Tag Archives: ACL

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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
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Gay Marriage, Christians, and Sunrise: A better way

This morning Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, Jim Wallace, and Bishop Julian Porteous were interviewed about Gay Marriage on Sunrise. It wasn’t a train wreck. For which we can all be thankful. Sunrise should stick to this balanced format rather than stoking the fires of controversy with stupid debates featuring people who are clearly intellectually outmatched. Having an informed presenter who is (though slightly misguided when it came to polygamy and the Bible) asking the right sort of questions is also helpful. And by the right sort of questions I mean questions that get to the heart of Christian objections, rather than questions intended to be confrontational and stupid.

The Catholic guy hits the nail on the head in the way Jim Wallace doesn’t. Peter Jensen completely agrees. They talk about Jesus. They talk about the Bible. They talk about marriage being a worthwhile institution. They do it in a much more coherent way than the host, and in a much more winsome way than Jim Wallace did earlier in the week, and than he does today.

They argue that this issue is simply an issue of definition, and redefining marriage.

I like Peter Jensen’s “God has a great deal of interest in what goes on in the community” response to the idea that marriage is a “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s argument.” And his distinction between respecting the law and being forced to take part in conducting gay marriages.

And they do a good job of suggesting that their arguments are natural law arguments. It would’ve been nice to see something about how following Jesus means transforming your views on sex and sexuality as part of the argument about protecting Christianity from having to teach positive things about homosexuality. But you can’t win them all. And this is simply a much better Christian showing than the disaster from this week.

I love that Andrew O’Keefe called out the number of form letters (rather than thought out letters), and vitriolic letters, they’re getting from ACL supporters. And Jim’s funny “no true Christian” response:

“We have people coming onto our website and posing as Christians and proving themselves not, usually by the language.”

Just like we have people going on TV and making stupid and ignorant comparisons to the Nazi regime.

I don’t understand the ACL’s objection to Sunrise openly being part of the campaign – surely they’re better off being open about their bias than pretending to be objective and favouring the cause.

I do like the tone in this interview – it’s much more productive than the debate format where people are yelling at each other and trying to score cheap points. But good on the two churchmen for showing how some winsome, Christ-centred, public engagement works.

While I’m on the subject – it would be remiss, and somewhat non even-handed of me not to gently rebuke this offering on the Sydney Anglican’s website this week. Andrew Cameron does a much better job of essentially presenting the “children” argument Jim Wallace used earlier this week in a winsome, engaging, and empathetic way. And its context is different to the Sunrise interview in that it’s on a denominational website, and for Christians, rather than a nationally televised program. But a good article would have been a better article for sharing with non-Christians if it started with the same argument used by Archbishop Jensen and Bishop Porteous. Christian objections to same sex marriage are ultimately based on Jesus’ affirmation of marriage and the created order, and subsequently Paul’s use of the same argument in Romans 1-2. If Jesus had overturned the created order in his ministry then the “love wins” debate would have merit, but he didn’t. He affirmed it. It’d be nice if more of our arguments started with the centrality of Jesus to Christian belief on social issues – it’d also do away with people who want to raise the eating of shellfish and tattoos as other issues that Leviticus forbids, as though we’re being selective.

I like these paragraphs from Andrew’s piece:

“What we’ve seen is a shift in our society’s ‘common objects of love’ – those matters a society gathers itself to defend, and which help to make it a society. What matters about marriage has shifted over the decades. Our society now loves the idea of love; it loves freedom of expression; it loves eradicating differences. It doesn’t love permanence; it’s ambivalent about children; it’s less convinced that biological parenthood is significant to children; it abhors any notion that each gender might offer something particular and different to the other, and to children. These changes-of-loves are what make it seem that marriage can be renegotiated.

In the middle of these changing loves, Christians can ask helpful questions (there’s not much point being polemical when so little thought has been given to the nature of marriage). We can ask our neighbours: ‘Are you sure that you are not missing something? Do you really want to abandon those older loves? Will that actually help us as a community?’.”

I probably should make it clearer, lest people have questions, that I completely agree with both Peter Jensen and Andrew Cameron – that marriage between a man and a woman is good for society, and better for children, because it matches God’s intention. What I think we need to figure out is how we continue to present that in a way that affirms that Jesus is better for people than marriage (which might mean not getting married in certain cases), and protects our ability to keep saying that once the legislative horse bolts. I think basing the argument on Jesus, the created order, and questioning why it is that we think sexuality is the defining characteristic of human identity is a better way than encouraging our supporters to spam media outlets and politicians, and then comparing them to the Nazis when they disagree with us.

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Here’s the ACL’s problem with the gay marriage debate… and mine

The ACL’s Jim Wallace was on Sunrise this morning.

Here’s what he says.

He breaks Godwin’s law about 1:51 in. Woohoo.

“The issue is that marriage is about children”

It’s so shrill and angry.

Here’s what Queensland Director Wendy Francis said afterwards.

Which is, quite frankly, illogical given that her national director just spent 8 minutes on national television where the rights of children were his only argument. And it has been their consistently reported position on the issue since day dot.

That’s their problem with the gay marriage debate. Here’s mine.

It’s not about Jesus.

This is especially the problem because in just about everybody’s eyes – as demonstrated in the video above – the gay marriage debate is conservative Christians vs everybody else (though Kochie acknowledges that Muslims and Jews don’t like gay marriage either). And the representatives of conservative Christianity in Australia, the ACL, don’t want to talk about Jesus. On national television. They want to talk about motherhood and fatherhood. Two good things. But secondary.

The gay marriage debate is primarily about identity. Nobody is questioning why sexuality should be the locus of human identity. If the premise is true – and it’s not – then the case for gay marriage being a human right is a lay down misere.

