Australian Stories: On resting in and wrestling with the paradox of modern Australia on Australia Day as a Christian

Twice a year I get invited to speak to a bunch of American (and sometimes Canadian) university students on an exchange program about ‘what it means to be Australian’… I confess it’s not a question I’d thought much about until my friend who runs the program asked me onto this panel.

On Australian Stories

I’ve been more deliberate in thinking about this question since the first time around; it makes me look and sound smarter; so I’ve become more deliberate in how I approach Australia Day, and in how I understand the ‘Australian Story’ (or, rather, stories). I’ve decided that the answer to the question ‘what does it mean to be Australian?’ is often profoundly shaped by how you understand the ‘Australian Story’ (and how many stories you recognise). There are, I believe, four fundamental stories always intersecting in the Australian identity (and in many Australian family stories, and so in many individuals).

  1. The Indigenous story: a story of invasion, dispossession and perpetual systemic injustice perpetrated by those in power, and reflected in the surrounding culture.
  2. The ‘Establishment’ story: a story of the expansion of the British empire (including membership in the Commonwealth, a system of government, an established religion and ‘establishment’ high culture).
  3. The ‘Convict’ story: a story of getting one over the establishment from back home; who sent our people to paradise as a ‘punishment’ for very small misdemeanours, who were brutal when we arrived, but who eventually released us into a land of opportunity. There’s an amalgam of these two stories in the ‘settler story’ which is a story of deliberate migration for new opportunity.
  4. The ‘Migrant’ story: this story is a more recent version of the settler story; it’s of people who’ve arrived post-establishment, seeking opportunity and prosperity. This included the gold rushes, the waves of immigration from Europe (especially Italy and Ireland), and more recently immigration from Asia. There’s a subset of this story that includes both refugees and asylum seekers.

Before being confronted with this question for the purposes of this class, I’d almost assumed that to be Australian was pretty much to be like me… to really love the idea of multiculturalism (especially the food); to have almost no sense of my ‘European’ heritage, and to believe that most of my view of Australia had been developed in my formative years growing up in a country town on the east coast. I was definitely aware that there were ‘other’ Australian stories out there that were part of the tapestry of Aussie life; the community I grew up in had a relatively large indigenous population, living in a city meant I’d spent more time with first and second generation migrant families from various places (especially from within Asia), and living in North Queensland and promoting Ingham and Charters Towers as holiday destinations built on their Italian and gold rush histories meant I was aware of different historic influxes of migrants who’d arrived in Australia seeking opportunity.

Despite being someone who’s possibly a bit of a European mixed bag of ‘establishment English’ (on my mother’s side), and Irish settler (though probably not convict side), I think the story I most closely resonated with was that of the convict; sent off to ‘purgatory’ by the stuffy British establishment only to end up in paradise. There’s an anti-authoritarian streak in Aussie culture borne out of this story, and reinforced by the possibly inept expressions of rule from the ‘mother country’ particularly in the trenches when we’ve gone off to fight for the Commonwealth. I’d say this is the story my public school education reinforced for me. I’ve become increasingly aware, the more I pay attention online to what Sydney Anglicans (as a generalised tribe) seem to believe about the ‘establishment church’ and Australian history (including the narrative that Australia was a ‘Christian country’ at European settlement) that there are other ‘stories’ out there that people tell about what it means to be Australian (my bias is to the convict/settler narrative I tend not to take this claim seriously because pretty much as soon as convicts were freed from having to go to church, they stopped)… I suspect, though I don’t have first hand experience, that this ‘establishment’ narrative operates in ‘establishment’ schools (especially church and private schools that come from the ‘establishment’ set). This is a different story to the anti-establishment story I’d had in my head about what being Australian is, and it leads to all sorts of different places when it comes to life now.

Stories matter. They really really matter. Our identity doesn’t just come from our tribe, or our ‘preferences,’ or what we choose for ourselves as though our humanity is some sort of blank slate that we, as individuals, are the only people get to write on. Your slate is written on before you are born, and as you are raised… and the thing that most shapes what is written is the story you are born into, and brought up believing.

On ‘Australia Day’ as contested ground in these Australian stories

The story we tell ourself about what it means to be Australian matters (which is why the ‘history wars’ were a thing when it came to the curriculum for teaching Aussie history in schools).

