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 (with all due respect) adopting the rules of the ‘secular’ political game and pretending Jesus doesn’t profoundly matter to us is a dumb idea for Christians and we should stop

“I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to [talk about the Bible in parliament] today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.” — Australian Presbyterian, Autumn 2017, ‘Political Christians’

Legend has it that the game of Rugby emerged in the middle of a game of football (soccer) when a player from the Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, decided he was bored with the traditional rules of the game, so he took things into his own hands (literally), picking up the ball and running with it. He changed the rules; and started something new. Without his act of rebellion and imagination we wouldn’t have Rugby League (cause let’s face it, Rugby was an evolutionary step towards something less boring).

Sometimes it feels like our approach to politics in our secular liberal democracy is us refusing to change the game; and that’s our loss (and the world’s); because just like Webb-Ellis’ actions would create something new, our changing how we play ‘political football’ and not playing by the ‘rules’ could actually create something better than the political status quo, and especially our culture’s toxic definition of ‘secular’…

Australia is a beautifully secular country. We don’t have a state sanctioned religion; which gives implicit freedom to everyone those who believe in fairy tales, and those who don’t, to practice those beliefs alongside one another. We’re not just a secular country, we’re a pluralist country, a multi-faith, multi-cultural, country, and a liberal democracy where different communities and cultures live in relative harmony with each other, and share hospitality with each other across suburban fences and in our many restaurants. We do expect the government to step in when a religious practice threatens the safety or freedom of another, but this plurality is part of the beauty of Aussie life.

Our politicians are faced with the task of managing certain aspects of this shared life; they’re not, and can’t be, responsible for how we speak to one another over the back fence, in these local restaurants, at the supermarket, or be responsible for arbitrating how different religious groups dialogue about their differences, but they do have a role to play in listening to the voices of a diverse constituency and doing their best to represent and accommodate a wide range of views.

This is what true secularism is all about; unfortunately the label has lost some of its meaning in a process Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes in the introduction of A Secular Age. Taylor says we’ve, in the modern west, collapsed the way we see the world. He describes how things have moved so that where once everyone believed in the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent’ reality and that this reality overlapped with the natural, we now believe in the natural alone (or he says we want to believe in the natural alone, but have this nagging, haunted, sense that there might be more). This belief shapes how we understand and use the word ‘secular’, which it shapes the sort of data, or argument, people of our age will accept. He identifies three different understandings of ‘secular’ at play in our age:

  1. Our ‘common institutions and practices’ are separate from religion; where in the past ‘in pre-modern societies’ the ‘political organisation’ was underpinned by the idea of God, you can now “engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”
  2. People now no longer believe in God so we should ’empty our public spaces’ of God, or any reference to ultimate reality, and should instead make decisions on ‘rationality’ as defined in different spheres (economic gain in the economy, ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ in politics).
  3. The conditions of belief have changed so that the assumption that God is real, or that anything super-natural is real is now contested.

It’d be a real shame if in order to protect the goodness of definition 1 (that allows people from a variety of beliefs to ‘fully engage’ in shared life) we, the church, adopted practices that reinforced definitions 2 and 3… It’d be a shame if we assumed that the way to protect people who don’t agree with us is to agree with their understanding of how the public should be shaped (such that only ‘the rational’ or ‘the natural’ is important).

I think there’s a real risk that our practices will do exactly this if we assume the premises of the second definition and let those rules set the parameters for how we engage in public spaces as Christians. This belief (definition 2) sets the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to our politics. Or at least it seems many Christians engaged with the political realm believe that it does — and this isn’t limited to the Australian Christian Lobby (though this has been my very longstanding criticism of them; as an aside, I quizzed Lyle Shelton on some of this recently and his answers were quite similar to a thing I’ll quote below from the Australian Presbyterian).

There are lots of voices in our political process who believe this is the field that the game of politics in secular Australia should be played on; that this is the ‘common ground’ that people from all these cultures and communities can get together on. But it’s not. It’s a profoundly different account of the world — even of mundane created things in the world — to the view of the world held by Christians, and shared by many other religious communities.

Christians don’t believe the world looks like this.

Christians don’t believe the natural is all there is, or that it is the exhaustive source of true knowledge about how to live (or even the best source).

Christians believe in the supernatural.

Christians believe that the whole universe is created by God to reveal things about him; and that he’s not some being within the universe, but rather ‘in him we live, and breathe, and have our being,’ and that he made people to seek him.

Christians believe real love and the real flourishing life are found in his love for us and his purposes; not just for us, but for the universe and things in it.

Christians believe, for example, that the significance of something like marriage is caught up in it being created by God to do something magical (unite male and female as one flesh, with the possible fruit of new life (children)) and point to something supernatural and significant (the relational, Triune nature of God, and the relationship between Jesus and the church). 

If all we do is make natural arguments that play by the secularist rules we think are established, we’re not being truly secular and we’re not giving lawmakers any reason to make laws that accommodate our views when they’re hearing compelling arguments that don’t play by those rules but are caught up in questions about what love is, and what the good human life looks like (and these are ultimately religious questions). If we argue that marriage is fundamentally a natural law thing, that is about being a building block of society where children are raised by their biological parents and that is good for them, then we don’t just run the risk of those arguments falling on deaf ears (as they appear to be), we actually only tell less than half the story when it comes to why we, as Christians, believe what we believe about marriage.

There are some Christians who seem prepared to try to play the political game according to the rules set down by the secularists (and let’s use this as the label for people who hold to definition 2 above, as opposed to people who want to create reasonably good rules for how we might do life together with people from different religious or cultural groups). These are the people who don’t believe God should have a place in public life (but ironically those who sometimes seem to want God to have a say in everyone’s lives through an argument from natural law, it’s a weird ‘all or nothing’ approach).

