sort of nirvana by comparison. But scientific surveys offer important indications. One of the most comprehensive surveys of children raised in same sex relationships is the US National Longitudinal Survey conducted since 1986 – 1992 (and still ongoing) on adolescents raised by same sex partners. This survey, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics in 2010, concluded that there were no Child Behaviour Checklist differences for these kids as against the rest of the country”

These longitudinal studies are interesting. I do wonder what the results would look like if you reverse engineered the ideal parenting situation from the outcome of parenting. If you asked a bunch of successful and emotionally healthy adults about their background – if you didn’t take a broad cross section to measure against the average, but selected some sort of high achievement criterion. Maybe that study is out there somewhere. But anyway, Rudd makes the point that the horse has already bolted on this front…

“Either as a result of previous opposite-sex relationships, or through existing state and territory laws making assisted reproduction, surrogacy, adoption and fostering legally possible for same sex couples or individuals in the majority of Australian states and territories. Furthermore, Commonwealth legislation has already recognised the legal rights of children being brought up in such relationships under the terms of Australian family law.”

One thing I do appreciate is the tone Rudd has brought to the debate – he acknowledges that this is his opinion, and that people, like Julia Gillard, will use their own consciences and reasons to develop their own convictions. This is what life in a democracy is about.

So good on him for that.

Which brings me to the ACL.

The ACL is apparently indignant that a back bench MP would dare exercise his right to conscience. They’ve taken a leaf from the Greens, their political nemesis, in comparing this policy decision to the stolen generation.

Here’s Christine Milne’s impassioned statement about a recent asylum seeker decision.

“In 10, 15, 20 years when there is a national apology to the children detained indefinitely in detention for the sole, supposed crime of seeking a better life in our country because they are running away for persecution with their families, not one of you will be able to stand up and say “Oh we didn’t, oh, it was the culture of the period.”

That’s a nice piece of rhetoric – but it’ll only take so long before this becomes the Australian equivalent of Godwin’s Law. The ACL is working on it…

Here’s the title of their Media Release.

Rudd’s change on marriage sets up a new stolen generation

Really?

Do go on.

The Prime Minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another.

Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies.

“What Kevin Rudd has failed to consider is that marriage is a compound right to form a family. Marriage is not just an affectionate relationship between two people regardless of gender.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. I’m just not sure it’s a particularly Christian argument. It’s a politically conservative argument based on concepts of personhood that admittedly come from the Christian tradition. But it doesn’t seem particularly informed by the person of Jesus. The Jews could own this position.

This is a nice call to take the question of the raising of children away from selfishness:

“What Mr Rudd has not considered is whether or not it is right for children to be taken through technology from their biological parent so that ‘married’ same-sex couples can fulfil their desires.”

This objection is just weird. I would hope that given the sexual health issues in the homosexual community we would want some sort of education to happen to prevent these issues (oh wait, the ACL has form in this area on sexual health billboards, and with those smoking claims).

Mr Shelton said Mr Rudd had also ignored the fact that this inevitably means parents will have their children taught the mechanics of homosexual sex in school sex education classes, something that would surely follow the redefinition of marriage.

Here’s a little case of adopting the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mantra while trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. Read the heading of this media release again, and then read this rebuke…

“The so-called ‘marriage equality’ debate has been conducted by slogans without proper consideration of the consequences. Kevin Rudd is the latest to fall victim to shallow thinking on this issue,” Mr Shelton said.

The ACL is disappointed in Rudd – not primarily because his theological account of sexuality misrepresents the Gospel. But because. Umm. Marriage.

“Mr Rudd’s announcement that he supports same sex marriage will be a huge disappointment for Christians and leaves their hopes for the preservation of marriage clearly with the Coalition and Christian-based minor parties.

Oh. And because it’s bad politics because it doesn’t protect the bigger minority from the smaller…

“No government has the right to create these vulnerabilities for the church-going twenty per cent of the population in order to allow the point two per cent who will take advantage of this to redefine marriage,” he said.

And now Christians won’t vote for him. Because the ACL speaks for Christians.

“Mr Rudd seems intent on burning bridges not only with colleagues, but with a constituency which had long given him the benefit of the doubt,” Mr Shelton said.

Something is either true and demands our support, or not. The truth doesn’t change with popular opinion, to which he is now saying he seems to be responding.”

“If this is an attempt to wedge Julia Gillard, it will cost Mr Rudd the last of his following in the Christian Constituency,” Mr Shelton said.

And finally. When it comes to the question of the theological stuff, where you might expect something related to the gospel, we get another statement that the Australian Sharia Law Lobby would be happy to sign up to if we changed “Christian teaching” to “God’s Law”.

His views on homosexuality and changing the definition of marriage are not in line with orthodox Christian teaching.

“All major Australian church denominations officially oppose same sex marriage and over 50 of Australia’s most prominent church and denominational leaders signed a statement against it in August 2011.”

The ACL is playing the game that K-Rudd pointed out is a problematic game for Christians in his Monthly article. Jesus calls us to come and die. He calls us to die to our sexual desires in order to submit to his Lordship. That’s where Kevin goes wrong. The ACL goes wrong not because they think Jesus is only interested in our sexuality – they’re trying to speak out for children too. Clearly. Or they wouldn’t use such dumb headings. They go wrong when they try to make Jesus the Lord of petty politics. On the one hand the ACL’s Lyle Shelton says “things are either true or they aren’t” and on the other he argues against certain courses of action because the political numbers are bad. Their whole model is broken.

Christians don’t take up our cross by railing against the political empire from a position of power – for starters, the political empire put Jesus to death. Or by playing the political game as though might makes right. There’s not much of a theology of the cross being displayed in the ACL’s statement.

K-Rudd should have left the theology and focused on the politics. The ACL should have left out the politics and focused on the theology (Jesus). Church and state should listen to each other. Especially when everyone is claiming they’re trying to follow Jesus. If you want to do politics like Jesus you’ve got to do politics shaped by the cross. If you want to speak theology about politics you’ve got to show how your theology relates to the cross. If you want to speak as Christians about politics why would you not speak of politics in the light of the cross?

Jesus’ pitch is the same for everybody. It’s not just about the poor, or about social justice – we’re all oppressed. We’re all broken. We all need intervention.

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 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? (Matt 16).

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Why I think it’s ok to criticise the ACL in public

This is probably the most important post in my recent series of ACL related posts – it’s the one objection that keeps cropping up when these posts start doing the rounds on Facebook – and I think it’s reasonably important ground to cover.

It’s probably the longest post I’ve ever written. It’s over 5,000 words long, plus a picture containing more words. I’d split it, but I don’t want to extend this series any further than it needs to be… in sum, to save you reading…

I start by clearing up some of the issues people have raised in response to my previous posts – in the comments here, and on Facebook.

Then I provide my rationale for making my criticisms public, alongside a framework I try to operate in (though I acknowledge that I fail in this area). My points are:

  1. It’s a gospel issue.
  2. The damage is public.
  3. To equip others.
  4. Because disagreement, and the ability to disagree, in public, should not put “Christian unity” at risk.

I want to make a few important points to begin with…

1. I am sure that the people involved in the ACL are Christians who love Jesus. From what I know of their ministries outside of the ACL – particularly Jim Wallace and Wendy Francis – they are concerned that people know Jesus. My problem is that they seem unwilling to see this translate into the positions they adopt in public discourse under the auspices of the ACL.

2. It is only really the public presence of the ACL, especially in the media, that bothers me – I have no idea what they do behind closed doors as they meet with politicians – which is doubtless where they see their main contribution in the political process. Like it, or loathe it, much lobbying now takes place via the media – and it is in the media where they are presented as the voice of Australian Christians – whether the ACL thinks of themselves that way or not. Their website makes this claim:

“The ACL does not seek to be the peak political voice for the church, but to be a professional witness to Christ in the Australian Parliaments which allows for the voice of the church and individual Christians to be more respectfully received in the public square.”

If parliament is where they want to do their work then they should say no to media appearances. Or be careful when they take on such media appearances not to speak beyond their remit, or be represented as the voice of Christianity in Australia. They are treading a fine line when it comes to their stated aim regarding the impact they have on the voice of the church and individual Christians in the public square if they are squeezing those Christians out of the public square.