It shapes our understanding of what both progressive and conservative political agendas look like, because it orients us in particular ways to government, the world, our ‘history’, and the ‘ideal’ Australian story (typically subjectively viewed from our own story). Both the ‘establishment’ and ‘convict’ stories start at roughly the same point — some time around the 26th of January in 1788, which has become ‘Australia Day’ — which is a shame given that Australian history starts much, much earlier. There’s another story. One I’ve become increasingly convicted that I should be listening to in order to understand being an Aussie.

One of the results of being confronted with my default ignorance about what it means to be Australian by having to explain it to some outsiders (American students) is a desire to pay attention to other Australian stories. This has shaped the way I’ve understood and approached Australia Day this year. My neighbours are, mostly (to give them plausible deniability), like me. Their stories are like mine. Australia Day on our street has been one of the best parties of the year and it represents all that is good about my story. Over the last few years we celebrated this story in our Australia Day street party. Last year, our church family held a BBQ on Australia Day to celebrate the migrant story; and particularly that our church community embraces those who’ve come to Australia as asylum seekers (in this we were deliberately modelling an alternative Australian story; a kind of subtle protest movement against an Australia Day that has, in parts, become an ugly sort of ‘patriotic’ celebration of a particularly exclusive Australian story. This year, we did both these things again, but because I decided to consciously seek out another story, the first Australian story, I also attended a service of lament and prayer organised by a local Indigenous Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips.

There were amazing things about this service that I’ll get to below; but it was a profound telling of that first Australian story, and the modern day implications of that story being over-written by other ‘Australian’ stories. The more I am confronted with this first story the more I recognise what drives the marches, the tent embassies, and the other efforts indigenous people make to have their story told, and the injustices it contains heard, recognised, and dealt with. I learned, as I listened in this service, that I shouldn’t speak as though there’s just ‘one first Australian story’… there were, I’m told (because this is how we learn stories) 300 indigenous nations living on this grand island. There are lots of stories about what it means to be Australian that come from our first people; and there’s little doubt that when European settlers declared Australia terra nullius and then set about establishing a colony of the commonwealth, part of what happened was a reflection of a desire to bring many of these stories to an end. And yet they, like the people who own these stories, survive. They survive as a testimony that terra nullius was a lie; as a testimony of resilience, and as a reminder that part of the settlement story was very, very, ugly.

There are things I love about my own ‘Australian story’… things I want to celebrate on ‘Australia Day’ that come from British settlement (but things that don’t necessarily need to be celebrated on the 26th of January).

I love our lifestyle, the laconic approach to almost everything, our in-built egalitarianism that means people are quite happy to think of our leaders as ‘mates’ (which also underpins the good bits of our democracy), there’s a dark side to this, of course, which manifests itself in tall poppy syndrome.

I love the sort of innovation that drives Aussies, born out of a need to survive in the harsher parts of our terrain. I love that some of our innovation is geared towards making laziness (or relaxing) more possible. One of my favourite things about visiting my pa, on the Campbell side, who was a sort of rural entrepreneur in country New South Wales, was finding little ‘fixes’ he’d installed around his house and shed (like belts cut in half and nailed to walls to keep the gates open or shut), this was a man who had owned stakes in produce stores, a piggery, and would buy farm machinery to on sell at a profit. When I think of what it means to be Australian, he’s the first picture I get in my head. I love everything about ‘Australia’ the image of my pa conjures in my head; I’ve got this romanticised notion of who he was, no doubt, and my own sense of what it means to be Australian includes the beaches of the north coast of New South Wales, and cane farmers, cane fires, and fishermen who run trawlers.

Now I’m citified, I love that being Australian means the easy availability of cuisines from many different cultures, and that my kids will go to school alongside people from many nations who now call Australia home.

I think it’s totally legit to look for an opportunity to celebrate these things. I love that I can do that with my neighbours and friends who share many of these loves (or similar loves when it comes to their own histories) and hold them as common goods that Australians enjoy as a result of our shared stories.

As a Christian, I also love that the Gospel of Jesus made it to these shores with European settlers (but hate how this Gospel is associated, forever, with what some of these settlers did), including, for example, the devoutly Christian governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, who it is said believed “that the Protestant religion and British institutions were indispensable both for liberty and for a high material civilisation” (there’s a Christian leadership institute named after Macquarie and a secular university). He was almost certainly a Christian (I mean, I can’t say that anyone certainly is), but also, certainly, part of the ugly side of Australian settlement. Here’s an excerpt from his diary.