When we play the rules this way — assuming the secularist view of the world and so arguing from nature and using reason so excluding the supernatural and therefore the Gospel — we do politics in a way that is largely indistinguishable from the way our non-Christian neighbours do politics, we actually serve to reinforce the secularist assumption about the relationship between faith and politics, and we approach politics as Christians in a way that legitimises the question ‘should Christians be speaking about politics’ or the related question ‘does politics distract from the proclamation of the Gospel’?

The Gospel of Jesus is fundamentally political. Gospel is a political word; it’s the announcement — the good news — of a victorious emperor’s enthronement or victory. Jesus is a king who announces a kingdom and calls people to join it. The Gospel should create good, and at times radically different and beautiful solutions to political issues because Jesus is lord over every sphere of life, and because there is actually no divide between the natural and supernatural; or the secular and sacred, even if in a liberal ‘secular’ democracy there is rightly a divide between church and state. That divide only truly works if the state knows the core business of the religious, and if the religious know the core business (and limitations) of the state. We don’t need the state to create radically different solutions to issues for us; in some ways it is better for us if they don’t, if we’re displaying a ‘counter-politics’ in our own solutions to issues, but a democracy does afford us the opportunity to have the Gospel on the table… so why would we choose to table something quite different? Just today I read this paragraph in the Australian Presbyterian, in an issue titled Politics? Yes! (emphasis mine):

Question: If Christians choose to be involved in public life how should [having God in the picture] affect their discourse?

Answer: I think it partly depends on context. There are some contexts where it is acceptable to talk about the Bible when you’re in parliament, if there is a common assumption that the Bible is a legitimate source of political wisdom. I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to do that today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.

I think this is profoundly bad advice (in the middle of a pretty interesting and compelling article). It rigs the deck against us, and not in a good ‘dying to self’ way where we refuse to play the ‘power’ game so caught up in how politics happens, but in the ‘undermining the truth that the Gospel’s power is displayed in weakness’ way; and in the ‘God’s power in the world is the Gospel’ way, and in the ‘any real change in people’s lives doesn’t happen via common sense but by the Spirit’ way.

People will laugh? Almost certainly (they did, for example, when Paul spoke to a bunch of politicians in Athens (Acts 17:32).

But why should politicians even consider why we find marriage so significant prior to mounting a natural law argument for it if we never tell people, and if the natural law argument is not compelling?

Why should they listen to us if we’re just playing their game, and playing it badly? And playing it in a way that actually undermines the things we believe about the world?

People will change their mind based on common sense and wisdom? Sometimes. Sure. Common sense and wisdom means we can all learn math, and how to write sentences, and a bunch of other stuff about the natural ordering of the world. The Australian Presbyterian article says some reasonable stuff about common grace and shared morality; it’s just… when Romans talks about the human mind and how idolatry corrupts it, it seems to be corrupted in a way that might make reasonable arguments less effective when it comes to areas of our life that are directly related to our idols (you know, like sex, sexual freedom, and the sense that a flourishing life comes apart from God) (Romans 1:21-32). Romans 1 seems to pit the ‘common grace’ idea built from our shared human nature still carrying the image of God, against the fruit of our rejection of God in favour of our own ‘images of god’ (idols), and God’s active judgment in response where he ‘gives us over’ to a wrong way of seeing the world that seems to be totally natural to us. It seems too, that the solution to this wrong way of seeing the world is God’s intervention and a ‘renewed mind’ that comes via the Spirit (Romans 8:5-11, Romans 12:2).

The miss-fire at the heart of idolatry in Romans 1 — replacing the creator with created things (Romans 1:25)  is the miss-fire at the heart of what Taylor describes in the Secular Age; it’s where we stop seeing reality as supernaturally given meaning by the transcendent God who made it, and start thinking only the ‘material world’ gives meaning. It’s where we stop believing God is necessary to explain the flourishing life in this world; that we can do that from nature using our own wisdom. That worked real well in Genesis 3. This miss-fire is one we repeat ourselves if we play the political game on secularist terms. We believe the world is part of how God makes his ‘invisible qualities’ visible; that it is not just ‘matter’ but the rules of our political system, as the secularists would have it, are that only matter matters.

Why would we play by their rules? Especially if they’re not actually the rules… No law says you can’t mention God in a submission to parliament that you make as the church; no law says politicians shouldn’t listen to religious people, or even act from religious convictions… our constitution protects definition one. Nothing enshrines secularist definition number 2 and so says law making is to be a totally rational exercise built on natural law arguments; that’s a choice. Our practices are leading to a particular sort of ‘secular’ outcome in terms of definition 3 where we’re going to make it harder and harder for people who don’t share our convictions to be convinced by us about their merit.

Why would we play by ‘rules’ that people have made specifically to neutralise an authentically Christian voice (or perhaps, rather, an inauthentic Christian voice, the voice that acts as a moral authority apart from the Gospel)?

To do that only reinforces our age’s wrong beliefs about the world, and it also enforces wrong beliefs about what we Christians are on about.

The answer to this question of how we participate in secular politics is not more nature; it’s not trying to play the game by these ‘rational’ rules; the answer is to promote a right, ‘enchanted,’ understanding of the natural world as the basis for making good decisions about life together.

It’s the Gospel. Even if people don’t buy it. Even if they laugh.

If ‘serving created things’ is the problem at the heart of idolatry and ‘secularism’, then why would we play by the rules of a game that says its those created things that determine truth and the common ground for good life together in our world? Isn’t it possible we achieve more for people by making the political case that we should see the world as it truly is (and as it has been seen for most of political history everywhere).