Talking about our human identity coming several steps in the process before sexual attraction (or orientation) and sexual identity (gay/lesbian/straight/bi/a) means we can coherently talk about our real identity being found in being created in God’s image, for a purpose, and being able to find a true expression of humanity in Jesus.

Knowing Jesus is the basis of a person discovering, and living out, the purpose they were created for. People are free to reject that, and should be free to choose their own identity outside of social pressure, and even the biological/environmental factors that shape sexual orientation. This argument is harder to win, but it’s ultimately more convincing and more faithful than throwing one’s hands in the air and screaming “won’t somebody think of the children”…

I’d like my children to grow up in a world where their identity isn’t chosen for them based on who they’re attracted to – which isn’t a choice they’ll necessarily get to make anyway – I want them to be free to choose to identify and find their value in serving the Lord Jesus. This is my problem with the ACL, and the gay marriage debate.

From a policy point of view, I think I’ve said this before, but Michael Bird said it heaps better, why don’t we lobby for the state to get out of defining marriage altogether. Let people call their registered relationships whatever they want.

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What’s wrong with the Australian Christian Lobby: Can “lobbying” even be Christian anyway?

A little while back somebody on Facebook suggested that I seemed to not like the Australian Christian Lobby but not say why. I thought that was odd, because I thought it was self evident. I don’t like the Australian Christian Lobby because by not talking about Jesus and talking about issues, they are presenting a message that is not the good news of grace, but the bad news of law and morality.

But that challenge got me thinking, as did a question raised on my last Christian/politics rant, asking whether I’m suggesting there’s no place for Christian lobbying. Other people have previously also suggested it seems by being opposed to the ACL, careful when it comes to trying to “protect marriage” by legislation, and wary of government funding for school chaplaincy, that I’m advocating some sort of political quietism. My answer to this suggestion has always been that I’m not pushing for quietism, but that I think we need to be careful with how we raise issues. I think our priority, in any public “Christian” statements, should be to be Christian. To be clear about the gospel, and not making the gospel unclear by adding layers of morality. As it stands, most Christian contributions to public debate are incoherent because of several fatal methodological and philosophical/theological flaws.

First, the ACL seems to me to be a modernist organisation speaking to a post-modern world. They’ve got no sense of needing to use narrative or stories, rather than proclamation of absolutes, in order to change people’s thinking. This is why it appears that the gay marriage issue is splitting a generation in the US, and in Australia. This is also where I think the ACL ultimately fails on the communication front – their proclamations of right and wrong are too abstracted from real life, they never show the human face of what they’re talking about, but rather engage in high fallutin logical arguments about where society will head if changes are made. People want to know how an issue will change life for them. The pro gay marriage lobby has made the issue all about real couples who are wanting their real love recognised by the government. We haven’t been able to combat that because our arguments are just “this is wrong therefore don’t do it,” or perhaps worse “(the) God (you don’t believe in) says this is wrong.” This is why I’ve argued elsewhere that not only is it important to show how a moral stance relates to the gospel, because that keeps the gospel clear, it’s also important to show how the moral stance comes from a cohesive and legitimate worldview. Otherwise we’re just playing politics like it’s a numbers game, and the numbers are going to change (I’ll get to this below).

Second, the ACL comes from a pseudo ecumenical standpoint, aiming to speak for all Christians. Which is problematic because while Christians might broadly agree about moral issues, they’ll have some pretty fundamental disagreements about the root cause, and how to fix it. So, for example, reformed Christians believe that all people are totally sinful, that sin is natural, and that choosing to follow God requires divine intervention, while Catholics have a much higher anthropology where people are essentially a blank slate, and can naturally choose to follow God. There’s no way we’re going to articulate the gospel the same way when we’re talking about issues – as we saw from George Pell’s appearance on Q&A. If the ACL’s stakeholders can’t actually agree on what the gospel, or the Christian message on moral issues is, then the so-called “Christian” case is never going to be clearly presented.

While most theists, even Muslims, will agree on issues of the sanctity of life, and sexual morality, once you chuck Christian in your name you’d want to start speaking from the points of common ground for all creedal churches, which means sticking to Jesus. The fact that Catholics and protestants, and even types of protestants (so your Liberals, your Arminians who have a slightly more Catholic understanding of human nature, your fundamentalists who want to enshrine Old Testament Laws) disagree so completely on what it means to be a human, and what it means to have a relationship to God, or to live as one of his people (ie a Christian), means anything beyond this common ground is going to become incredibly difficult to articulate in a convincing, cohesive and winsome manner. If the Australian Christian Lobby isn’t speaking about Jesus then they can’t really claim to be speaking for Australian Christians, after that point we’re a very broad church, so broad that even speaking about Jesus doesn’t necessarily represent those who claim the moniker. This the fundamental reason I don’t think an ecumenical approach to social action works – but I can see that in order to mount a convincing political argument in this poll driven iteration of politics, that suggesting you’ve got a big bunch of voters who vote in a block standing behind your statements is politically expedient and a good strategy for lobbying. Which again leads me to my next point…

Thirdly. I don’t think Christians should be lobbying. The role of special interest groups in distorting the political landscape, where better organised and funded activists produce non democratic results, is a blight on the modern system, no matter how well intentioned the lobbyists are. Decisions should be made on what is the right thing to do, on the strength of an argument, whether there is one voice behind it, or a thousand. By participating in lobbying we’re not speaking against a broken system, but using it for our own gains. We’re perpetuating the broken, market driven, approach to democracy, a system the social tide is slowly turning against. And it’s seriously going to come back to bite us – either if “lobbying” becomes vastly unpopular quickly, or if a well organised anti-Christian lobby led by people of my generation as they come into positions of power run a cleansing campaign to finally remove Christianity from public life in Australia.