“I therefore, tho (sic), very unwillingly felt myself compelled, from a paramount sense of public duty, to come to the painful resolution of chastising these hostile tribes, and to inflict terrible and exemplary punishments upon…

I have this day ordered three separate military detachments to march into the interior and remote parts of the colony, for the purpose of punishing the hostile natives, by clearing the country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains.

“In the event of the natives making the smallest show of resistance — or refusing to surrender when called upon so to do — the officers commanding the military parties have been authorised to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors.” — Orders from New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie, 1816.

Australia’s history is messy. Ugly. This is true, as far as I know, of every human nation. We’re not unique in this; nor are we really unique in wanting to live in blissful ignorance, or comfortable denial, or to not be held responsible for the ugliness of our nation’s past. That this is true of all nations.

That I, personally, wasn’t responsible for the way Europeans arrived in Australia, doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from European settlement (in a way that others have not), or from the stories we’re told, and that we tell, about what it means to be Australian. This benefit is part of what people talk about when they talk about privilege; that, and that the ‘establishment’ looks and talks like me and largely identifies with the same story. The white bloke who signed that order quoted above, Lachlan Macquarie, looked like me; spoke like me; could well be my ancestor; and it’s a sort of chronological snobbery to assume that I would’ve been able to avoid the evil he was part of perpetrating through these orders had I been in his shoes. It’s absolutely true that I wasn’t responsible for how the first Australians were treated by British migrants, but I am, in part, responsible for how they are treated today. It’s possible that in denying responsibility for our history, we also avoid taking on responsibility for our future. It’s absolutely true that many Aussies aren’t racists and hate the situation our first Australians find themselves in when it comes to health, imprisonment, education and life expectancy; but it’s individuals who build and renew systems.

This all brings me back to the 26th of January; which, since 1994, has been a federally recognised and public holiday, celebrated nationally: Australia Day.

But whose Australia is celebrated on this day?

In which stories is this a day for celebration?

In the establishment story it represents the expansion of empire and the arrival of a certain sort of civilisation, technology, and worldview (including the religion of the establishment, Christianity).

In the convict story it represents the start of us getting one over the bigwigs who sent us to a country of sun and surf from their rainy misery; a chance for us to embrace our anti-establishment, egalitarian, tendencies and our valuing of mateship (and beer). 

In the migrant story, perhaps it is this settlement that made Australia a desirable destination to seek opportunity, prosperity or a fresh start.

In my own ‘story’; there’s little to no chance I’d exist, let alone exist in somewhere as amazing as Australia, if it wasn’t for European settlement, on this basis it’s hard for me to think that that first Australia Day was entirely a bad thing. It’s also quite probable that some sort of ‘conquest’ or settlement of Australia was going to happen without the British; and it’s possible that settlement would have been as bad, or worse, than British settlement… possible… but what we know for sure is that British settlement included such poetic instructions as ‘hang their bodies on the most public tree possible to terrorise their friends and family’… and that’s a real part of our history that we must confront, and be confronted by. It’s a part of our history that in some real way began around the 26th of January with the planting of the Union Jack on the shores of Sydney.

What are we celebrating on the 26th of January?

There are definitely good things that exist in Australia now because of how history has unfolded; there are things that are particularly good when viewed in the context of particular ‘Australian’ stories. But in the first Australians’ stories; well, I can, when I read things like Macquarie’s orders, and listen to the stories of indigenous friends and leaders of different indigenous communities, recognise that the 26th of January, this day, is not a day for celebration, but lament and anger. And it’s in moments like this that I need to consider the limits of my own story (especially its subjectivity), and ‘check my privilege’…

There are, also, things I don’t love about modern Australia; an ugliness that comes from, what I think in part is unchecked or unrealised privilege, and that is related, ironically, to our ‘settlement stories’. It certainly also comes from us wanting to honour the Australia shaped by people like my pa; the way of life and common goods they’ve carved out in living out the ‘settlement’ stories (either convict or establishment).