If the Gospel is what Paul says it is (the power of God that brings salvation — Romans 1:16), then why wouldn’t we include it in how we speak into a truly secular liberal democracy where all views are ideally held in tension.

If the Gospel is the thing that unlocks people’s ability to actually live rightly in the world, then why would we speak as though that is found anywhere else?

If the Gospel actually creates a compelling counter-politics to the politics of the world, and it is the way God makes himself known to us, and saves us, and creates his subversive kingdom, then why wouldn’t we take every opportunity afforded to us in political dialogues to make the case for its vision of love and human flourishing?

Why play by other people’s rules when it leads to us playing a totally different game?

Why settle for less? Why play a game that neutralises our home field advantage?

We can’t expect our law makers to make laws that accommodate our views if, at every turn, we speak into that process in a way that plays by rules of a totally different game to the one we play. And choosing to try to play a different game to the one we normally play doesn’t just take away our advantage by levelling the playing field, it makes us look like idiots and it destroys our ability to promote our ‘game’ as the one worth playing.

Why don’t we pick up the ball offered to us in a democracy that gives us the chance to speak (via submissions to enquiries, in conversations with our local members, and ministers, using whatever platforms we can find, including the floor of parliament) and speak the power of God? Why don’t we play our game on their field (because it’s actually God’s field, and our field, and letting them make the rules is odd)? Why don’t we pick up the ball and run with it until someone tackles us? While the crowd laughs and mocks? Which is presumably what happened to William Webb-Ellis. I bet he got pounded. But it seems to be worth it…

On Gayby Baby, sex education, the new normal, and the better normal

An education system is a powerful thing. I’ve perhaps not thought so hard about that power because I spent most of my time in institutions trying to avoid becoming institutionalised. Such is the contrarian streak that runs through just about every fibre of my being.

Australian schools are pretty contested fronts in a bunch of ideology wars — I was only vaguely aware of the “history wars” back when John Howard was Prime Minister, but at the moment there’s a “worldview war” going on for the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.

It’s interesting, and worth chucking in up front, that Christians have long known about the importance of educating kids. One of the big reforms Martin Luther championed in the Reformation was in the education space. You couldn’t tell people they should be able to read the Bible for themselves, robbing the priesthood of some of its mysterious power, like Luther did, without teaching kids to read. The early schools in the Australian colony were also, often, set up by churches (eventually becoming public schools), and there are still Christian schools all over the place. Christians love education because education is powerful — in some sense, we should have no fear of education if we are confident that what we believe is true and stands up to scrutiny and comparison with other world views. But we should also realise that education isn’t ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ because curriculum are typically set as an expression of a set of values — we should realise that because we’ve been doing it at least since Augustine told Christian teachers to make sure they got a robust classical education so that they could understand God’s world in order in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus well in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). This was published back in the year 397. Education served the church’s agenda well for a long time.

It turns out Christians aren’t the only ones who know that education is a powerful tool for deliberately shaping the way our young people see and interpret the world. A Sydney school, Burwood Girls, which happens to be the school my mum went to as a girl, kicked off a massive round of controversy this week when they decided to make a screening of Gayby Baby compulsory for students, who were also to Wear It Purple as an act of solidarity for the LGBTQI community. According to the Wear It Purple “about us” page, the student-led organisation believes:

“Every young person is unique, important and worthy of love. No one should be subject to bullying, belittlement and invalidation. We believe in a world in which every young person can thrive, irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity… We want rainbow young people to be safe, supported and empowered in each of their environments.”

This sounds like a pretty noble aim to me, so long as there’s room in the rainbow spectrum for people who share different visions of human flourishing. I desperately want my lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex neighbours to thrive, and I want to love them, but I also want an Australia where those neighbours are able to love me. And where we’re able to disagree, charitably, about what place sex and sexuality play in true human thriving. I’m not sure how a kid at Burwood who didn’t share the same framework for achieving a noble aim like this for their LGBQTI friends would feel about being forced to wear purple. I think regimes that force people of different views to wear different colours, historically, are fairly dangerous and not great at providing an environment for human flourishing.

The clothing thing seems almost impossible to enforce as ‘compulsory’ anyway. Doesn’t it? The screening of the documentary, at least in the initial proposal at Burwood Girls, was compulsory. And this raises some interesting questions. Here’s the trailer for the doco.

Mark Powell, a Presbyterian Minister, was quoted in the Daily Tele

“This is trying to change children’s minds by promoting a gay lifestyle… Students are being compelled to own that philosophical view by wearing certain clothes and marching under a rainbow flag. Schools are supposed to be neutral and cannot propagate a political view.”

I’m curious about what change in children’s minds the screening of this movie was attempting to achieve. I’m sure there are dangerous ‘mind changes’ that could be involved (as outlined above), but I’m equally certain there are mindsets about homosexuality in our community that still need to be changed. A Fact Sheet from the National LGBTI Health Alliance presented by Beyond Blue, contains the following picture of the landscape for young LGBTQI Aussies… Perhaps we do need to change children’s minds… and perhaps normalising the gay lifestyle is part of that…

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%

Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Rates are 6x higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%).

The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’.

The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health.