The idea that Christians should somehow be using political clout, obtained through numbers, to enshrine our worldview, might seem appealing in the short term, but, given the two objections outlined above – namely that there’s a whole generation of people who are watching how the church does politics, and being turned off church, and a whole generation of people listening to what the Christian voice is saying, and not hearing the gospel, we should probably be rethinking how we do political engagement anyway.

I’d argue that employing the language of “lobbying” presents a really harmful message for the non-Christian. We don’t like the tobacco lobby. We don’t like the gun lobby. We don’t like the gay lobby. We don’t like the climate lobby. We don’t like people putting special interests ahead of the common good – which is exactly what “lobbying” implies, it speaks to a strategic organising of people to push their own agenda. It speaks of an unhelpful approach to power and the state which I don’t think is really consistent with the counter-cultural message of the gospel. Particularly for those in my camp, the reformed evangelical types, who think that human nature has been broken by sin, where sin is the natural state of affairs for all people, and the Holy Spirit is required for real change of behaviour, we’re never going to be starting from the same presuppositions as other people in society, and we’ve got to work harder at defending that worldview before legislating from it.

Lobbying isn’t adopting the old Christian maxim of speaking truth to power. It’s trying to speak power to power. It’s playing a numbers game, enforcing the idea that might makes right, that somehow a majority view is what should determine how legislation gets passed. How does this work when the numbers aren’t in our favour? Though the dictionary definitions are almost identical, I wonder why the ACL didn’t choose advocacy as a definition of its work, advocacy at the very least is free of some of the special interest baggage. Especially if our advocacy is framed as protecting the innocent (which we tried with gay marriage after the horse had bolted by arguing about children needing a mother and father – this was a good argument far too late, and on the wrong legislation). Advocacy would free us up to work a bit better with people we disagree with broadly but agree with on specific issues, because it’d be more issue driven than based on arguing for some mythical cross-denominational Christian unity. Scott Stephens, the editor of the ABC’s Religion and Christian Ethics page, gave a really insightful critique of this distinction, as it relates to the gay marriage debate, in a conversation with Steve Austin on mornings last week. I don’t think the answer he puts forward to how Christians should participate in public life is on the money, it’s a little too wishy-washy, and doesn’t start with Jesus, but his diagnosis of the problems in this debate are spot on.

So there, in three nutshells, is why I “don’t like the Australian Christian Lobby” and why, when well meaning members of the ACL (and they are all well meaning, and generally lovely people, who are generally interested in serving God and his kingdom) tell me that I should join the ACL and help them do better, I answer that I’d rather stand apart from them and do my bit to speak truth to the power they’re trying to wield. Basically their policies aren’t good for Australia in the long run, because they’re going to damage the church and the understanding of the gospel for the average Australian, and they’re employing a political methodology that I think is fundamentally antithetical to Christian witness. So [pq]I pretty much think the ACL should change every word in their name to something else.[/pq]

If we are going to do social engagement well, and, as history demonstrates, I think Christians have an incredible role to play in the public sphere, then perhaps we should learn from our successful forbears, who relied on the strength of their argument, building support for change from the ground up, not relying on some powerful numbers play (Wilberforce), and relied on demonstrating a better way rather than simply telling people they were wrong (so the early Christians who cared for abandoned children, and the sick, in a way that made the empire feel guilty), who participated in the process of policy making from within the system rather than holding out the carrot and stick of a voting block (Wilberforce again). Or perhaps we should sacrificially seek out the minority groups who already feel vulnerable, showing that we love them, in a way that opens us up to persecution from the government rather than expects the government to bow to our whims (like, say, Jesus), rather than shouting from our lofty perches in a way that further alienates them from Jesus, who came to make broken people whole, by grace, and only through the Spirit, not by law and holding out the false hope that a moral life, other than the perfectly moral life of Jesus, counts for anything.

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A compendium of St. Eutychus posts on Christians engaging in the Public Sphere

When I choose to tackle some Christians who I think are doing it wrong when it comes to speaking out as Christians in the public sphere people often ask me good questions. They usually start with “did you think about X?” My answer is usually “I was responding to a particular issue, but I have posted about X before.” Other people say nice things about how it would be useful to have all my posts on this issue collected somewhere (thanks mum).

So here’s my attempt to do that. A mega list, though probably not an exhaustive list, of my posts about PR, social issues, and political lobbying.

When things go wrong:

Doing it right

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Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby gets it right in the Media (he talks about Jesus)

Ok, ok. I’ve bagged out the ACL in the last few months for being morally conservative rather than “Christian” in their dealings with the media, starting with the premise that a Christian presence in the media should involve mentioning how Jesus helps us to arrive at a particular position with response to social issues.

I’ve singled Jim Wallace out for criticism, perhaps fairly, perhaps not. But the ACL, and Jim Wallace, got it right on Sunrise this week. This is, in my mind, the best and most cohesive presentation the ACL has put forward on the gay marriage question. He starts with the premise that Jesus defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and that Jesus shapes the lives of believers, and moves to natural law arguments… if this is a sign of a new approach to the issue from the ACL then I’m a big fan.

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Peter Costello on how Christians should approach the media

I miss Peter Costello, and it seems being out of politics has freed him up a little bit in terms of speaking about his faith and dishing out advice to church leaders. This talk he gave to Anglican Ministers in Melbourne last week looks like a cracker.

He’s still funny.

“If I had been to church 40 weeks a year, I have probably listened to 1000 sermons and tonight could be payback time.”

Here’s the substance from a story with the Melbourne Anglican

“You only get a good media coverage if you agree with the media’s views.”

“The media has its own view of the world… and if you fall in with that, you will get a good press but if you want to promote the Christian Gospel, you will not.”

“The first thing I would say to the Church is, don’t measure your relevance by the amount of media coverage you get.”