For many people there’s a good and natural desire to conserve things our ancestors have lived for and that have been produced through the ‘Australian story’ that is a sum total of all the Australian stories… but I suspect our treatment of asylum seekers is the product of a particular sub-story about what it means to be Australian… and I’m not sure this story is the one that should be our dominant story. But our treatment of asylum seekers (increasingly if the One Nation narrative picks up steam) comes from the idea that Australia is our country, and that our borders and lifestyle should be maintained against foreigners who come by boat and threaten our way of life. I hate what this leads us to do to those seeking asylum among us; those who’ve fled war, or persecution, who we lock up and systematically dehumanise for our own safety and security. I hate that we don’t recognise the inconsistency at the heart of this treatment of boat arrivals (and love the way I’ve heard the indigenous community speak of a desire to welcome and resettle refugees; which compounds the irony). I hate that we don’t recognise that this same desire to conserve a way of life is not something those who launched our ‘stories’ offered to the first nations people.

I hear indigenous Australians call for a change of date and I recognise the pain behind that call… and ultimately I think it’s the call of the indigenous community — the wronged — that we should hear.

It is clear that the 26th of January is not a day for unmitigated celebration of modern Australian life; and that the championing of a single Australian story is unhelpful anyway. If there was public will to change the date then that might be a very good thing indeed.

But my own (perhaps privileged) inclination is to leave ‘Australia Day’ on a contested date in order to make us sit with the paradox that is life in Australia. There is so much to love. So much to embrace. So much to celebrate. But there is also so much to hate. So much to overcome. So much to lament. And it is possible that attempting to do both — to experience the ‘contest’ of many Australian stories internally and to have that shape our own ‘story’ might lead to a better and more compassionate Australia; to a better future.

I’ve seen a few other people (all white so far, and mostly from the ‘establishment’ story) make this suggestion, and I’m offering it very tentatively; and I’m offering it largely because as a Christian I believe that grappling with paradoxes, rather than seeking neat resolution, is where real wisdom and progress towards what is good comes from. As G.K Chesterton put it:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

I’d like Australia to get over the difficulty of combining our contested stories by recognising that there is meaning, and warning, and opportunity in the midst of the conflict, not in victory/simplicity (the One Nation approach), or in elegant conflict-avoiding resolution (a date change). But, I recognise that I say this as someone who has the privilege of a story free from being a victim of the ‘fury’ of one of these stories, and that the elegant solution of changing the date is far better than most of the alternatives… I suspect keeping it would mean not just us white Aussies lamenting at the evil in our own story; but hearing the voices raised in protest of our first Australians; and it would only be of any value if we were really committed to listening to these voices and having them change our shared story in ways that bring meaningful, tangible, change to our future.

Whatever happens with the date, there’s a way that is better by far in terms of bringing real change. The way of Jesus.

How the Gospel story ‘contests’ this contest, and provides a better resolution (and how Aunty Jean models this)

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” — Acts 17:26-28

Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles…” — 1 Peter 2:10-11

There’s a tension at the heart of being a Christian when it comes to our national identity; we believe that God is sovereign and places us (as in gives us a place to live) as ‘storied creatures’ (who exist in time and space and do things, and inherit ‘stories’ from those who come before us), but we also believe that as Christians our story is profoundly changed from what it was before; in such a way that our first ‘belonging’; our first ‘story’ is not our family story, or national story, but the story of the mercy we receive through Jesus which makes us into a new family; a new kingdom (a kingdom of priests cf 1 Peter 2:8-10). We become ‘foreigners’ even in lands we call home; lands we’re born into, perhaps with thousands of years of family history.

This isn’t to say our place, and our stories, and our families, don’t matter; they still profoundly do. We’ve just got another story in the mix that trumps the default, self-interested, reactions that happen when human stories are contested like they are for us on January 26.

And this is why I loved Aunty Jean’s service of prayer and lament (which was not just Aunty Jean’s, but thoughtfully constructed by Brooke Prentis from Common Grace). Aunty Jean is passionate about her people; but passionately believes the best thing for them is not tied to the Australian story but to the Gospel story. She’s said this thing to me a few times, and said it in this service; the great hope for indigenous Australians is found in the cross of Jesus. And she means this. And she lives it. Lots of Aussies — indigenous and white — were protesting today, and I can understand this; Aunty Jean wants Christians to be praying; and what she models in this is a deep understanding of life as an ‘exile’; life as a foreigner in a country where her people have roots that are significantly deeper than mine; she lives as one who believes that forgiveness and embrace is the key to contested stories; not conflict and exclusion or exclusivity.