Up to 80% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians experience public insult, 20% explicit threats and 18% physical abuse and 26% ‘other’ forms of homophobia (80% of this abuse occurs at school)

I didn’t go to Burwood Girls. And I finished school 15 years ago. I went to co-ed public schools. But I’m pretty sure I would have benefited from seeing a movie like Gayby Baby when I was at school. In my public schools it wasn’t uncommon for sexual slang about homosexual acts to be used to insult and belittle people, with little regard to how the pejorative use of ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ or any of the litany of terms associated with homosexuality might be heard by those in my year group, or in the school community, who were same sex attracted. Many of the people I know who identify as gay, or same sex attracted, came out after High School, and while I’m sure there are many reasons that are part of this decision for any individual, I can’t help but think the uneducated masses of people they might have had to confront in the school yard who spent years using words associated with their sexual orientation to demean others, was a barrier to having the sort of open conversations about their identity that might have been of benefit to them, to us, and to me. Perhaps I would have been better able to love my neighbour if the environment had been more conducive to my neighbour being truly known? It’s not just Christians who are nasty to gay people, and its not just religion that causes homophobia (and not all disagreement with a sexuality is a phobia).

Is it possible that more education might actually make life at school more comfortable for LGBTQI kids or kids with same sex parents? I would think so. Is it possible that sex education that presents homosexuality as a normal human sexuality might lead to less anxiety, depression, and suicide in the gay community? It seems possible.

Aren’t these good outcomes?

Why then are we Christians positioning ourselves against such education — be it Gayby Baby, or the so-called ‘normalisation of homosexuality in schools’?

I understand a certain stream of Christian thought that wants no sex ed in schools, but in the age of pornography, when kids are educating one another, and you can’t just leave it up to parents to encourage healthy practices, I’m not in that camp.

I don’t think you can truly love a person without truly trying to understand them. I love the idea that love is caught up with truly seeing a person through paying them attention. I love the idea that love is an exercise of subjectifying, not objectifying, the other in a sacrificial seeing of the person and their needs, and in an act of offering a way to meet those needs… based on that seeing. The true seeing won’t always mean agreeing with how the person you love sees themselves, we might actually be able to see a person’s needs in ways that they can’t imagine. But it will always involve seeing how a person sees themselves and the world in order to build a connection between their needs and your offer of love.

So, with this picture of love, you can’t love a kid who is working out their sexual identity, or a kid with same sex parents, without trying to understand what its like to be that kid, and without helping other kids in that kid’s network develop that same ‘seeing’ or that understanding. You can’t keep that kid as an “other” or as an “abnormal” kid. I think this is true in a secular sense, but I think its even true for Christians, even as we seek to point people to alternative identities and visions of flourishing, especially an identity built on who Jesus is, rather than who we want to have sex with.

This sort of understanding — the understanding required for love — actually comes through education. It comes through education that comes packaged up with different agendas.

It doesn’t just come through the application of our own agenda, or our own framework for how we assess other people based on what we’re told is true about them in the Bible. As true as that framework might be. It comes seeking to understand people on their own terms in order to have a conversation about these different frameworks. Our different ways of seeing. This education comes through hearing stories, through understanding more of the experience involved with ones sexuality, or family background, the sort of stories Gayby Baby presents. If this is the sort of change of mind Burwood Girls was trying to achieve, then who can blame them?

I’m not sure a documentary, or even the act of being forced to wear purple can achieve the second half of Powell’s suggestion — compelling students to own a philosophical view — but I do think coercive practices are problematic, whatever agenda they serve. Be it the ‘gay agenda’ or the ‘Christian agenda’.

I can understand the suggestion that Gayby Baby serves an agenda other than education, that it ‘promotes an ideology’, but it does also seem to serve a valid educational purpose given that there are families in our schools where children have same sex parents. People who believe education should be agenda, or ideology, free should have a problem with the screening of this film on the basis of its agenda. But that’s a pretty naive view of the way education functions, and has functioned, in our world. There’s a reason governments fund education, it produces ideal citizens according to a pattern, there’s a reason churches fund schools… But in a secular democracy it can be pretty dangerous for the liberty of our citizens (whatever the age) if one ideology is presented unchallenged. What if the best (both in terms of possible outcomes and desirable outcomes) that we can ask for in this contested space is that all voices are given a platform, in an appropriate context?

Which is interesting, because the Gayby Baby furore is kicking off exactly as governments around the country consider whether or not to follow Victoria’s example to remove Special Religious Education (known by other names around the country) from school life. There’s a particularly vocal group of activists, Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) who are campaigning noisily to remove the special privilege religious institutions enjoy when it comes to access to the schools. Christians I’ve spoken to have been pretty upset about the removal of this privileged position — occasionally arguing from the historic involvement the church has had with education in our country, occasionally disappointed that this mission field has been lost (because if you’re genuinely concerned about the ‘flourishing’ of our children, as a Christian, you want them to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to follow Jesus), while others have been angry at this further evidence that the church is being pushed to the margins in our society. Angry that our education system is being hijacked to serve a liberal, anti-Christian agenda. It’s incredible to me that SRE still exists in any form in public schools (and what a privilege), and I’d love it to continue to exist for many years. I’m not sure it can last, but if it is to last, if we are to maintain that seat at the table, we need to be prepared to offer space to other minority voices, with other visions of the good life. If we want to continue having the ability to speak to children in our schools to articulate a vision for human flourishing that centres on the reality of a good creator God, and his good son Jesus, who invites us to follow a pattern of life that will deliver a version of flourishing that will last for eternity, then we might need to be prepared for people to offer a vision of human flourishing more consistent with our age, and more in keeping with the church’s marginal position in the social and moral life of our country. We might have to let our kids hear about sex that some of us don’t think of as “normal”… and to hear about families that fall outside the statistical norm… and this giving others a voice might actually be a good and loving thing, and it might also be good for our kids, if we want them to grow up understanding and loving their neighbours and living together in community.