“I actually think that media and celebrity is one of the great false idols of the modern age.”

“If the Church is going to speak on the issues of the day, it should be a distinctive contribution,” he said.
“The historic message of the Church, the Gospel, is a timeless message. It’s for every age. It does not have its relevance defined by what preoccupies us for the moment.”

“My message to you is that you have a wonderful calling and a timeless message and we look to you to keep us in faith.

“Don’t ever overlook the fact that no matter how high you are in Australia, you still need nourishment for your soul.”

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Want to see somebody talk about the gospel in the media? Check this out

So. I’ve banged on about how Christians have a responsibility to use a mass media platform, if provided, to talk about Jesus in a winsome and engaging way. I’ve said that there are certain representatives in the political field who don’t do this well, and certain people who do.

And now, I have an example. This is how you go into an essentially hostile environment. Kochie lobs this set-up shot in front of the artist of a controversial piece of art work depicting Jesus as indigenous (which he was, to Palestine), transvestite (which he wasn’t), and as a drag queen. It’s clearly a piece of art designed to shock. He gives the artist free range to slag off Christianity’s record when it comes to these groups. And then he turns to Guy Mason, who’s an Anglican minister from Melbourne. And Guy smashes it out of the park. He talks about how Jesus died for sinners (a bit of substitutionary atonement). And invites people to use this as an opportunity to consider the way Jesus loved sinners and died for all of us. He leaves the shrill artist speechless, and debunks any sense of hostility.

I especially love the little dig about it being a “cliched” piece of art.

But you can also be “on message” for the gospel by not being deliberately on message. Kate Bracks. MasterChef. Is a Christian, this wasn’t a big deal in the series – except when she refused to call the Dalai Lama holy. She’s a Christian. And on Sunday night she won a competition that was watched by bucket loads of people. Perhaps because she didn’t want God being a product placement alongside Handy Ultra Paper Towel, or perhaps because she’s just classy, she didn’t choose to thank God when she won. Publicly, anyway. She thanked her husband and she acted with grace, poise and charm. And then. Today. She got to talk about why she didn’t thank God.

Kate says she thought about it, but then:

“But then I thought, everyone then goes ‘Oh great, it just sounds like the Logies’. It sounds corny and that is not the type of Christian I am,”

But what sort of Christian is she? This seems like a good opportunity to make a statement about her faith, right… well, she does (with a bit of humour when she was asked if she prayed for the win):

“I’m always talking to God but I don’t actually pray that he’ll help me win because I don’t really think he cares too much about that to be honest,” she said.

“I would say that I believe what the Bible says and I try to live that way so that it’s about trying to have a relationship with God and not about the things you do or don’t do.”

That’s how you do it. Classy. Winsome. Gospel centred. I know some churches that are lining up to get Kate along. Lets hope she doesn’t get worn out too quickly by this attention.

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An open letter to the Australian Christian Lobby: Please don’t use tragedy for political gain

Dear Jim Wallace,

I know. I’ve said some stuff in the past. Less than flattering stuff. About your place in the Australian political scene, and your place in the Australian Christian scene. I don’t doubt that your motives are wonderful, we’d both like to see more people know Jesus, and less sin means a better society for all of us. And we agree that Christianity should be fairly represented and protected in our society. Just like all minorities, it’s important that we Christians have a voice speaking to our nation’s decision makers… I would like you to talk more about Jesus. I’ve covered that. And I would like you to do more than just represent the conservative Australian voice. But I’m not opposed to your very existence. I don’t want you to disappear.

Jim, I notice that the media releases on your website currently deal with really important issues. Like gay marriage and video game classification. These are obviously issues that are important to the people who fund you. There isn’t a lot of funding in speaking out for refugees, or the homeless, or against more complex “sins” like greed. The climate change deniers who are already firmly in the ACL camp are watching their dollars because they are busy funding scare campaigns. I appreciate that you have to pick and choose. That’s the nature of lobbying. You’ve only got one voice, and you’ve got limited opportunities to speak to the politicians on your rounds. And you have a hard enough time getting media coverage (unless you’re saying dumb stuff about gays and Anzac Day, or making bizarrely offensive claims about child abuse).

I apologise for the sarcastic tone of this missive. I really do. But you’ve pushed me a bridge too far. Jim. You’ve made me grumpy. I know you’re a busy man. You may not even be aware of what people have posted on your website in your name. That was the story when a former Family First Candidate (now ACL staffer) tweeted a regrettable message during an election campaign. It’s possible you’re unaware of what you’ve putatively said. But let me draw your attention to this, because it’s bad. And if it’s a mistake you’ll want to sack somebody, or something. Because whoever posted this is doing a bad job for your cause.

I may need to give you a little bit of background. On Saturday, tragically, a gunman identifying himself as a “cultural Christian,” a right wing fundamentalist, caused havoc in Norway. Now some people might want to make comparisons between his ideology and yours, Jim. But not me. What he did was horrific and not consistent with the ideology of any normal person. He’s a sociopath. That’s clear. So linking his conduct to the actions of normal people isn’t really logical. But people will. They’ll start to draw links. Make connections. He killed a lot of people, Jim, singlehandedly. Callously. And since then there’s been a bit of a PR problem for Christianity because it turned out this terrorist claimed to be one of us. I think we’d agree that what he did couldn’t have been motivated by his Christianity. The guy is crazy. It would be wrong to make such a connection between something harmless and his actions. Be it his Christian beliefs, or the fact that he played Modern Warfare, a war game enjoyed by millions around the world. Because he’s not normal.