3. I’m not suggesting the ACL should only talk about Jesus. That’s clearly not their function. I do have issues with their function – but I recognise their right to exist in a democracy. Rather, I’m suggesting they should start by, and possibly end by, talking about Jesus as the foundation of any moral position, and a relationship with Jesus (not legislation) being the true answer to any brokenness they identify in society. Even if this is edited out by journalists who are only interested in controversy (and I don’t think most journalists are like that, in my experience) – at least we could point to their work and say “context is important” – at the moment there is no real context for the moral proclamations the ACL makes except “this is what the law in Australia has always been like thanks to our Christian heritage”… this means, conversely, that I will not as one person suggested shut up about the ACL and just talk about Jesus – tackling issues from a gospel framework is important for our witness to the world. I will always talk about Jesus as I point out the shortcomings of how Christianity is represented in the public square. I can’t see any of my posts about the ACL where I haven’t done that.

4. I’m also not suggesting that evangelism is the ACL’s function. Nor that the ACL is “the Church.” It is not the ACL’s job to evangelise, but it is the ACL’s job to think about how what they say helps or hinders this job for others. I’d also say that when the ACL is in the public sphere representing Christians – they also need to be representing Jesus, and presenting their activities in the context of the gospel message. I am suggesting that when the exercise of their function is damaging to evangelism and the work of the church they’re not fulfilling their charter as a parachurch organisation – and when they “go rogue” like this it is the church’s job to call them out for it. If the damage is done in public – to the church’s witness to Jesus – then the response needs to be public to undo such damage.

5. Christian unity is in Christ – not in a conservative political position or our “Christian heritage” – one of the constant criticisms when my posts hit the interwebs is that Christian disunity is unattractive to non-Christians. And there is a fundamental truth there that I agree wholeheartedly with. It would be much better for our witness if we all just got along – but if there’s one thing church history shows us – it’s that it’s unlikely we’re all going to get along, and it’s especially unlikely when people stop being united on the main thing – Jesus, and the next main thing – loving one another as a testimony to our relationship with Jesus (John 13:35). This is part of the reason Paul tells Christians not to sue each other in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6). I’m going to argue below that this is not the only passage that has any bearing on public disagreements between Christians, because it’s not really saying “don’t argue with each other in public” – though it provides an ethical paradigm to work from, which does value unity.

6. I do believe that Matthew 18:15-17 is relevant here, though not as relevant as some suggest. I think raising a disagreement with the party involved is a valuable exercise – though I don’t think these verses are directly applicable (I flesh this out more below). I have discussed my problem with the ACL with them directly, and at some length, without fruit. I will always give them an opportunity to respond to what I write, and notify them when I have written about them. I’m not sure if I think the ACL is “sinning by omission” but I think they’re doing public relations, and public Christianity, in an unhelpful way.

I think that 1 Peter 3:15 is probably as important – I suspect the gentleness and respect that we’re to show to outsiders should be typical of our dialogue with each other. I need to be better at speaking in love when directing my writing at Christians, there is a remarkable difference in tone between my posts to Christians, and those aimed at non-Christians. Though perhaps this is the difference between “rebuke” and evangelism.  2 Timothy 2 is also particularly pertinent (but note that it doesn’t say “don’t disagree” or anything about the context of the disagreement (be it public or private)…

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”

I will say that I do not think this is a foolish or stupid argument, but a wildly important one.

“23 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.”

Ephesians 4 is also relevant… but again, maintaining unity doesn’t mean avoiding criticism. Criticism doesn’t equal disunity except in the most modern adversarial approaches to life. I’ve bolded the bits I think are relevant to this post.

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord,one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

I find it hard to think of truthfully telling other Christians to talk more about the foundational truth of Jesus -who changes our approach to morality –  as something that doesn’t build them up, or something that grieves the Spirit.

7. I am predominantly driven by concern for my non-Christian friends with what I write here. I hope my posts are helpful for other Christians in clarifying issues, and providing a framework for thinking about how public relations, evangelism, ethics and Christianity fit together. I am really only claiming to be anything like an expert on the public relations side of things, and I claim that reluctantly and mostly on the basis that people still pay me a fair amount of money in that field. I write these posts, and I share them as widely as possible, because I want any non-Christian friends who I hope to be a witness to through what I speak about, how I speak about it, and how I live, to know that I don’t think the gospel looks or sounds like it does when the ACL gets on a platform and whether intentionally or otherwise, makes unhelpful comparisons between things to further a political agenda that I do not always share.

8. I think it is really important not to water down sin, but I think it’s more important not to water down the gospel into “don’t sin”… I’m pretty careful when I’m writing not to suggest that the moral issues at the heart of the ACL’s campaigns aren’t moral issues (though I do think there’s a profoundly important difference between homosexual temptation and homosexual practice when it comes to sin). I’m not saying that Christians should never speak about morality – I’m just saying when we do it should always be in the context of what Jesus has done, and who Jesus is. And my preference would be to lead with that, then talk about sin, then talk about Jesus again – who Jesus is in relationship to the world makes what the Bible says about morality important, here’s what the Bible says about this moral issue, the good news is that even though we all fail morally, Jesus died in our place, taking our punishment – and he offers a restored relationship with God freely.

It’s not really that hard. You simply say: As Christians we follow Jesus, who we believe is Lord of all, and restores our relationship with the God who created everything. We believe God created the world in a way that makes this behaviour wrong, and while a case can be made from nature, we base our opinion on what he has revealed in his word, the Bible, which shaped our legislation in this country historically, and we think a better case needs to be made for moving away from this foundation. We believe that people are broken – including us – by a desire to not live this way, but God sent Jesus as a first step towards fixing us, and now works through his Spirit to help Christians live his way.”

Obviously I’ve argued elsewhere that because the Spirit is only active in regenerating Christians the case for legislating Christian morals with the expectation that people will keep them is fairly weak, but others have different opinions regarding the uses and efficacy of God’s law.

That’s a rather long preamble, and it has touched on the points I’m going to make below. But this is important stuff to think through well – because it’s important for how the gospel is presented and understood by the people we live, work, study, and play with…

Why I will criticise the ACL in Public: It’s a Gospel issue

If I didn’t think that failing to even mention Jesus when you’re talking about the brokenness of humanity and the solutions that human rights provide was a problem, I wouldn’t be critical. But if people think this is what the church thinks is the solution to a broken world – we have a problem. The solution to the problem of sin, at a social level, and for the individual, is for people to know Jesus as Lord.

The ACL is pushing a Christendom styled solution to a post-Christendom society. While 62% of Australians culturally identify as Christians, less than 20% are churchgoers – which I would suggest is a much better measure of Australia’s commitment to Christianity. Of that 20% there’s an incredible diversity of political affiliation and even a diversity of understanding of what the gospel is, who Jesus is, and what sin is. The “Christian constituency” is a myth.

Why I will criticise the ACL in Public: They are operating in public, the damage they do is public

I don’t think of myself as an ACL watchdog. Or watchblog. I’m not waiting for them to stuff up so that I can criticise them. There are more than 5,000 posts on this blog, and probably 15 of them are about the ACL. I could count – but you can check it out yourself. I often blog about other Christians in the public sphere, and how to do PR stuff without mentioning the ACL. I want that to be clear. Some people only pay attention when I pick on the ACL… but they’re not a particular “bee in my bonnet”…

I try very hard to abide by the principles of publicly criticising people that Tim Keller posted here, because I think they’re really useful guidelines (and part 2 – which is part 3 of a bigger series).

1. Carson’s RuleYou don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics.

Don Carson wrote an Editorial on Abusing Matthew 18 in which he addresses the often-made argument that a Christian should not publicly write criticism of other Christians’ theological views without going to them first, privately, citing Matthew 18. But Carson points out that this passage is talking about two people in the same church, or at least in the same ecclesiastical connection, since if the two parties disagree the whole matter can be taken to “the church,” meaning the congregation and its leaders…

…In short, if someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination,) then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them. Carson does add a qualifier, but that comes under the next rule.

2. Murray’s RuleYou must take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of someone’s views.

If someone can demonstrate that I have misrepresented them I will retract, edit, and apologise for such a misrepresentation.