There’s a letter from the early church, the Epistle of Diognetus, which talks about what life as ‘exiles’ looks like. The writer (probably someone called Mathetes, says of Christians, that they don’t look profoundly different to the people of the surrounding culture; they don’t live in their own cities and speak their own language, they dress the same, eat the same, and mostly live the same in the ‘ordinary’ stuff… but somehow “they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” He says:

“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers… They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

This epistle is a powerful sort of concept, and let me tell you, it’s powerful to witness. Because I see it in Aunty Jean. Aunty Jean who as a member of a people horribly oppressed responds in incredible love and compassion for her people, but extends that love to others, even to those who number with the oppressors. Aunty Jean who is a dynamo, who’ll embrace anyone who is prepared to journey with her towards a vision of reconciliation built on the mercy of God displayed in Jesus.

I’ve had the utter privilege of spending some time listening to Aunty Jean in the last few months, of hearing her vision for Australia, and for her people, of hearing her desire to raise up new indigenous leaders who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus, of wanting to see her people better embraced by the Australian church, and of wanting to see the church speak up with her in pursuit of justice where injustice exists. And I’ve caught a bit of this from her.

Our story is the story of a God who doesn’t just take ugly stories and make them new (which he does in us); he takes the ugliness of extreme human evil, and uses it for his good purposes. That’s what the story of the Cross is; the ugliness of the human heart on display, but the beauty of God’s reconciling love overpowering that evil (which is why I think there’s maybe some hope for Australia bringing our messed up stories together to make something beautiful). Our story is a story that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus; the Jesus who calls us to love our enemies, and calls for the forgiveness of those jeering him as he’s crucified… which when you understand the whole point of the Cross — is actually a picture of what Jesus is offering all of us… and there’s no part of the lives, stories, and identities of those who follow Jesus where that call, and that example, does not reach. And wow. It’s powerful when you see that lived in the context of these conflicting Aussie stories surrounding Australia Day.

Our job is to take up the picture of the kingdom of Jesus we’re offered in his story, the Gospel, and in its ending, which is found in the last pages of the Bible, and to live lives oriented towards that. It’s a powerful picture and that’s part of what compels us to live as exiles. A picture of life where our old stories of pain, and suffering, and evil, are done away with and all things are made new. A story built on reconciliation with God, that leads to reconciliation across historic and present enmity, with others.

Aunty Jean is committed to a sort of peacemaking that comes from having the story of the Cross of Jesus as her first story. She, and Common Grace’s Brooke Prentis, definitely want us to hear the story of our first Australians, and to respond with love and compassion; but they don’t tell that story in a way that leads to guilt or in a way that amplifies the contest; they tell it in a way that helps us to see an alternative future. And they don’t just tell the story, they live it.

It’s the “privilege” of the victim in the utterly subversive way that the Gospel story is lived, to be the one who can magnify the truth of the Gospel by offering forgiveness (this isn’t a thing you get to force either… it’s just beautiful when you see it. And it’s the privilege of the “privileged” in the Gospel story, to be prepared to give up privilege for the sake of the other). When it comes to Australia’s history the ‘privilege’ line is pretty clearly not the Indigenous Australians whose ongoing survival seems miraculous,

This ‘Australia Day’, it was Aunty Jean (and those she leads by this example) who modelled a way forward towards a better Australia to me, and if it looked like her vision for Australia, it’d be a beautiful place worth celebrating on any and every day.

 

 

How to live as X-Men and X-Women: lessons for today’s church-in-exile from 1st century Israel and the X-Men

How are we going to respond to the Secular Juggernaut? Here are some lessons from ancient and modern examples of life as exiles.

vinnie_juggernaut

 