But he claimed to be a Christian. He wasn’t a Muslim. So you’d think that Christians wanting to articulate a position on this would be, you know, talking about how what he did was in no way representative of the teachings of Jesus. Wouldn’t you? If you were going to say anything at all. That would be the key message to be getting out, if you were going to speak on the issue. We certainly wouldn’t want to see any vulture hijacking this event to further their own policy agenda would we? It always looks so cynical when people do that. When they take a horrible tragedy. Still fresh. And rebrand it, even if it’s a possibly legitimate link, in order to score political points. Usually it’s nice to wait until the furore has died down, till the grieving families have identified their loved ones and laid them to rest. That’s the classy way to capitalise on tragedy. If you must. But not the ACL, Jim. Not the Australian Christian Lobby. In the Australian Christian Lobby’s infinite wisdom, and with a bit of media savvy that belies days of experience, the Australian Christian Lobby has published a media release with the following headline:

Norwegian Tragedy Highlights Impact of Violent Video Games… why no partner release highlighting how drugs killed Amy Winehouse. At least the link there is directly plausible. Why not an acknowledgment that twisted and evil people do twisted and evil things because we live in a world tainted by sin, where we, as humans, are fallen and inclined to do wrong? That would be a Christian response to tragedy. Why not offer a clear condemnation of this man who claimed to be acting as a Christian?

“If there are even a few deranged minds that can be taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games it is in every Australians interest that we ban them.

“The studied indifference of this killer to the suffering he was inflicting, his obvious dehumanising of his victims and the evil methodical nature of the killings have all the marks of games scenarios.”

Do you see how the sophisticated arguments you’ve employed in this statement could be used against the man’s religious affiliation? Do you not see the inconsistency in your position? The guy was a deranged, evil, lunatic. He committed abhorrent acts. In the name of abhorrent beliefs. That could not possibly be born from Christian theology. And you’re trying to capitalise on it for political gain. That’s disgusting. It’s cheap point scoring. It’s tacky. People see right through it. You’re not convincing anybody of anything except the idea that Christians are out-of-touch and only interested in protecting ourselves.

UPDATE: This excellent piece from Tim Challies is a much better response to the tragedy from a Christian point of view, as is this piece from Mitchelton Presbyterian Church

UPDATE 2: See this interview with the editor of Kotaku (who also linked to this post), and Jim Wallace, on Sunrise…

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18 propositions on Christian Public Relations on social issues

I’ll keep flogging this dead horse for just a little bit longer. So bear with me. As I think about how I’d frame a media release regarding the Christian view of the gay marriage debate (as promised in a previous post) here are the guiding assumptions I’m bringing to the task. I’d love to know what you think.

1. The primary message of any Christian foray into the public sphere should be based on the gospel of Jesus, and his place in society

He is our interpretive key for reality. It should take into account his approach to the government of his day (he let them crucify him), his method of rule (the cross), his commands to love our neighbours (and especially the poor and the sick), the resurrection (his and ours), and its implications for life now.

2. The secondary message of any Christian foray into the public sphere should be based on our position with regards to Jesus, and our place in society.

We are sinners, saved by grace, whose ideas on morality and governance are framed by the Holy Spirit and the Bible. Ideas that Christianity should be the dominant paradigm for legislation are relatively culturally out of date, and largely unbiblical. We have an obligation to speak the truth with love. Not just speak the truth to win.

3. The first two points should function as a Media Release checklist.

Is what I’m saying consistent with these points? Have I ticked these boxes? That’s our brand guideline. Our corporate style guide. If it’s not on message. Don’t say it. You’ll clutter the brand message. If you need a new brand, start one. The church isn’t Richard Branson’s Virgin empire. We have one product. Morality is part of the user experience, not a product of its own. If we sell morality without Jesus we’re selling a cheap knock-off that will fall apart in days. And damage the brand. Marketing people talk about selling the sizzle and not the sausage. That’s one of the differences between marketing and PR. PR requires substance. If our substance is not Jesus, but a bi-product, we’re in danger of selling the health benefits of sausages rather than sausage or sizzle (ok, that analogy breaks down).

4. Jesus’ lordship of the world means we have something to say about morality based on revelation.

Both the Bible, and natural law. But especially the revelation that came in the form of the life of Jesus.

5. There’s an increasingly good chance, in our post-Christian secular context, that our message won’t win issues.

So there’s no excuse to not try to use our message to win souls. Especially if we’re getting our message in front of a national audience. This doesn’t mean not speaking on issues, it means making sure our position on issues speaks to the truths about Jesus, and about us.

6. Everything a Christian says as a Christian representative in the public sphere has implications for Christians everywhere.

Even those who disagree with particular political or theological decisions. We should exercise such a role with care. While today’s paper is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping, the essence of a story will last and shape public perception of the brand involved. Stories, in the Internet age, are more permanent than ever before and more linked and interwoven than ever before.

7. So we might as well talk about Jesus rather than filtering him out hoping for a more palatable message.

8. Blaming the media is too easy.

We say the media is hostile – but they’re not really any more or less hostile than the rest of society. The media is a mirror of society, sometimes like a circus mirror that distorts its source according to its natural bias. Most people consume content from outlets that confirm their existing bias. Few people take that into account. Know the bias of the outlet you’re talking to and frame your approach to take that bias into account. PR is like lawn bowls. You’ll get closer to your target message if you factor the conditions into your delivery.

9. It is overly pessimistic and paranoid to speak of a media agenda against the gospel – as though the media is different to the rest of society.

Journalists, on the whole, are pretty nice people trying to do the right thing by contributing to society. They, like all of us, have personal presuppositions and biases, but they are professionally obliged to seek objectivity.

10. This presents interesting conflicts of interest for Christian journalists.

We shouldn’t use and abuse Christians in the media, but Christians in the media conversely shouldn’t edit out their bias any more than others in the media.

11. Media coverage, positive or negative, is largely about relationships.

It’s hard to slam somebody who looks nice and behaves winsomely, even when you disagree with them. It’s even harder to slam somebody you like. Journalists are human.