“Don Carson says that if you have strong concerns about Mr A’s views, and you are considering publishing a critique, it may be wise to go to Mr A first, but “not out of obedience to Matthew 18, which really does not pertain, but to determine just what the views of the [other person] really are.”…

… This is very sobering. In our internet age we are very quick to dash off a response because we think Mr A promotes X. And when someone points out that Mr A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize, or maybe we don’t even do that. John Murray’s principle means that polemics must never be “dashed off.” Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr A believes and promotes before you publish.”

I slightly diverge from Carson and Keller here – because I think being able to provide an immediate response to the perceived position of Mr A is vital for limiting some of the damage, and it’s the nature of blogging or reporting to be producing content as quickly as possible or you miss the moment. It’s PR 101. But I am pretty careful to read closely, as sympathetically as possible, and to update posts where necessary. Sometimes I’m not as sympathetic to the ACL as I should be – and I apologise. I’m always happy to rewrite sentences that impugn someone’s character or motives if they’re pointed out. I think my responsibility is to be mindful of the potential of misrepresenting others.

3. Alexander’s RuleNever attribute an opinion to your opponent that he himself does not own.

They were to “strive for truth, not victory” and they were to “know when to put a stop to controversy. It is a great evil in keeping it up” unnecessarily. He also urged them to not go public with criticism unless the error was very dangerous and important. Like Lloyd-Jones and (as we will see) John Calvin, Alexander taught that the ultimate purpose of controversy was to persuade and win over people in error. Therefore we must “avoid whatever is apt to create prejudice in opponents or auditors.” In other words, we must not argue in such a way that it hardens opponents in their views.

These other principles are similar:

4. Gillespie’s Rule A – Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively.

5. Gillespie’s Rule B – Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.

I do try to avoid guess work regarding the motives of certain people, and wherever possible, my understanding of the ACL comes from their own website, publications, and media releases – rather than the mainstream media. However, I think, when it comes to the public sphere – that it’s just as important to understand the public perception of the people you’re engaging with. The ACL may not seem to be the “peak body” – but it is certainly the “go to” organisation on public policy debates so far as the media is concerned, and as long as their annual report says:

“… the regular mentions of ACL in the media demonstrate that ACL is continuing to mature as a player in the Australian political landscape. It has become the go to organisation for Christian commentary on so many of the major issues facing Australia…”

I’ll be questioning whether their commentary is essentially “Christian”… which I think means it has to contain the gospel.

I’ll be dealing with this last principle substantively in the last point.

6. Calvin’s Rule – Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives!

“In short, it is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.”

7. Everybody’s Rule: Only God sees the heart—so remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology.

I’ve probably fallen foul of this one  a couple of times – in part because I think the very act of lobbying is counter to the gospel – in part because at times I have been critical of people alongside being critical of what they’ve said. But I will say again, as I have said above, and in previous posts – I do not doubt that the ACL is an organisation of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I agree with some of the criticism that has accused me of resorting to ad hominems on occasion – and I’ll strive to do that less, and to apologise more. And I’ll also be taking some principles from John Newton, cited in Keller’s third post on the rules (and fourth post in the series).

“But no one has written more eloquently about this rule than John Newton, in his well-known“Letter on Controversy.” Newton says that first, before you begin to write a single word against an opponent, “and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.” This practice will stir up love for him and “such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.” Later in the letter Newton says, “Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.’ ”

Why I will criticise the ACL in Public: To equip others

Because I believe that Christianity, and especially Jesus, has an essential place at the table in public discussion, I want other people who want to participate in public discussion to have resources for thinking about how they might do that. I do have a certain level of expertise in this area that I haven’t really seen demonstrated elsewhere in the evangelical scene in Australia – and I’m constantly reaching out to other Christian experts in this field, or even secular experts, for feedback on these posts. People have told me that previous posts have been helpful for them, people like Mike O’Connor, in Rockhampton, who had this piece published in the Rockhampton paper this week (you can read a little more about where the paper slightly exaggerated his position here (though I’m not sure if you need to be his friend to read it)):

Mike O'Connor Facebook

Why I will criticise the ACL in Public: Because we need to grow up and move past the bizarre idea that robust criticism necessarily indicates disunity

I’m fairly certain that apart from one unfortunate moment when I referred to the ACL as pharisees, I’ve never actually suggested they weren’t Christians. I apologised for saying that, and even at that point I didn’t think that the ACL weren’t Christians, just that they were in danger of misrepresenting the gospel in a manner consistent with the Pharisees’ understanding of how to relate to God.

Paul pretty publicly criticises people in his writings (Paul affirms Peter’s apostolic authority (Gal 2:6-8) but also records, in writing, in the most public book of the last 2,000 years, that he “opposed Peter to his face” (Gal 3:1-19) because a moral position he has adopted is inconsistent with Christian unity in the gospel of Jesus, and he’s doing their witness to the Gentiles a disservice. His words, I think are both pertinent and paradigmatic for this discussion:

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners,doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Paul also pretty publicly names Euodia and Syntyche, in the midst of trying to correct them, in a public document that was to be read in the context of the church gathering where there would be presumed to be a mix of Christians and non-Christians (cf 1 Corinthians 14:24-25)… urging them to be united in Christ – and he still regards them as co-workers in the gospel (Phil 4:2-3).

There’s nothing to suggest that when the Bible suggests people aren’t doing a great job at representing the gospel that they’re not Christians (I’m thinking particularly of Acts 15:36-41 which records a sharp disagreement about John Mark’s approach to ministry). It seems that calling one another out, in public isn’t a threat to Christian unity. I’m not saying I wouldn’t sit down and have a cuppa with people from the ACL, nor that I don’t think they are Christians, simply that when they speak they are not speaking for me, because I don’t think they’re speaking the gospel.

This isn’t a lawsuit between believers. I’m not taking the ACL to court to shut them up. I’m not launching any official action against them for falsely representing me as some Christians did with a political party calling itself Australian Christians, when they wrote to the Victorian Electoral Commission. And I don’t think that’s really the point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians. Corinth had a culture of vexatious litigation being used as a status booster where people would sue people for the boost in status a victory would bring – this was a problem because it denied the reality of who they were, in Jesus.

I’d feel convicted by this passage if my attacks on the ACL were in any way simply an attempt to boost traffic here by picking on an easy and unpopular target. But I feel sick to the stomach when the ACL makes it harder for people to know Jesus – and that’s my motivation. I truly want the ACL to do a better job of talking about Jesus – if that wasn’t the case I’d stop making that the substance of my criticism.

Further, upping your status at the expense of other believers – which Paul again deals with when he’s talking about idol food in 1 Cor 8-11 – is bad because they distract people from the true basis of their unity – Christ. So from 1 Corinthians 8:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

He concludes this argument in chapter 10.
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

My argument from these passages, and the whole of Corinthians, is that we’re to be united around Christ, for the purpose of winning people over – and reading the conclusion of Paul’s argument about how the Corinthians are living in the world back into chapter 6, I’m arguing that the problem with lawsuits amongst believers is that they ruin the testimony of what Christ is doing in our lives. My problem with the way the ACL approaches the public sphere is that they run the risk of ruining our testimony about Christ. That’s why I don’t think this passage applies.

I think it’s possible to robustly criticise each other, in the public sphere, so that non-Christians know we take the gospel seriously. That we are prepared to be robust with each other, while in fellowship, because we want to get the gospel right. The idea that we should hide our divisions behind closed doors will lead to the conclusion that we don’t actually care about this stuff enough to speak about our differences.

It’s a product of our immature approach to politics in our country – where opposition is loud, adversarial, and dramatic – to think that any disagreement is bad and unhelpful. This plays out in all sorts of really harmful ways in society and leaves us with anaemic, politically correct, solutions to issues because nobody is passionate enough to come to improved resolutions through conflict. If we run away and bury our heads in the sand, say that criticism itself is wrong by nature of being public, or refuse to be sharpened through discourse then we’re going to end up with a fairly weak presence in the public sphere anyway.

UPDATE: Also – a few other people have suggested that we should just be thankful the ACL does the hard work that the church isn’t doing, and wear the cost of the gospel being obscured, or use the controversy they generate as opportunities for “conversations”… the main theme of these comments is that we should let God work through the bad teaching, or the imperfect vessel…

I’d say this is a little unhelpful, and short sighted – if you want the ACL to continue surely you want it to be getting ready as it responds to, and engages, with criticism from Christians as well as non-Christians. Plus part of the “conversations” it generates are conversations where we have to distance ourselves from the ACL anyway – if we want to be properly representing and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. So this is, in a sense, exactly what posts like this are doing – they’re continuing the conversation.