By the by, I feel like the real indicator of our ‘position’ in the education system isn’t so much in the SRE space, but in the chaplaincy space, where we agreed to be neutered in order to maintain a position of privilege. We agreed to give schools the benefit of a Christian presence, so long as that presence was not coupled with a presentation of the Christian message. What could be a clearer indicator of our position in modern society, as exiles, than a government and a population who are still prepared to use us to care for kids in crisis, but not to present an alternative, positive, view of the world that centres on Jesus. But I digress. Let’s return to why, as a Christian parent, I’d want my children watching Gayby Baby, and why I want them to learn, from their schools, that homosexuality is normal.

The idea that homosexuality is normal is one that offends a certain stream of thinking that wants to equate ‘normal’ with ‘God’s pattern for flourishing’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘normal’ with ‘natural.’

This Gayby Baby initiative seems to fit with the Australian Marriage Forum’s (AMF) anti-gay marriage argument that a change in the definition of marriage will change our educational agenda to “normalise” homosexuality. This is seen by this particular lobby group, and presumably others, as a problem. The AMF does not believe there is any reason to focus on sexuality when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives, and especially no justification for ‘normalising’ homosexuality.

In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too thin; or for standing up for other kids who are being bullied. That is something we all go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffered it worse appears to be “taken at face value”.

There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying – for all students – than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.

 

Is it just me, or is this saying “there are other forms of bullying, so we shouldn’t tackle this one”? Even if its true that other forms of bullying are out there, if there’s a genuine belief in the community that the mental health outcomes for same sex attracted people are due, in part, to bullying, shouldn’t we try to stop that bullying to see if the correlation is causation? Shouldn’t it be enough that bullying in any form is wrong, without the greater risk?

Dr David Van Gend, a spokesperson for the Australian Marriage Forum, disputes the link between mental health and suicide in the LGBTQI community and bullying or homophobia, he provides a list of other possible causes to suggest there’s no need to ‘normalise’ homosexuality as a result. In its 2012 submission to the Australian Government, as it considered an amendment to the Marriage Act, the Australian Christian Lobby argued against the redefinition of marriage for a variety of reasons, including the argument that such a change would ‘normalise’ homosexuality in our education system.

“Some educators in Australia are effectively seeking to normalise homosexuality under the guise of “anti-homophobia” campaigns. ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr opened an anti-homophobia art display at a Canberra school, at which one student’s poster read “Love is not dependent on gender, what’s your agenda?

Although no one would object to the condemnation of homophobia, promoting homosexuality in this fashion is something many parents would not be comfortable with. Redefining marriage will increase these incidents, as schools would be required to teach the equivalency of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The principal public school teacher’s union, the Australia Education Union, actively promotes homosexuality among its members and in schools. Its policy document, Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, says it is committed to fighting heterosexism, which involves challenging “[t]he assumption that heterosexual sex and relationships are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’”.

The change to the Marriage Act hasn’t happened (yet), but these words from the ACL seem almost prophetic (except that Biblical prophecy is all about pointing people to Jesus ala Revelation 19, which says: “Worship God, because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — but now I really digress). The problem with the Australian Marriage Forum and the Australian Christian Lobby is that they’re speaking against one view of human flourishing, one view of “normal”, without actually providing a viable alternative. “This is not natural” is not an alternative argument to “this feels natural to me.” And the argument is not one that Christians should really be making when it comes to trying to have a voice at the table, and in our schools, in terms of a real picture of human flourishing. The AMF’s slogan is “keep marriage as nature made it,” the ACL submission uses the word natural 9 times and nature 4 times, and normalise or normal 10 times, while containing no mentions of God, creator, Jesus, or Christ. It’s an argument for one view of what is ‘natural’…

The problem, as I see it, is that homosexuality is totally normal. And it will appear totally natural to people. And I’m not sure we’re being true to the Bible if we say otherwise.

The “New” Normal

Here’s what I don’t get. When I read Romans 1, I get the impression that for a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, we should have no problem acknowledging that in our world, a world that readily swaps God for idols, like sex, homosexuality is the ‘new normal’… If you don’t take the Bible seriously then the normality of homosexuality seems uncontested (which, would ironically prove the point the Bible makes). And if you do, then the only people homosexuality is not normal for are the people who have had their sexual ethics redefined out of worldliness, by God. Check it.

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. — Romans 1:22-31

This is normal. Education doesn’t make homosexuality ‘normal’ — we do — and God does it to us because humanity collectively bailed on his design.

People in this picture aren’t given a choice about what to believe about the world. God chooses it for them. God acts to create a new normal for humanity because humanity rejects him. This downward spiral is the story of humanity that plays out through the pages of the Old Testament, and in every human culture since. Including ours. Claim to be wise. End up as fools.

So far as Paul is concerned, this is the new normal. This is the default view of the world. This is what our worldly schools should be teaching, so long as they are worldly schools. To suggest otherwise misses the role and place of the church in such a world entirely. Our job is to preach the one message that enables a new normal. A new identity. A new view of the world, and the things we are inclined to turn into idols.

If we want a picture of human flourishing that doesn’t look like the things in this list, we actually need a counter story that points towards a different normal and a new nature. That’s the problem with AMF and the ACL and the push to not let our schools treat homosexuality as normal. It is normal. Until someone has a reason to believe otherwise. And that reason isn’t ‘nature’ — it’s Jesus.