12. You will get slammed in the press if you say stupid stuff.

One example of saying stuff is giving the conclusions of your position without stating your working out. It’s like a math exam. You get marks for cohesive thinking, not just the right answer.

13. Articulating your framework is the journalist’s job. So you need to make sure they understand it.

The reality of media coverage is that in the average story you’ll get two sentences of direct quotes if you’re lucky. And a whole media release verbatim if you’re very good.

14. Journalists can’t say you’ve said something you haven’t said, and are limited to saying things you have said.

So when you say something, make sure it’s on message. Don’t give fuel to the fire.

15. The bigger the media outlet the more likely it is that the journalist will be playing you off against a rival point of view in some sort of Hegelian dialectic, as though this ticks the “objectivity box.”

Bigger outlets have more resources to throw at stories. This means they’ll talk to more people. The smaller the outlet the more likely they are to run your Media Release word for word, especially if it appears balanced. And not as a graceless polemic justifying your position.

16. There is no excuse for not being on message in your Media Releases.

In conversations with the ACL they’ve suggested their approach is to provide the conclusions of a worldview and that they are motivated by the fear of not getting coverage if they’re too preachy or nice. This is not an excuse not to be preachy or nice.

17. Media Releases aren’t just a statement of your position on an issue, with some quotes.

They’re articulating the basis of your position because they are the starting point of research for the journalist. The aim of a release is to do as much of the work for your position in the argument as possible for the benefit of a journalist.

18. Media releases are also a largely public domain document.

This is especially true in the day and age of the Internet where most people put their releases online. They show where an organisation stands for anybody researching an organisation. Our audience isn’t just the media, and our purpose isn’t just securing coverage.

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What Christians being “on message” looks like in the public sphere

In the discussion on my initial criticism of the ACL over its handling of the rip’n’roll billboard fiasco a friend asked if I had any examples of positive alternatives, namely, Christian groups that engage in public debate without straying from the message of the gospel (a criticism I leveraged at the ACL).

Now. I’m aware that Wordle isn’t the best measure of how “on message” an organisation is, but it certainly helps give a picture of what an organisation’s focus looks like.

The Sydney Anglicans were one example I put forward as an example. Here’s a wordle of their media releases.

The Centre for Public Christianity is another. They don’t necessarily comment directly on political issues (perhaps they should) but they do engage with the news cycle. Here’s a wordle of their releases.

Compare that with this ACL wordle from my post last week:

Now, some caveats. The ACL write more releases about more issues with a different purpose to these other two organisations. I recognise this. And my point remains that this proactive media strategy has left them as the default spokespeople for Christian belief in Australia. I’ve had some fruitful email conversations (from my perspective) with some ACL representatives since my last post. I won’t talk outcomes, but I think they’ve at the very least heard and acknowledged the point the post made. While I think the ACL get good coverage from their releases (releases get picked up in some form) the coverage is not usually favourable or positive. At some point as a PR person I’d be questioning the value of speaking if my position was never properly represented. In PR we value stories with an equivalent advertising spend and usually a multiplier based on how much the story represents our view. Unless the ACL subscribes to the “all publicity is good publicity” maxim, I’d say their multiplier is so low as to be non-existent, and their media coverage is hurting their cause. And worse. Hurting the gospel. My working hypothesis is that it is possible to speak on public issues without removing the gospel of Jesus from the picture. The questions are how, and what the PR “win” is. I’d say the Centre for Public Christianity has the best Christian PR approach in Australia, and the Sydney Anglicans aren’t far behind. Even when stories featuring Archbishop Peter Jensen are negative he usually manages to make sure the gospel is clearly articulated and linked to his response. That’s an art.

A Case Study in Gay Marriage
The Archbishop has recently featured in the SMH for an opinion piece he wrote elsewhere on the gay marriage issue. Here’s another confronting moral issue of our time where there’s every chance the gospel is going to be lost in a sea of moralising reinterpreted as bigotry (or homophobia). Sadly in this case, and I suspect because it was the result of a slightly underhanded move where quotes were lifted from an article for a Christian audience (Southern Cross Newspaper) and placed in a story for a different outlet (The SMH) so the angle was doubtless well and truly form before any follow up interview took place and thus the initiative was lost.

Now. I recognise that an article in the church’s own newspaper is the perfect place to discuss issues from a Christian perspective, it’s for the church, not for the public at large. So I’m not really interested in judging the approach to the issue they’ve taken there (which I agree with), nor in whether or not they should have expected the media to pick up the story and run with it.

I’m wondering if part of the issue with the way we approach debates regarding homosexuality is that we lack empathy with those who identify as homosexual or struggle with same sex attraction. We are able to put ourselves in the shoes of heterosexual moral offenders with a “there but for the grace of God go I” mentality. But most of us have no idea what its like to grapple with an outside the norm sexual orientation. And I think it shows. And I think our approach to the issue of gay marriage might be a little bit more nuanced if we firstly realised that our opposition to gay marriage is largely driven by our Biblical convictions, not necessarily our natural ones, and secondly realised that the origin of these convictions means we should think carefully about how we approach legislation in a democracy which definitionally seeks to serve all constituants not just the powerful majority or noisiest lobby group.

I’ve had a couple of stabs at articulating a position and approach to gay marriage previously (and also posted about the danger of slippery slope arguments like the one the archbishop employed over at Venn Theology), and I think these would play out a little better in the press.

Gay marriage makes an interesting PR case study, particularly in the light of this article dealing with the Sydney Anglican position on the issue.