Letting such “imperfect vessels” go uncorrected is pretty dangerous and will lead to a weak, confused, and potentially liberal presentation of the gospel. Better to robustly and lovingly offer correction – whether in public (so that you’re loving the audience of these “vessels” as well), or in private.

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More like this: Wendy Francis meets SameSame

I have two more ACL posts to write. Including this one. And then I’m done on this round, and we’ll return to normal programming.

A big part of the problem with how the ACL does business is that they go in to situations with a hostile posture and things go down hill – situations like TV debates, university debates, interviews where they’re forced to defend something they’ve said or argue about how something has been interpreted – because they adopt an adversarial posture the conversation is immediately off the rails and unlikely to produce productive results.

They’re remarkably better when that’s not the case – it’s much easier to have a gracious and winsome conversation if you’re having a conversation. Which is exactly what happened when Wendy Francis sat down with SameSame editor Chad St. James. They had a civil conversation – and St. James has reported it with polite empathy. It’s a nice read. It humanises both of them.

Wendy provides an interesting account of the blow up that followed a tweet sent from her account by a PR person.

“But I think the very concept of child abuse is always linked to sexual abuse, well in my mind it is anyway. That was the real tragedy of that whole tweet. If the staff at the office had tweeted legalising same-sex marriage is taking a way a child’s right away to have a mother, then I probably wouldn’t have been so upset about it. But I was livid and really, really upset about it. My children were upset about it. Because it certainly inferred sexual abuse I think. So that just unforgivable. But I don’t think I handled the media well afterwards. But looking back I don’t think I know how I could’ve avoided it.

I can 100 percent promise you, I had nothing to do with that tweet. I hated it, I absolutely hated it. I wished I hadn’t been out of the office so I could’ve been there. I immediately sort of went into melt-down mode wondering what it was all about.

I was fuzzy with the responses afterwards, not really knowing what to. I had all these people advising me what to say. I had people ringing me saying “you should really go with that, that’s a great comment” and I was saying I can’t possibly go with that, it’s an awful comment.”

So that’s nice. She does a really nice job of making her position on the GLBTI issues a product of social concern, rather than homophobia, and leaves St. James feeling vaguely sympathetic for her position. So that’s nice. My one concern comes from her answer to these two questions…

What does the Australian Christian Lobby stand for?

It stands for being a voice for values. We see that there is a value set, that Australia has traditionally been built on, and that is the Judeo – Christian heritage. And that’s like a lot of the west has been built on that as well. And the some of the policies that we have, if you look at what is at the heart of them its things from the Christian faith such as “do unto others as you would have them to do unto you” and the good Samaritan.

Those sort of things are built into the Australian psyche, the whole good Samaritan, going a further mile, all of those things are from a Christian heritage. As we moved as a society away from being just Christian, and I don’t begrudge that, I think as we have had new immigration from other countries. In Brisbane for instance we celebrate Ramadan, we celebrate Buddha’s birthday, we celebrate Christmas. So we have this really good multicultural link, but as we have moved away from any one faith-base then we’ve got a bit of a void of where our values are based. So for me that is what I believe the Australian Christian Lobby is doing, seeking to keep us on track with the value system that has stood us in really good stead.

What does Wendy Francis stand for?

Wendy Francis is a mum and a grandma, a wife. I have always felt strongly about justice issues, I also feel very strongly about children. I think as our society has changed, one of the things that have changed for me the most is that we used to do whatever we do was on the best interests of the child. I think that’s changed, I think it’s now very “me”.

Mind you, I have to say I think your generation is turning that around a little. I think your generation is sick of that. I think it’s the baby boomers who are a much more me generation. We’ve had it very good. We’ve all got houses, and now houses are out of reach for a lot of the younger ones. I think that “me, me” has impacted how we look outwardly.

So for Wendy Francis, I think a lot of my motivation is coming from getting back to what is best for children. If we look at what is best for children, then I think that’s going to be what’s best for society.

If you want to be the Australian Christian Heritage Lobby, or the Christian Values Lobby, that’s fine. But if you call yourself the Christian Lobby, and you say you’re on about Jesus – which I’m sure Wendy is – I think these are the questions where the gospel comes in naturally. Rather than the moral framework that Christianity has produced in our legal system.

There was also this bit…

“You operate on a set of beliefs, and I do, and both of us are vitally important in what we call democracy, because if we’re going to have a true democracy every voice has to be heard. So I think it’s vital that the Christian voice is heard because we represent a large part of the constituents. In the latest census I think there were 62 percent of people that identify as Christians. It doesn’t mean that they’re all practising Christians, it’s probably more like 20 percent that are practising Christians, but still there is 62 percent identify in that way. So it would be ridiculous to think that there wasn’t some sort of input from what people believe into our parliaments.”

They need to decide if they represent the 20% or the 62% – and if the latter, they need to change their name and to stop pretending they’re speaking for the church.

In this interview Wendy Francis has the second part of 1 Peter 3:15 sorted, the ACL still needs to work on the first…

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

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Dear ACL, saying “we were misquoted” only makes things worse…

The ACL doesn’t seem to get it. When you say the wrong thing you apologise. You don’t blame people for taking offense. You don’t hide behind being “misquoted” or “misrepresented” – you avoid saying unhelpful and offensive stuff that isn’t the gospel.

Our job as Christians in public isn’t to be offensive – it’s to let the gospel cause offense where it will, by being faithful.

From the first Media Release the ACL issued

“We rightly warn of the health impacts of smoking. Surely we cannot allow these aggressive activists to conceal the facts of a lifestyle that accounts for over eighty percent of new HIV cases in Australia annually.

“If we warn against smoking because it carries health dangers, we should also be warning young people in particular about activity which clearly carries health risks.”

It’s interesting that he’s moved away from mental health issues and suicide to HIV/AIDs, which involves 1,000 new diagnoses per year. So that’s more than 800 people. I guess he realised he couldn’t possibly win on the first position and made a tactical withdrawal.

Here’s the second release:

Mr Wallace said at no stage did he say that “smoking is healthier than gay marriage”, as reported by some media.

“What I did say is that heterosexual sex and homosexual sex are different and have different health consequences. They should not be packaged the same way as marriage because, as just one of many reasons, they are different.

“If we warn against smoking because it carries health dangers, we should also be warning young people in particular about activity which clearly carries health risks,” Mr Wallace said.”

He overstates the case somewhat when it comes to the impact of Prime Minister Gillard’s decision to pull out of speaking at their conference: “Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Jim Wallace said the decision would come as a deep disappointment to Australia’s Christian constituency.”

I’m a member of that constituency and I’m not at all disappointed.

From the ABC... He said some interesting stuff here…

“I’ve been misquoted in trying to suggest that that means I’m comparing smoking with homosexuality. In the sense that, I’m not saying for a moment that homosexuality is more dangerous than smoking.”

“I’m comparing the packaging. I’m talking about the packaging. What I’m saying is that packaging is important in how we present things to people… then certainly, the packaging of marriage, particularly the packaging of the heterosexual lifestyle and the homosexual lifestyle as one thing under it, and I spoke yesterday about a range of issues under it.”

“I’m talking about the importance of packaging.”

“I don’t think all gay people have a choice.” 

You can also watch him get torn apart on the Project. Here’s what he says on the Project… after the story introduces the factoid that suicide prevention Australia says gay people are 14 times more likely to commit suicide than others. Then they asked him about why he compared homosexuality with smoking…

“That’s not what I said at all. I’m really annoyed that this is another example of vitriolic gay activism…”

“The point of my comment is the importance of packaging… it would hide the fact of the consequences of it from the health point of view.”

He also keeps saying that the struggle people experience with sexual orientation is “in their teens” – bizarre.

“We have to be able to discuss these issues… we can’t close down debate by not discussing the issues associated with this lifestyle under the packaging debate…”

He doesn’t prove that he’s been misquoted or misrepresented at all. He blames everybody else.

This is interesting – and not uncommon – I’m yet to see the ACL issue a genuine mea culpa when they’re caught out saying something dumb. Like in the furore surrounding a tweet Jim Wallace issued last Anzac Day which he called a “misrepresentation” before saying:

“I apologise – I would never want to politicise Anzac day – never my intention,” Mr Wallace said.