The Better Normal: Paul, Athens, giving others a voice, and God’s picture of human flourishing

Let’s briefly recap. I think a summary of the important bits from above is that education is important because it allows us to truly see, and truly seeing allows us to truly love. When it comes to (secular) public education in Australia there are multiple voices wanting to be heard offering multiple pictures of human flourishing. One obstacle to any version of flourishing (except very twisted understandings of that word), would seem to be the plight of LGBTQI students in our schools, and also the children of LGBTQI families in our community. These families, by any measure — Christian or secular — are actually normal. Hearing stories from these families and creating a space to truly hear from these young people is necessary in order for us to love and understand them… But these families may not be the ideal setting for human flourishing, and embracing one’s normal sexuality may not be the best path towards that end. It may be that purple is not the colour on the spectrum that represents the best solution to the experience of LGBTQI students and families in the community, or the very best pattern for life in this world.

If Christians are going to get a voice at the table, in schools or in politics, what is the voice we really want being heard? What are we going to say? We may not have that opportunity for very long in the form of SRE, and we certainly won’t if we keep rattling cages by shutting down alternative voices, and alternative normals, rather than presenting our own, and graciously be asking for the opportunity to do that… Should we be mounting an argument from nature that it seems God himself is foiling by making things that are unnatural seem natural and desirable? Or should we be trying to better understand the link between the rejection of God, the pursuit of alternative gods (idols), and what this does to how people picture the world and how to flourish in it?

I love much of what Stephen McAlpine writes (he’s posted on Gayby Baby as I’ve been writing this, but his piece on the Sexular Age is pertinent at this point. Here’s a quote:

“Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.”

I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it).  I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.

That’s not trite.  Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture.  After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle  then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now.  Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.

I’m struck by what Paul does when he enters a city full of idols. Athens. The city of Athens exists in the world of Romans 1. If Paul followed the power-grabbing, take-no-prisoners, God’s-way-or-the-highway methodology of Christendom (or ISIS, in its iconoclasm), and the church defined by a vision of the world loosely modelled on Christendom, he’d have entered the city with a sledgehammer. He’d have used that hammer to destroy every statue and altar set up in opposition to the real normal. He doesn’t. He walks around. He seeks to understand. He speaks to people in the marketplace. He preaches Jesus and the resurrection. He gets an invitation to the Areopagus, a seat at the table, if you will. And he uses it to speak about the city’s idols with a sort of ‘respect,’ in order to ultimately speak about God’s vision for human flourishing as revealed in Jesus. Sure. He absolutely nails the hollowness of idols in his alternative vision, he pushes back at their version of normal… but he doesn’t do this by knocking the statues over, or even by treating the people who follow these idols as complete fools.

He speaks to people whose view of nature has been clouded. He even does it in a way that demonstrates the value of a good secular education, quoting a couple of ancient, non-Christian (non-Jewish) poet/philosophers.

This is how to speak in a world, and city, whose view of normal is dominated and defined by idolatry and heads and hearts shaped by the normal human decision to turn on God. Because this is how to offer people a path back to God, and his version of human flourishing.

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” — Acts 17:22-32

Paul allows Athens a voice even though he believes his God made the entire universe.

Paul listens.

Paul really understands.

And this understanding gives him an opportunity to love by offering an alternative. He offers them Jesus.

That’s why I want my kids to watch movies like Gayby Baby, and listen to the stories of people in their world. Because this is the pattern of engagement I want them to follow in this sexular age. I want them to love like that. Even if they, like Paul, are laughed at by most…

 

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.

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.

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.”

 

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.

Christians in the Media: Being on message for Jesus

Well. I wrote a piece for eternity on some of the stuff I’ve posted about lately in response to Guy Mason’s piece on Sunrise, but the nature of news is that it needs to be new and it wasn’t new by the time the new Eternity came out. So rather than letting this good gear go to waste, I’m going to post it here. In three posts. Firstly, this post, is the article I sent (a slightly extended edition), and in the follow up posts I’ll share the interviews with Guy Mason from City On A Hill church in Melbourne, and Mike O’Connor from Rockhampton Pressy. Two sharp guys who are grappling with what it means to use the media as a platform for the gospel.

Here’s the article.

Being on message for Jesus in Public Relations

Religion and the church are on the nose, but Jesus is still pretty popular with the average Aussie. So said the research behind last year’s Jesus All About Life campaign. Gruen Transfer panelist Todd Sampson summed the findings up as “Jesus is cool,” but the church “is letting the brand down.”

One of the foundational principles of public relations is to stay on message, to keep answers relevant to the brand. For Christians this means talking about Jesus, and our response to moral issues should be based on our relationship with him.

Guy Mason, pastor of Melbourne’s City on a Hill church has a background in public relations, his recent appearance on Sunrise to discuss a series of sculptures depicting Jesus as a transvestite, a cross dresser, and an indigenous man, is an example of staying on message.

The segment was billed as a “religious controversy,” the artist essentially accused anybody offended by his work of bigotry, while Guy defused the situation and invited people to consider Jesus’ death in the place of sinners. He says his aim when given a media platform is to talk clearly about Jesus.

“I love the gospel and I want as many people as possible to hear the good news of Jesus. If opportunities open doors for the gospel than I’m happy to get involved,” Guy said.

“I am aware that on shows like Sunrise you only get soundbite opportunities to speak. Thus, with a very complicated and heavily loaded segment, I wanted to be clear, concise and point people to Jesus.”

Modern newsrooms are time poor and under-resourced, a 2010 study found that half the stories we consume originate with public relations, which means churches can be proactive about getting the gospel a hearing in the public sphere.

Guy Mason doesn’t pursue media coverage like he did as a public relations consultant, he picks and chooses opportunities, but he is aware of the benefits of establishing a rapport with the media.