Arguing against gay marriage is going to end up confusing the gospel message in the public eye. Which is really my major reason for not fighting the issue. We end up becoming just like the ACL, no matter how nuanced our position. For two reasons:

a) because the media is hostile to us, and
b) because people like the ACL keep making this about “Christian worldview inspired family values”…

Stories like the one on the Archbishop’s position are normative mainstream media treatments of Christian statements about moral issues. I’d be interested to see the story if we framed our approach around questions of identity, and being able to identify, in our society, by whatever belief, creed, or sexuality we choose. I think that’s a message with traction that would possible allow Christian ministers to continue to define marriage traditionally, present the gospel clearly as we articulate our position on homosexuality (“we believe we are not defined by our sexuality but defined by following Jesus which has flow on effects for how we see sexuality”)… every time we speak out on a position morally the story is going to end with a quote like this one:

‘The archbishop would acknowledge we live in a multi-faith society, and as such he must respect that his views should not be imposed on those religions that want to perform same-sex marriages, such as the Quakers and progressive synagogues, or the civil celebrants who perform 67 per cent of all marriages,” he said.”

Here’s how the ACL tackles the issue in a Media Release. Here’s a thought. Rather than angrily responding to a minority who face a fair bit of ostracism for having outside the norm sexual orientation for using the words “bigot” and “homophobe” what if we turn the other cheek. And empathise with them. And lovingly disagree.

“We are also yet to have a debate in this country free of abusive slurs such as ‘homophobe’ and ‘bigot’ and until that can occur, not one should jump to conclusions about the inevitability of redefining marriage.”

It doesn’t really matter what we say in this debate. The other side is always going to reinterpret our position as an attack on their core identity (why is sexuality an anchor point for identity anyway?). So why not just stick to presenting the gospel in a gracious and winsome manner, where we do more than pay lip service to gay rights (which every Christian statement seems to be based on). Why not talk about how Jesus loves all sinners – gay and straight. And how he calls us to find our identity not in our sexuality, but in submitting to his Lordship? The media will still be hostile to us. But at least we’re not confusing the moral issue with the gospel message, as though homosexuality is worse than other sins.

The question then is essentially what would Jesus say about gay marriage, to the state. Because that, trite as it sounds, should frame the approach we take to the state. While Jesus clearly taught that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6) he wasn’t really a political revolutionary speaking out against the immorality of the Roman empire. And there was plenty to criticise.


Image Credit: Che Jesus has its own Wikipedia Entry

I’m not sure what sort of normative ethical principles of engaging with the state can be drawn from Jesus’ “render unto Caesar” approach to paying taxes. Or from his lack of protesting about the empire’s immorality (when his disciples clearly expected a political revolution). But I’d suggest his approach with sinners – lovingly calling them to repent, because God’s kingdom was near, should probably have some bearing on how we approach issues of morality. The problem is that this can potentially lead to political quietism, where we say nothing about the way our government runs. Which would be a bizarre position to adopt. Especially in a democracy. And especially when we have a responsibility to seek the welfare of our city (some previous posts on that note: 1 and 2). So, and I’m happy to flesh this out in the comments, I think there’s a place for speaking out politically in a WWJD approach, but I think it should be motivated by a desire to love the lost and proclaim the Lordship of Jesus. Not impose that Lordship by proxy. It would be interesting to examine how the Christian church changed the Roman Empire, in terms of their views of Christianity, but that would be a pretty long post.

What would Paul Do
Another interesting paradigm for understanding a Christian relationship to the state comes from Paul’s trial before Agrippa in Acts 26. Now. Paul was defending himself against criminal charges, but he was also essentially lobbying for Christianity’s legal status before a hostile state. We’re increasingly in a position where parallels can easily be drawn between the state we live in and the idyllic, though very immoral, Roman empire. Paul meets this king, and in his defence, he preaches the gospel of Jesus and essentially appears to be evangelising Agrippa in the process.

“28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

There’s a Biblical model for lobbying. Right there. I won’t revisit old ground too much, and this is already an excessively long post. But in my next installment I’ll have a go at writing a media release that demonstrates how I think one might stay “on message” in this debate.

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A plea for the Australian Christian Lobby to get “on message”

In my time as a PR hack for a regional lobby group one of the golden rules I learned for lobbying via the media (or for trying to change opinion via the media) is to stay on message. Over and over again. Make sure you get your point across. Make sure the questions you get asked become opportunities to give the answers you want to give. Done well, this is brilliant. A good message (or platform) is important.

We all hate the way modern politicians seem to simply repackage the same sound bite over and over again in broadcast interviews. When they do it, and get caught out, they look dumb. But most of the time they don’t get caught out. Because journalists, in reality, are after an eight second sound bite. And you’re much better off making sure that eight seconds is going to cover the message you want them to cover, not the message they want to cover. Being mindlessly on message is better than talking about things without being on message.

The best way to be on message is to know how your message, or more correctly, your platform, relates to the issue at hand. For a politician that doesn’t mean banging on about “creating jobs” or “stopping boats” it means giving reasons that the policy decision has been reached in a way that is attractive to a voter. A good way to do this is to involve real people. People like stories about people. But integrating one’s party platform with one’s media statement in a way that is catchy and repeatable is one step towards using the media effectively.

It can be hard being on message in the middle of a broadcast interview, and especially hard if it’s in the form of a debate, which has been the case in many of Wendy Francis’ recent TV appearances. But it is incredibly easy to be on message in a media release, and if a media release isn’t on message it shouldn’t be released, because anything you say that is not on message is a distraction from your real message. Let me repeat that in bold.

If a media release isn’t on message it shouldn’t  be released, because anything you say that is not on message is a distraction from your real message.

Unless you have some sort of key performance indicator that involves distributing a certain number of releases per month, or some sort of contractual obligation,  you should only put out releases that have a point. If you do have such KPIs or obligations you should seriously consider changing them. Nothing is more damaging than a brand than irrelevant and confusing messaging. Because when you have something valuable to say you’re either less credible, or a story will make reference to your previous position on an unrelated issue, or people just won’t listen to you because you’ve become the proverbial boy crying wolf.