“The interpretation that is being made of this – that I am saying that Australians didn’t fight for everybody – is totally wrong.”

Here’s the tweet…

Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!”

Here’s the statement where the “clarification” was issued.

“The tweet has obviously been seized on by everyone with an intention to discredit, but although ill timed, it did not and was never intended to suggest that veterans had not fought for all Australians,” said Mr Wallace.”

Then there was the time he said gay marriage advocates were comparable to Goebels.

Wallace has form for saying controversial stuff and then rather than backing away from the content, suggesting that he has been treated unfairly. Or using the furore to get more media coverage.

Anyway. Here’s what he says about the current issue…

“This is a victory for the demonisation tactics of gay activism and it’s a constant misrepresentation and spin of anything by people who support marriage as between a man and a woman.”

Which would be great. If he was being misrepresented. He did compare smoking and homosexuality. Here’s what he said. In direct quotes.

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years.”

He still is, even if the heart of his issue is about packaging (whatever that means).

“What I was saying is that on one hand we are vocal on our discouragement of people to smoke and on the other we are suppressing public dialogue about the health risks associated with homosexuality.”

That is a comparison – we do something on one hand, and something different on another. The very definition of comparison.

The first release also pointed to the study Wallace is quoting from – which is actually a “human rights complaint” a GLBTI group made against the Canadian health care system. These are the health issues the submission deals with:

  1. Suicide.
  2. Smoking.
  3. Alcohol consumption.
  4. Illicit drug use.
  5. Depression.
  6. Access to care.
  7. HIV/AIDS.
  8. Cancer.
  9. Violence and bullying.
  10. Blood donations.
  11. Organ donations.
  12. Senior’s Health

Now, there’s no doubt that some of those aspects – particularly the cancer and HIV/AIDS are related to homosexual practice itself, inherently, in the report. And it is possible that certain aspects of the gay lifestyle are related to lowered inhibitions and greater promiscuity – but points 1, 5, and 9, are causally linked to the homosexuals are treated (though not necessarily the only cause).

Anyway. This is all a very long preamble. None of this would be an issue if the ACL didn’t have a strategy of going into, and out of, debates with the expectation that everybody is out to twist their words. Wallace provides enough rope in live interviews to make his accusations regarding “spin” and “misunderstanding” essentially meaningless.

It would be much better by a million times if they just stopped using combative adversarial styled arguments to promote their case. It would be infinitely better if their content was Christian, in any meaningful sense.

I’d love to see Jim Wallace publicly offend people with the gospel. It’s not a mark of faithful gospel ministry if you offend people – it’s a mark of faithful gospel ministry if the gospel offends people. Each gospel makes mention of the world’s negative response to the gospel:

Matthew 10

20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” 

John 15

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’

Luke 21

Which is particularly relevant to the ACL’s case – because it is about how to deal with government…

12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer,15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.

Mark 13

10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

And what does the Spirit do – how do we know if the Spirit is speaking? More from John 15:26-27…
“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”
This is why it’s seriously disappointing when the ACL speaks to our government. It has to start with the gospel. Even if it’s about something else… The gospel is the first port of call. Starting there would remove a lot of stupid grounds for offence – and produce offence that is truly worthwhile… though Paul’s words in Colossians 4 should prevent us trying to be offensive in how we speak.
“And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
That is all.

The song that runs through my head every time the ACL says something dumb

This has been bouncing around in my brain all evening.

Partly because of the title, I’m no longer surprised when they say dumb and harmful stuff. But especially because of this line: “They don’t, they don’t speak for us”

Here’s why they don’t speak for Christians. Christians who want to speak for Christians, and for God, have some parameters for their message that come from the Bible.

2 Corinthians 5:20

20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Colossians 4:2-6

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Romans 10:14

“14 How then will they call on him [Jesus] in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

Romans 15:18-20

18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation

Luke 4:18-19 (about Jesus)

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Oh yeah, and that has something to do with how Christians should think about themselves… (John 20:21)

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.

There’s a lot of stuff there, and a lot that I didn’t copy and paste, about talking about Jesus, and sharing the gospel – which is talking about Jesus. Not a whole lot there about railing against people you don’t like and calling them bullies.

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Close but no cigarette: why the ACL needs to get out of debating about homosexuality right now

UPDATE 2 (update 1 is at the bottom of the post) – I have edited the post for clarity in a couple of places. The original paragraphs are at the bottom of the post.

It’s been a while since I last felt the need to write anything about how disappointed I am in the way the Australian Christian Lobby claims to represent Christians, and Jesus, in the Australian public square. This should be understood as a sign that they were being less offensive than usual – because it’s not as if I didn’t keep checking their media releases… But today’s clanger will take some undoing.

Jim Wallace, in a public debate with Greens leader Christine Milne, in question time, compared the health burden caused by the homosexual lifestyle with the health burden caused by cigarette smoking to essentially suggest that the government should be treating homosexuality like it treats smoking. He didn’t say that specifically. But read this:

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years.”

“The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”

Even if this is true – and the health stats are pretty popular with organisations like the ACL, and he attributes them to the homosexual community’s own research, so one expects they’re based on some sort of research, and at least alluding to the spectre of HIV/AIDS – even if this is absolute fact – it’s incredibly wrong headed and harmful for three reasons.

First. Smoking is a behavioural choice in a way that homosexual orientation is not – it is either environmentally (probably) or biologically (possibly) wired into the psyche. Comparisons between the two simply because they come with a health cost are a bit misleading on that front.

EDIT: This is not to say that those who experience unwanted same sex attraction as an orientation are unable to move towards heterosexuality, nor to say that homosexuality is never a choice. Sexual orientation is best understood on a sliding scale and is, to a degree, malleable – with the amount of change possible an individual issue END EDIT.

Second. The health issues associated with homosexuality are, at least in part (EDIT: neither as big a part as public perception suggests, nor so small as to be statistically meaningless END EDIT), the result of the posture and approach that members of the church, aspects of Christian doctrine, and unnuanced statements by people like Jim Wallace (in this instance), and those claiming to speak for all Christians have assumed with regards to this issue.

These health issues are not necessarily linked to homosexuality. But I would suggest that homosexuality is involved in a causal chain – both internatlly and externally driven – that can lead to situational depression, which can lead to drug use and suicide, I suspect the way the church has at times pushed guaranteed “solutions” to unwanted same sex attraction” in the form of conversion to heterosexuality can probably lead to an unhealthy amount of guilt associated with temptation – not even with homosexual practice. While these are possible for some individuals – at times an end point of a celibate struggle with natural orientation may be the more realistic, and Biblical, goal – see my Eunuchs for the Kingdom essay for more of my thinking, and research, in this area.
Want to make someone feel bad for what they are naturally inclined to do – tell the world that schools should be educating kids not to do it. I’m not interested in arguing that homosexual practice is good for one’s health, or for one’s standing before God – but the mental health issues associated with homosexuality are, so far as public perception and the accounts of members of the gay community, related to the way homosexuality is spoken about and treated, and the church has had a role in this by not carefully and pastorally dealing with the issue and by perpetuating, or not speaking out against bigotry conducted in the name of Jesus.

Third. Where is Jesus in all of this? This is my perennial criticism of the ACL. It’s possible to talk about Jesus when you’re talking about homosexuality. Look. Other people managed it on national television here. I did it here. And here. Before you get to defending marriage. If the ACL is more interested in banging on about the traditional definition of marriage at every turn, especially in the midst of a conversation about the tragedy of shortened life spans through drugs and suicide in the homosexual community, then it needs to CHANGE ITS NAME. Call yourself the Australian Traditional Marriage Lobby. Or the Traditional Relationships And Marriage Party (TRAMP). Get the word “Christian” out of articles like this.

It didn’t get any better outside the heat of debate, when Wallace had a chance to nuance his statements.

“But what I’m saying is we need to be aware that the homosexual lifestyle carries these problems and … normalising the lifestyle by the attribution of marriage, for instance, has to be considered in what it does encouraging people into it.”

He’s perpetuating the idea that people will suddenly want to be gay – that’s such a small percentage of people in studies of the etiology (origins) of homosexuality that it’s practically an outlier. Then. He gets worse…

“I am very sorry for that. My heart goes out to those people. But it is a fact.”