“The first person I met when planting a church in Melbourne was the local news editor. I asked him to tell me about the area, his perception of church, and also how we ‘the church’ could serve him. I have learned, and continue to learn, a lot from this friendship.”

“Jesus said we’re a city on a hill, a light to the nations. We shouldn’t hide that light and disconnect from culture, but rather be in the world living radically counter-cultural gospel lives that both display and demonstrate the glory of Christ.”

Former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello told a recent gathering of Anglican Clergy in Melbourne to beware the false idol of positive media coverage. He urged Christian commentary on issues to stick to the gospel and expect not to be popular.

“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.”

Public Relations can be a blessing for regional churches looking to engage with their community.

Rockhampton Presbyterian Church Minister Mike O’Connor has built a relationship with the local media in his three years in regional Queensland. He’s had media coverage across a range of issues, from pizza shops to the recent Queensland floods.

“I wonder if there is still a ghetto mentality amongst Christians when it comes to the media. I think a more helpful way of viewing the media is seeing it as a platform where we can reach people with the message of Jesus. We have the message, they have the medium.”

It was this approach that led to a feature article in the local paper after Mike scoffed at suggestions that Christians should boycott the Hell Pizza chain if it set up shop in his city.

“I made a comment on an online article saying that it was just a Pizza shop and if they opened in Rockhampton, I would take my church youth group there. The local paper contacted me the next day and asked me if I would do an interview or write an article as a follow up to the story and if they could send a photographer around to my office.”

“I told the photographer that he needed to put his trust in Jesus and this was the point of the article I wrote. That while Hell is a real place – this was just a pizza shop and that church needs to be talking about Jesus and not what people can and can’t do.”

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…

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.

Talk-back radio evangelism

Tired of hearing the Christian message mangled in the media, or not hearing Christian voices speak out on some issues? Well. Kel Richards makes a point in the latest Social Issues Executive that you can be the change you want to see in the media world by calling talk back radio programs. He includes some practical tips for calling talk-back (or open line) radio on an issue.

  • Listen (for a little while at least) to the program you want to get on to.
  • Think about your message – have a clear reason for calling.
  • Don’t write out a script of what you want to say.
  • Do jot down a few bullet points to help you remember what you want
  • to say.
  • Can you summarise your message in a slogan? If you can, jot it down –
  • repeat it several times during your call.
  • Be gracious to the producer – and explain what you want to say briefly
  • and clearly.
  • Be gracious to the presenter – and get straight to the point

Brilliant. And in a day and age where we can’t expect our self-appointed Christian voice on issues to talk about Jesus (realistically or otherwise), it’s a chance to get the gospel on the airwaves. If more of us did this, and people understood the gospel better, it wouldn’t be such a problem that a Christian lobby group doesn’t talk about morality. Because that’s part of establishing the framework that anything Christians say about morality comes from. Great stuff from Kel and Andrew Cameron.

It’s something I’ve previously described as “Guerilla Evangelism” (it’s also a good PR strategy if you have a relevant special interest or business).

Should Christians speak out in the political process?

My answer to the question posed above is “yes”… what’s yours?

Following on from my so called “open letter” about school chaplaincy funding from last week,* I’d like to address one of the comments that made its way back to me via a third party. I won’t name names, lest I betray any confidences…

“[I] wondered if he was too hasty in ruling out involvement of Christians in public discourse in an arena like education”

This isn’t what I’m trying to do at all. I’m actually trying to open a more helpful variety of engaging with the political realm, and those in opposition to Christianity, by hearing their criticisms and concerns, and weighing them up against these five starting assumptions. I’m not advocating that Christians acquiesce to any change in the law that will bring us one step closer to the lion’s den. I don’t have a martyr complex, figuratively or literally.

I don’t know if people have followed along on any of the now quite numerous debates I’ve had online regarding a Christian stance on gay marriage. There have been a few. Here, and elsewhere, and again

Much smarter people than I have disagreed with my position on the relationship between church and state in each of those threads. But because I tend to see my own position in overwhelming clarity, while at least imagining that I have a good grasp of my interlocutor’s arguments, I still haven’t budged.

I think I’d describe my approach to politics as revolving around five poles, or starting assumptions. Perhaps you don’t share them. But at least you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

1. Jesus is the true ruler of the world (Philippians 2). Governments are appointed by God (Romans 13). As Christians our job is to proclaim the gospel to people (Matthew 28), and live such lives among the pagans that our proclamation has some appeal (1 Peter 2).

2. While the earth is the Lord’s, and while he has established guidelines for living lives pleasing to him, and while what the Bible says is sin is sinful… We can not seek to impose Christian morality onto people who don’t have the Holy Spirit, nor should we necessarily try to do that, it is ultimately a bandaid solution if point 1 is not taken into account.

3. Separation of church and state is a good thing, that should be upheld by both church and state – for the sake of clarity on both sides.

4. The nature of a democracy is such that all members of society have equal say about how society is governed, and ultimately it means that the will of the majority will become the law of the land. All parties in a democracy have the right to speak out in favour of their positions, but from a government’s perspective, elected representatives are elected to represent their constituency not to be the puppet of special interest groups (including Christian special interest groups). Special interest groups, or organised lobby groups, aren’t necessarily a bad thing, unless their clout outweighs their supporter base through graft, corruption, or manipulation.

5. Liberal democracies are also focused on providing individual liberties – which are valuable for Christians, especially as they pertain to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of public assembly.