Which brings me to the Australian Christian Lobby. And my big problem with how they do PR and how they’re almost never “on message”. Well, they’re not on “gospel” message anyway. A simple yardstick for being on message for a Christian Lobby would be talking about Jesus, wouldn’t it? Given that Jesus puts the Christ in Christian and is the leader of our political party, and that all our interactions with culture should be framed by the relationship we have with him by grace, and his Lordship over the world… I’d say Jesus is pretty foundational to Christian belief, and thus, Christian lobbying.

But not according to the Australian Christian Lobby. Now. A lot of the releases they put out in the Month of May are about good stuff. Serious issues. Issues where a Christian voice is valuable and necessary. And they get copious media coverage. They are nominally the spokespeople for the Christian cause in Australia. They keep getting wheeled out in front of cameras and recorders and notepads. And they keep straying off message. It’s foundational stuff.

Here’s a wordle of their media releases from May. I’ve removed the names of spokespeople quoted because they were a dominant feature.*

Now. You may think it’s unfair to take a sample of media releases about issues where they are on message about a response to an issue which may over cloud mentions of Jesus, word cloud wise. Which would be fair enough. But none of these releases actually mentioned Jesus. There is no flavouring of the gospel involved. Defenders of the ACL in recent days have mentioned that we’re called to be salt and light. Fair enough. But this isn’t even salty stuff. And, lest you think that just picking the word “Jesus” isn’t fair, I conducted the same exercise with the words gospel, God, and Bible. And got no results. Search results on their website reveal that most mentions of Jesus come in mentions of the Jesus: All About Life campaign, which they support.

A media messaging strategy for a Christian organisation of any flavour, but particularly a public voice of Christianity claiming to speak for all of us (they’re not called the Politically conservative Christians from Australia Lobby are they…), should fundamentally involve the issue that Christians of all flavours agree on. The Lordship of Jesus. Further, they should be motivated to see other people acknowledge that Lordship. While addressing injustice is a fundamental Christian activity, doing it in a manner so removed from our motivation is an off message distraction. This is why I think Christians who are interested in moral issues should form some sort of family/morality lobby (maybe stop the charade that Family First is a political party and turn them into a lobby group) and the Christian Lobby should get on with being a Christian voice (a role they try to claim for themselves on their about us page without actually mentioning Jesus, or the gospel, again). They claim a Christian “worldview” and yet don’t articulate it. A Christian worldview must start at the foot of the cross and work outwards, not start with morality and work inwards. The cross makes morality make sense.

Here’s what I think a Christian media strategy should look like, from 1 Peter 3:

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, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

At the moment the ACL is failing on most counts, but still copping the slander. Why not do the first bit well, at least then you’re being slandered for a reason. And you’re not distracting people from the work of the gospel.

Interestingly, one of the few pages on the ACL site that mentions Jesus (that’s not a daily summary of news from around the traps) is an article they’ve posted from Sydney Anglicans where Michael Jensen talks about Jesus and the gospel alongside gay marriage. He integrates his key message with a response to an issue.

Deviations from the message of Jesus are a distraction from the gospel. But the message of Jesus has relevance to all areas and issues of society. The ACL, at this stage, aren’t doing a great job of integrating these two concepts.

*Data Source: Australian Christian Lobby National Media Releases from the Month of May:

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Lobbying for God

Dave (Walker – there are far too many Daves for this just to be a first name thing) and I have been thoroughly enjoying a discussion on the role of government (and Christians in relation to government) back on this post.

Dave, for the uninitiated, is the same guy who spoke at a conference in Brisbane recently and made a joke about me without realising that very few people in the audience knew who I was… this time round he’s called my doctrine of creation anaemic. I would have thought it was slightly lumpy myself, congealed perhaps…

Anyway, I was relaying the debate to my wife (who probably agrees with Dave)… and considered for the first time that while the government in the New Testament era was far from democratic, the model we see of Paul relating to those in authority while on trial is almost, almost, an example of Christian lobbying. With Paul playing the role of the advocate. I would stress that the distinction I see is that he’s not seeking to impose Christian morality on others, but to protect the rights and freedoms of Christians. I’d never really considered Paul in that light before. I see some inconsistencies between this sort of advocacy, and that practiced by the Australian Christian Lobby.

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Common sense prevails

The ISP filter has been scaled back from any black listed items to just Refused Classification content – which some people have argued was their policy all along (particularly one debate on Craig’s blog. It may well have been – but that was poorly communicated. Here’s the SMH story.

“Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has long said his policy would introduce compulsory ISP-level filters of the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s blacklist of prohibited websites.

But he has since backtracked, saying the mandatory filters would only block content that has been “refused classification” (RC) – a subset of the ACMA blacklist – amid widespread concerns that ACMA’s list contains a slew of R18+ and X18+ sites, such as regular gay and straight pornography and other legal content.”

I’m a lot less worried about that – it seems to be much more transparent than the previously stated policy. I’m sure my freedom loving friends will still have problems, as do the Australian Christian Lobby. Nice work guys…

“The lobby’s managing director, Jim Wallace, wants the Government to introduce legislation forcing internet providers to block adult and pornography material on a mandatory basis, in addition to illegal content. Australians would then have to opt in to receive legal adult material.”

That sounds nice. It really does. Pornography is a blight on society. And it would be nice to protect vulnerable people (particularly vulnerable Christians) from its insidiousness. But. It isn’t really up to Christians to make the laws in a country where we are in the minority (despite the number of people ticking the Christian box on the census). Why should we expect those given over to sinful desires (which is surely how the Bible describes the state of non-Christians) to conform to a Christian standard of living?