Those people? I can’t help but interpret this as a bit of otherising. They aren’t “those” people, as though a new category. We are people. It seems to me that it’s only possible to capitalise on tragedy like this if you’re prepared to make some sort of distinction between you and them.

Here’s how the ACL promoted the debate on its website:

“Only in cutting through claim and counter claim to truth, can the rights of not just the loudest or the most powerful be guaranteed but the disenfranchised, the most marginalised, those without a voice. In this debate on same sex marriage there is such a voice – it is the voice of the child.”

They could call themselves the Australian Children’s Lobby without even changing their web address.

You don’t re-enfranchise the disenfranchised and marginalised by marginalising others, and once again, you don’t get yardage in the public debate by capitalising on human tragedy. This is a lesson the ACL needs to learn. Suicide is not a pawn in the chess game of Australian marriage legislation. You don’t offer hope with a defence of traditional marriage – you offer hope with Jesus and the opportunity of a long term identity defining relationship with him.

UPDATE – Jim Wallace’s actual speech from the debate is here. It’s marginally better – because it doesn’t you know, suggest that we should apologise to smokers for not taking the health risk of homosexuality seriously… But it’s still bad. The only time he mentions Jesus is to establish the value of children…

And not just that, but a mother and father that as much as the law is able to encourage, will love that child and sacrifice for its best interests as willingly as it biological parents should or would have.

Now unfortunately even with the best intent we have done this imperfectly – to the great detriment of children. Those who Jesus put on His knee and said it would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a stone around your neck than to harm one of these.

But this gay activists’ agenda now means that we do it imperfectly intentionally.”

The implicit take home message – though clearly unintentional – is that Jesus, like the ACL, only cares about children – there’s nothing said about how a relationship with Jesus might help anybody else.

He mentions God once too.

“But thanks to politics, the support of parties scrambling in this unholy game we’ve turned the great idea of democracy into, politicians have decided to play God and deny a child its natural right and succumb to this selfish and increasingly vitriolic voice of gay activism.”

Perhaps the worst part is that he starts, in his opening gambit, with the fall. And its impact on human society.

“Of course though we don’t live in a perfect world – it’s what Christians instead call a fallen world.  It’s this imperfect state that the Church has wrestled with against tyranny and injustice, man’s inhumanity to man in slavery and the civil rights movement, abuse of power even within the Church and today daily on its streets and overseas against poverty and injustice.”

 AND THEN SAYS NOTHING ABOUT JESUS AS THE ANSWER TO THE PROBLEM OF THE FALLEN WORLD.

Let me say that again. He talks about the problem of sin – and offers no solution – except to make sure children live with their parents.

The only answer he provides is completely secular.

“In a secular world we have to ensure that everyone has justice and particularly that everyone’s human rights are protected.”

What’s the point of being a “Christian” Lobby if all you’re doing is claiming to protect human rights?

UPDATE 2 – the original paragraphs that have been edited above so that the comments below make sense…

First. Smoking is a behavioural choice in a way that homosexual orientation is not…

“The health issues associated with homosexuality are, at least in part, the result of the posture and approach people like Jim Wallace have assumed with regards to this issue. Want to make someone feel bad for what they are naturally inclined to do – tell the world that schools should be educating kids not to do it. I’m not interested in arguing that homosexual practice is good for one’s health, or for one’s standing before God – but the mental health issues associated with homosexuality are demonstrably related to the way homosexuality is spoken about and treated, and the church has had a role in this by not carefully and pastorally dealing with the issue and by perpetuating, or not speaking out against bigotry conducted in the name of Jesus.”

“Those people? How’s that for a bit of otherising. They’re not a special category of people. They are people. We are people. It’s only possible to capitalise on tragedy like this if you’re prepared to make some sort of distinction between you and them.”

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Australians and “boat people”


Image Credit: SBS Go Back To Where You Came From Refugee Simulation.

A friend gently chided me for the image I used in that last post – suggesting it represents a bit of a caricature of what it is that causes people (average, conservative voting, Australian citizens) angst when it comes to boat arrivals, border security, and the rest.

I find it pretty hard to put myself in the headspace of someone who doesn’t think we should be looking after people displaced by hardship in their home countries – but I’ve spent the few hours since trying to do it.

It could be, as my friend suggested, something more like the fear that if we don’t get our policies right the floodgates will be opened and we’ll suddenly have all sorts of resource problems – there’s certainly an element of that when it comes to protesting about skilled migration and plans to find off shore workers to fill so called “Australian Jobs”… and doubtless some of the refugees who come here will be employed, and others will be on welfare, and thus, some will consider them a tax burden.

Most of the hyperbole surrounding this debate is pretty bizarrely short sighted. Population growth in Australia, rapid expansion at least, has almost always been as a result of migration. Right from white settlement, through the gold rushes, waves of migration in various industrial booms, and the boom when the White Australia Policy was revoked in the 70s, our culture has been enriched and our population has been boosted, by the arrival of people from other nations (arguably not so much in the convict settlement). We wouldn’t have a great coffee scene in Australia if it wasn’t for migration. Almost 1 in 3 people who currently live in Australia were born overseas, almost half of us had one or both parents born overseas (according to the 2011 Census Data).

Another friend on Facebook mentioned that white Australia’s inability to truly come to terms with Australia’s indigenous history makes dealing with new arrivals pretty hard, he said it in a slightly more profound manner (and I’m still trying to figure out if I agree)…

“Until we reconcile our own history of arriving on boats, and mistreating the original people and failing to assimilate (and creating our own segregated communities) we will never appropriately and lovingly approach refugees in the 21st century.”

Most of my disagreement with that line of thinking is because I’m not sure assimilation is the answer – I don’t think assimilation and segregation are the only options, I wonder if integration or something where unique identities are maintained and differences appreciated is more worthwhile and achievable… but I also wonder if there’s a correlation here rather than causation.

Anyway. I reckon most fears are misplaced – though I appreciate that a huge influx of migrants would put a pretty major strain on our infrastructure and economy and would need to be something we strategically planned for rather than an overnight thing.

I realise that comments made on articles online aren’t a great way to represent the population – they’re opt in, they’re usually made by people who are overly passionate, rather than objective, and often they’re made by PR people or their friends who are trying to boost some sort of cause without disclosure.

But here are some comments from two different articles – from the left and the right, dissenting and agreeing with the content of the articles in question…

First we’ve got Clive Palmer who makes what I think is actually a fairly sensible and worthwhile policy suggestion (I wonder what it would look like if we got some big cruise ships and picked up people wanting to come to Australia and processed them en route. But that’s pretty pie in the sky stuff). Here’s the story as reported by the Herald Sun, and here are some of the choice comments:

“Perhaps Clive Palmer should fly out. His suggestion would open the floodgates for anyone who can raise $1,000. Coming here at one tenth of the cost means the numbers will increase tenfold.”

“SINK THEM. Lets face it most Australians don’t want them here and they are que jumpers so, SINK THEM at sea and they will stop coming.”

“At the risk of incurring the wrath of all the do gooder human rights activists, if they try to come here via the back door, put them on the first plane home. That is the only plane we should be supplying them with I refuse to apologize for wanting a country that has a viable economy to support my children’s future.”

“Allow refugees to come here safely? Or queue-hoppers? THAT is the question. If we do that then anyone can come, whoever wants to and the hell with the normal application process that others have to go through. All we’re teaching them is how to be dishonest and move easily into a better, welfare-laden life. I don’t want hundreds of thousands of these people in my beautiful country, I would rather focus my energy on those whom I know to be genuine, those who struggle to eat, let alone buy expensive passages here that I could only dream about (as a fulltime worker i get no breaks from the govt but i constantly struggle on one income including paying private family health insurance). Does mr Palmer then propose that the money these illegals would save on their boat fares will then be used to support themselves instead of centrelink? No? I didn’t think so…”

“How bout they don’t come here at all, I want my tax dollars used for things that benefit me not these free loaders.”

“That s a Great Idea, lets fly them in First Class. Some champagne to celebrate coming to Australia. Free 5 star accommodation for 5yrs. Free Child care, Free Cigs and Food. Centrelink benefits for life. Australia best place in the world Come one come all. Were the bloody hell are ya.? Come off it…”

Interesting reading.