Given those points, if you want to speak out like Danny Naliah, Family First, Australian Christian Lobby, or even somebody more moderate – that’s great. You can’t necessarily claim to be speaking for God, or for Christians, though – you’re simply participating in the democratic process. And arguments starting with “The Bible says” or “God says” in a secular society aren’t going to get a long way when we’re increasingly not just secular, but non-religious. But you should feel free to do it. I’m not, in the words of No Doubt, saying “don’t speak” – it’s not my place to suggest that. I’d just love to see Christians thinking before they speak – about why we feel entitled to be able to impose our views on the majority.

I’d love more Christians to be entering into political discourse – even if they disagree with me, perhaps especially then. I don’t think that means starting our own party, or putting together an Australian Christian Lobby that acts just like any other self-interest group with a powerful supporters base. I’d love more Christians to join real parties (and even better, The Greens). That would be a great witness to our love for the world, and would help out with point 1 from above.

I’d especially love more Christians to be speaking out in favour of 3, recognising 2, and being wary of falling foul of point 4. Which is the approach I’m trying to advocate when it comes to both gay marriage and school chaplaincy, and indeed, politics in general.

I’m not saying “don’t say anything” – I don’t know where the notion that I was suggesting this in the chaplaincy post comes from. I’m not about acquiescence – I’d actually rather hear Christians speaking out against government handouts (which was the position I was trying to articulate) rather than just speaking out in favour of them. The truth, so far as I can figure it out, in the chaplaincy debate – is that we don’t really want the government’s money if it means compromising our position in the schools (where we enjoy the ability to teach children about Christianity). We also don’t want chaplains and religious education lumped together so they can be thrown out together. But even if both are, all is not lost. I haven’t really heard many people saying that in this debate – certainly not on Facebook.

Is it possible that our most positive witness is if we argue that God has given us all an amount of liberty (see point 5), but that we hope people use that liberty to live lives pleasing to him, through submitting to the lordship of Jesus? But if they don’t, we don’t want to force them. We don’t want to spoil the time they have on this earth. And we want the right to disagree with them, respectfully, in honouring our own beliefs and traditions.

Is there a danger of losing more than we’re bargaining for because of the way we’re so dogmatically trying to shoehorn everybody into Christian behaviour by organising lobby groups and political parties and not engaging with the world? Family First is never going to be a legitimate political force in Australia. They’re simply a mouthpiece for people who may not admit it but would like to legislate Christian values, or the Danny Naliah types.

The more we appear to be on the fringes, the more we appear to be relying on some sort of special pleading for our own personal point of view in an increasingly diverse nation, and the more we appear to be condemning other people’s exercising of liberties based on our “imaginary friend” and our “2000 year old book”, the less appealing Jesus is… why not let God, through the Holy Spirit, and the Bible, convict people of their sin, and then judge them accordingly – rather than trying to play judge, jury, and executioner ourselves (or at least legislature, judiciary, and executive…).

I’m going to spend the next few days reading through Andrew Cameron’s material (alongside K-Rudd and John Anderson’s material) from the 2005 New College Lectures on Church & State.

*Where, if you care to, you can read how I engage with a couple of atheist Facebook commenters from the platform I’ve outlined above…

Would you like salt with that?

My WebSalt article about the Greens is now up. You should go over there, read it, and argue it out with me in the comments… It’s much more balanced than my regular blogging fodder because it’s not polemic – it’s balanced… I hope.

“But there is much in their policy platform to celebrate – an Australian Christian Lobby media release issued prior to the 2008 election praised the Greens for their strong stance on climate change, refugees, overseas aid, work life balance and poverty. These are important issues – and should be serious concerns for biblical Christians.” “The criteria that determine an individual’s political preference will come down to personal convictions – that’s the fundamental freedom offered by a liberal democracy. So voters need to decide for themselves whether caring for the poor should be the government’s concern or the church’s? Or whether we should impose a Christian ethical framework on non-believers? Can we vote for a party that purposefully pursues an easing of restrictions in the circumstances surrounding the termination of the lives of unborn children? Just how much of a concern is the environment?”

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?

Black spot on clean feed

I’ve said it once. And I’ll say it again. The clean feed is bad for anyone who believes in freedom of speech. I think it’s especially important for Christians – who are one of the driving forces behind the clean feed concept – to know what it is they’re supporting in the case of this policy.

The government’s internet watchdog – ACMA (the Australian Communications and Media Authority) can blacklist whatever they want. It doesn’t have to be “objectionable” content (read child abuse material) – unless the government definition of “child” now extends to an unborn fetus – which would have grand implications for the abortion debate. You see an abortion protest site has just been added to the blacklist – as reported by Crikey. 

This content is hosted outside Australia, outside ACMA’s jurisdiction, so they can’t demand it be taken down or guarded by an age-verification mechanism. They can only add it to the blacklist — and under Conroy’s plan, everything on the blacklist is blocked, secretly, for all Australians. No choice.

“The Government does not view this debate as an argument about freedom of speech,” says Senator Conroy.”

No, of course not. As the government has pointed out, it’s about preventing the exploitation of children. A noble cause. It’s when the government refuses to allow criticism on the policy on the basis that anyone objecting is tacitly approving of the child abuse that the discussion breaks down.

“”Freedom of speech is fundamentally important in a democratic society and there has never been any suggestion that the Australian Government would seek to block political content.” Conroy said here

Well yes there has Senator – that’s been the grounds of all the rational objections to your stupid, and technologically flawed, legislation (well that and the fact that it’s unlikely to work and it’s just going to punish everyday users of the Internet… ). 

The abortion site is pretty nasty. While I agree that abortion is one of the great moral debates of our time, I wouldn’t recommend going there. I did. It wasn’t pretty. But that’s not the point. Once “objectionable” includes “things we disagree with” the Liberal Party better make sure their policies are consistent with Labor’s, or they’ll be banned.