Now here’s the response to refugee advocate Julian Burnside and his excellent piece responding to Abbott’s “unchristian” comment on ABC Unleashed

“It is strange that people seem to justify not accepting the boat arrivals by the fact that not every refugee is able to get on a boat. Hence “queue jumper”.

It is not legitimate to use one unfairness for which you are not responsible to justify another inhumanity for which you are.”

“Well said Mr Burnside but don’t expect Abbott to respond to your question. He knows that a majority of Australians are so anti-refugees that they don’t want to know about the logic of your argument. He is simply waiting to walk into office as PM, that’s all he cares about. And as for the aforementioned Aussies, well they don’t really care what happens to “queue jumpers” so long as it doesn’t concern them. What happens when he is PM (if ever)and the refugees continue to arrive? Will he again resort to christian rhetoric to justify his failure – like washing his hands of the whole affair?”

“What is unchristian is Abbott’s inhumane policy and his refusal to genuinely engage in some plan to prevent the loss of human life at sea”

“Point 1 – When a nation has a set number of assylum seekers or refugees that it will take in per annum, your chances of being accepted are greatly influenced by your circumstances. If you are in a refugee camp anywhere in the world, you are applying through the UN to be resettled. If you came by boat, you are taking up space in one of our numerous detention centres at great cost to the taxpayer – who do you think will be the first one processed simply because they are occupying space in a detention centre?

Point 2 – the moral question. I think that it is immoral to award limited annual intakes of refugees and assylum seekers to those who can afford it over those who can’t. Argue with that.

Point 3 – Dog whistle? This just lives in the minds of activists. We are talking about undocumented illegal arrivals who have paid for transport to Australia. Don’t care what their colour or race is. Its the method of arrival and the associated documentation you require for different types of arrival thats in question here.

Point 4 – You forgot to add that that hypothetical person also has a wad of cash to pay the smugglers. Which others do not. I thought progressives thought that financial position should not lead to advantages. Apparently not in this case however.”

This is a wide spectrum of views being presented in two different forums, featuring two fairly different demographics. It’s interesting that so many of the reasons against accepting boat people, or any refugees, are selfish and oddly nationalistic – especially given the stats about the current make up of Australia’s population. There’s a trend in comments dismissing refugees to see living in Australia and being Australian as something exclusive and worthy of protection – as though the place you’re born is somehow meritorious, deserved, or gives particular human rights. Caring for refugees should be part of being a global citizen – but sadly we live in a globe full of sinful and selfish people – which is why being a Christian citizen, living as a foreigner and caring for outsiders is something radical.

But tying these two posts together – what is there that Australian Christians, or concerned Australians, can do to be better global citizens. I have a few ideas.

  1. Get informed. It would be hypocritical for me to say that “raising awareness” is an activity – but combating ignorance probably counts for something. Direct people to Go Back To Where You Came From, or some facts about asylum seeking and Australia. I haven’t gone much past this point to date, most of this is a knee jerk response to this week’s idiocy.
  2. Get welcoming. This is cool. Welcome To Australia wants to connect Australians with refugees. One of my Facebook friends had a BBQ with some Iranians recently, and inspired me to think about how I can do stuff like that. A guy in Toowoomba drives a busload of Sudanese guys to Bible study and church every week. There’s a football team made up of migrants/refugees in the church league I play in. There are lots of ways I can think of – but if you’ve got other ideas tell me (and I’d be interested in knowing more about how the BBQ came about – that’s for you Matt). Given the stuff I said yesterday about Christians having special motivation to welcome the outsider (because we were all once outsiders) – our welcome of refugees should reflect and present our view of reality. Churches can play a huge role in welcoming refugees – we’ve got all sorts of collective resources and a pre-existing community that should be good at welcoming already.
  3. Get active. My friend Joel is riding for refugees with a team from his church – you can donate to their team – or get involved in other ways. The Refugee Council of Australia has a list of other ways you can volunteer.
  4. Write to a politician. Don’t send a form letter. They suck. Say something you mean. Tell them what you really think. I need to change my enrolment and figure out what electorate I actually live in. In the mean time I’ve sent a link to my last post to the Australian Christian Lobby, hoping they’ll one day change their tone a little.

If you’ve got other ideas I’d love to hear them…

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Boat people and Christianity


Credit: Boat People Infographic from Crikey providing numerical perspective on the current situation (I’m not suggesting that people’s anxiety on the issue is fully captured by this picture.)

Wow. Tony Abbott. Here’s a pearler of a quote from a radio interview yesterday, where admittedly, Abbott was responding to a gibe about his asylum seeker policies being “unChristian”…

“Look I don’t think it is a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door.”

Now. Before we get into the myriad problems with this statement coming from a politician in a heated policy debate, I want to be a little sympathetic to what he’s trying to say… it’s a tragedy that genuine asylum seekers waiting in camps around the world obeying due process are missing out because some people engage in dangerous and expensive people smuggling. In an ideal world there’d be no need for people to seek refuge, but in our fallen world where bad stuff happens this sort of displacement is nothing new – it’s been happening since at least Exodus.

Whoops. I started on the theological problems already.

Every aspect of Abbott’s statement is problematic. He would have been better off copping the gibe on the chin or talking about the people trying to obey due process without even mentioning the people jumping on boats.

UPDATE: Here’s the fuller context of Abbott’s quote, lest you feel I’m misrepresenting the interview…

“And I’m all in favour of Australia having a healthy and compassionate refugee and humanitarian intake program.

“I think that’s a good thing. But I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way.

“If you pay a people-smuggler, if you jump the queue, if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat, that’s doing the wrong thing, not the right thing, and we shouldn’t encourage it.”

This makes a complex ethical question into an absolute question of morality – I’m not sure you can argue that genuine asylum seekers have done the wrong thing by seeking asylum, and 97% of people who seek asylum in Australia, after arriving by boat, are found to be genuine refugees… (END UPDATE).

But ignoring the elephant in the room, that most boat people are coming from countries that aren’t exactly known for fostering significant Christian populations (though some refugees are Christians fleeing persecution) – and thus the idea that the boat people should be Christian is perhaps patently ridiculous… let’s consider for a moment that God’s people, since the very beginning, and Jesus himself, have essentially been refugees. Here are some more useful facts about boat people (PDF from the Australian Government).

Abraham left his father’s land and sought asylum in various foreign kingdoms as he headed off to the promised land.

Joseph was a refugee to Egypt.

Moses led Israel out of Egypt as asylum seeing refugees. Israel was called to care for asylum seekers/the aliens in their midst, as God does, as a result of Israel’s experience as refugees. So Deuteronomy 10:

“18 He [God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Their failure to care for the foreigner is listed as part of the reason they’re booted out and forced into exile again in Ezekiel 22…

“‘See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow.”

Now, I know Australia isn’t the promised land, and isn’t meaningfully able to be spoken of as a Christian nation, but if the leader of the opposition brings Christianity into the debate, then it should at least be represented fairly… It’s not unChristian to seek asylum – it is the most Christian thing in the world as we’ve had to seek refuge for ourselves in Jesus. It’s arguable, though I don’t think we should really make anything of this, that Jesus’ family sought asylum when Herod was out to get them in Matthew 2.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

And I think a fair case can be made that Jesus replaces the cities of refuge that OT people were to flee to (Joshua 20), and that turning to Jesus, as all Christians have, is the ultimate expression of seeking asylum. It’s certainly the ultimate expression of seeking citizenship somewhere better where we’re not truly entitled to on our own merit (especially for Gentiles). So this big quote from Ephesians 2…

12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

Now the comparison isn’t exact, and the issues here are referring to something different because Australia isn’t the kingdom of God – but there are two principles here that make it hard to justify the claim that urgently seeking asylum without regard to due process is unchristian. Firstly, Christians are asylum seekers, and secondly, the idea, for Christians, that our earthly citizenship of an earthly nation is something to be protected at the expense of being united with other people in Christ doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Christians in the early church framed their understanding of citizenship, a particularly significant concept when it came to the Roman Empire, around being aliens in the empire – sojourners, who loved other outsiders accordingly – loving foreigners wasn’t exclusive to Israel when they occupied the physical kingdom of Israel with some power. We seem to have lost that vibe a little bit as Christianity became a dominant socio-political force – but now we’re starting to be part of a post-Christian society we need to start being informed by this as a category again, and caring for our fellow aliens.

If we’re taking a “Christian” approach to the chance to show love to the poor and oppressed people who don’t know Jesus then we’re going to want to welcome and love them. That’d be my thinking anyway…

The onus isn’t really on the asylum seekers to act as Christians when they’re approaching a country – unless they’re claiming to be Christians, in which case the decision to jump the queue is something they’ll have to wrestle with personally – the onus is on the country receiving them, if they claim in any sense to be Christian (which Abbott does), to be receiving the refugees in a Christian way. This is where Abbott went really wrong. The question was legitimate. Because caring for refugees, or any oppressed people, or any people, is a definite outworking of following Jesus.

Interestingly, Jesus echoes the Deuteronomic principle that people who are trying to be like God should be caring for the oppressed, he framed his understanding of his mission this way (quoting Isaiah):

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
So. You might be thinking. It’s all well and good for Jesus to say this and apply it to his own ministry, if he is this refuge for the oppressed – but it doesn’t follow that it is “Christian” to love refugees.

You would be wrong.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in Luke 11 on the basis that they care for their religiosity but not for the poor.

39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

Then, when he’s talking about how people who want to follow him should approach social conventions and the hosting of status building banquets, he makes it clear that his concern is on provision for the poor (Luke 14)…

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Then, when he’s talking about how his followers, Christians, will be distinguished from people not following him (unchristians?), he makes it clear that this is one of the markers of a Christian, someone whose thinking has been truly transformed by the Spirit as they follow Jesus.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

James follows suit.

27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

It’s pretty hard to maintain anything that looks like the policies of either of Australia’s major parties on “boat people” if you’re trying to take a Christian approach – the justification for taking a Christian approach is obviously quesitonable for the same reason that introducing any policy into a secular democracy for solely theological reasons is questionable. But we have every right to speak in the democratic process, and you’d hope such contributions would be framed by our theological reality, more than by political expediency, you’d hope we’d be the most compassionate voice out there, and call for something more than what our major parties are happy to settle for… and yet, when given the opportunity to make a statement following Abbott’s theological faux pas, here’s what Lyle Shelton from the ACL says:

“It is unfortunate that the term ‘Christian’ has been co-opted in the debate… I don’t want to say what is Christian and what is not, but it is important that our policies give people languishing in camps a fair go. We have to stop the people smugglers’ business model. We have to stop people perishing at sea.”

Could this organisation stoop any lower in its bid to represent as broad a church as possible? How bout defining Christian as “somebody who follows Jesus and holds to something representing the historic confessions of the church”? It’s not that hard. And this sort of waftiness is precisely why the ACL can’t claim to speak for anybody in particular. It’s also an issue that needs the  voice of Christians to offer some compassionate clarity.

It’s unfortunate Christianity has been misrepresented in the debate, but it’s more unfortunate we had to be co-opted, and haven’t been on the front line from the beginning (which notable exceptions have been – like Melbourne’s Crossway Church, which offered to care for unaccompanied minors who were at risk of being deported).

People who follow Jesus are refugees. People who follow Jesus are to love the oppressed, including refugees. This has to be the basis of a “Christian” response to the tragedy that leads people to flee their countries, and the tragedy that many of those people are turning to criminals and jumping on dangerous boats.

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Imagine “No Religion”: the 2011 census data and Christianity in Australia

While the Wall Street Journal has used the census data to declare “Australia is turning its back on religion” – I’m not so sure.

Religious affiliation top responses Australia % 2006 %
Catholic 5,439,268 25.3 5,126,885 25.8
No Religion 4,796,787 22.3 3,706,553 18.7
Anglican 3,679,907 17.1 3,718,248 18.7
Uniting Church 1,065,795 5 1,135,427 5.7
Presbyterian and Reformed 599,515 2.8 596,667 3

The most common responses for religion in Australia were Catholic 25.3%, No Religion 22.3%, Anglican 17.1%, Uniting Church 5.0% and Presbyterian and Reformed 2.8%.

23% of people identifying as Christian were born overseas.

From the ABS

In the past decade, the proportion of the population reporting an affiliation to a Christian religion decreased from 68% in 2001 to 61% in 2011. This trend was also seen for the two most commonly reported denominations. In 2001, 27% of the population reported an affiliation to Catholicism. This decreased to 25% of the population in 2011. There was a slightly larger decrease for Anglicans from 21% of the population in 2001 to 17% in 2011. Some of the smaller Christian denominations increased over this period – there was an increase for those identifying with Pentecostal from 1.0% of the population in 2001 to 1.1% in 2011. However, the actual number of people reporting this religion increased by one-fifth.

This is interesting too..

“The number of people reporting ‘No Religion’ also increased strongly, from 15% of the population in 2001 to 22% in 2011. This is most evident amongst younger people, with 28% of people aged 15-34 reporting they had no religious affiliation.”

The Wall Street Journal did include this perceptive little analysis of why religion in Australia might be on the decline:

“Proponents of religion frequently promote it as a route to happiness. But in Australia, whose prosperity has soared in recent years thanks to a mining boom fueled by developing Asia, some believe it might be the country’s rising level of contentedness that’s actually driving the decline of religion.

“We’re a nation that is very comfortably off and one that managed to ride out the global financial crisis,” said Carole Cusack, associate professor of religion at Sydney University. “Why would you need God here?”

That sentiment finds support from an Organization for Economic Cooperation report last month, which marked Australia as the happiest industrialized nation based on criteria including jobs, income and health. Unless something radical happens that interrupts that path to prosperity, said Ms. Cusack, the trend toward secularism here is likely to continue.

The problem is – using the census data as an indicator of religiosity is a terribly flawed method and it paints a pretty distorted picture of the Australian landscape. The religious affiliation question is optional and big changes in the number of Australians indicating “no religion” occurred with a change to the wording of the question to include the words “if no religion mark none” in 1971. Interestingly – the migration boom since 1971 also radically altered and diluted the religious pool in Australia, a conclusion which the data since, including the 2011 data, supports. Church attendance and indications of religious commitment rather than “affiliation” are surely better measures than ticking a box – especially when both the Australian Christian Lobby actively lobbied to skew the data, while the Atheist Foundation of Australia lobbied for more honest reporting.

Here’s what the ACL said in their Census media release:

“Not every person who holds judeo-Christian values attends a church, but if enough of them leave this section blank, some will use this to minimize the importance of basic Christian values in this country.  We need to prove the size of the constituency who hold these values.”

I’d say it’s a simple indicator that the constituency doesn’t actually share our values – and perhaps never has.

I have my doubts about whether Australia can ever have been considered a “Christian nation” even if the majority of Australians still culturally identify as Christian – you can read about the history of the census question, and Australian Christianity, in much longer form in an essay I wrote for Australian Church History if you like – but here’s the conclusion:

The Census data on religious affiliation, which focuses on individual identity rather than community belonging, provides an insight into the failure of the Australian church to articulate what Christian identity entails, and paints a confusing picture about the role of religion in Australia in both the past and the present. While some wish to claim Australia has a “rich Christian heritage,”the reality  is that an equally viable claim could be made for Australia’s secular history, and advocating either view at the expense of the other is historically reductionist.

My essay tracked the decline in church attendance in Australia, cultural changes, and changes to the census question, as well as looking at some of the factors behind church attendance in the Colonial days. I think the conclusion that Australia might have culturally identified as “Christian” in the past, but has never truly practiced being Christian – except for a brief period of revival in the mid 20th century – best represents the data, and it’s misleading for Christians to argue for superiority on the basis of data where the question is measuring cultural affiliation rather than actual belief and practice.

What is really cool about the census data this time around is the ability to generate postcode specific reports with QuickData – here’s the religious affiliation of those living in my postcode – which incidentally is in the catchment area for Creek Road – the church we’re plugged in to. There’s heaps of useful data for building a profile of the people in your patch – and it’s so readily accessible. It’s wonderful.

Religious affiliation, top responses 4152, Qld % Queensland % Australia %
Catholic 13,352 31.4 0 5,439,268 25.3
No Religion 7,936 18.7 0 4,796,787 22.3
Anglican 6,588 15.5 0 3,679,907 17.1
Uniting Church 2,419 5.7 0 1,065,795 5
Presbyterian and Reformed 1,610 3.8 0 599,515 2.8