There’s been barrel loads of digital ink spilled in the last year or so on the question of whether the church is now in exile; culturally; and how helpful this is as a category for thinking about life and our witness in the world. Stephen McAlpine wasn’t the first to get the ball rolling, the Apostles Peter and Paul probably started it all a while back, and there are plenty of characters in the early church who piled in, but there is certainly a sense that if Christendom represented some sort of return from exile, we’re entering some new era in the life of the church and our relationship with the world and its powers, and even just its people, our neighbours. McAlpine called this Exile: Stage Twoand in that pivotal post suggested we should stop thinking of ourselves as being in Athens — a marketplace of ideas where we’ll get a hearing — and start thinking of ourselves as being in Babylon — where we’ll potentially be fed to lions. I liked what he said, but felt the paradigm was a little too OT exile focused and not enough a reflection of the sort of exile being experienced by God’s people around the time Jesus arrived on the scene. At the time I suggested Rome, not Babylon, the empire that executed our Lord, but that also presented an ultimate alternative vision for human flourishing to the Gospel — one built on power, prestige, wealth, and sexual liberation — is perhaps a better paradigm for us to be thinking in.

The church-as-exiles movement has continued rolling along in the last year and a half, and there have been plenty of landmark cases both here in Australia, and elsewhere in the western world for us to both notice the seismic shift in the world we live in especially with regards to the place so-called Christian values have in our social norms and laws, and to figure out how we’re going to respond to those shifts. We’ve had Safe Schools, and a continued debate on same sex marriage; we’ve, increasingly, been told that religious freedom is the greatest human right since sliced bread and something to be upheld at all costs, and often found that voicing traditional Christian views — those still reflected in our laws — is a form of bigotry (all our grandparents and most of our parents, it seems, are actually bigots when assessed by today’s values).

Somehow, in the midst of all this, Christians have been standing up in the public square to be speaking in favour of a bunch of created goods like marriage and freedom without really saying much at all about the creator, or his grand story of forgiveness, redemption and victory over death in Jesus. It’s like the public square is now a bonfire where we’re burning anything ‘Christian’ that looks off-trend, and it feels like life as exiles is mostly about trying to hold on to valuable furniture. Sometimes it feels like certain streams of Christianity are figuring out what furniture to toss on the fire in order to join the fun, rather than trying to douse the flames and call people to a better party.

There is, at the heart of an understanding of who we are as Christians, a fundamental disconnect between how we see and live in the world, and how our neighbours do; a difference in the kingdom we belong to and the values and virtues we pursue. Like Israel before us, we’re called out of the world, by God, to be different. We’re by nature exiles in a profound sense, not put into exile by the world but by an exodus brought about as God rescued us; this brings us a totally different view of the world. As Paul puts it:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…

What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. — 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, 12-14

We are Mystique: Trying to figure out how to be ‘Mutant and Proud’

Life in our rapidly changing world can feel like we’re the mutants in the world of Marvel’s X-Men, trying to figure out exactly what to do with a super-power that feels a lot like being an unwelcome freak.

Do we let the world co-opt us to its agenda? Like Wolverine, who is signed up to the Weapon X program to serve the human ’empire’?

Do we adopt Magneto’s scorched earth strategy and attempt to forcibly mutate or eradicate those who would stand against us?

Take the ‘cure’ offered by the world — like the vaccination offered in X-Men: The Last Stand so we give up our power to become just like everyone else for the sake of our comfort and theirs?

Do we withdraw and hide and wait for a time when we’ll be welcome again? Or live undercover, like Beast desires with his serum — hide our mutation but keep our power, pretend there’s nothing different about us?

Or do we follow Charles Xavier who has a vision for a world where mutants and humans co-exist? Using our difference to serve the community, even as they try to crucify us for it?

The most interesting character in the X-Men franchise isn’t one of these people advocating one response or another, but Raven/Mystique whose shape-shifting ability would allow her to comfortably choose any of these options. Ironically in one timeline she’s shot with the ‘cure’ and abandoned by Magneto cause she’s not a mutant anymore… Throughout the different storylines, but perhaps especially in the new timeline stories, she’s pulled in different directions by each of these ‘leaders’ — Professor X, Magneto, and Beast — who each love her in their own way and desire their vision of the good life for her.

It’s a bit like the church is Mystique; we have the power to look just like everybody else, to hide, or to be proudly mutant and fight, or to use our power to love and save our enemies… we just have to decide which way we go.

What does it look like for us to be proud mutants where our mutation is shaped by our new DNA, the DNA that comes from being children of God, united with Christ, and being shaped by the Holy Spirit? What does it look like to be exiles because we’re different to a world around us that doesn’t like difference?

It’s not just the world of the X-Men that might help us grapple with how to live in a shifting world, but how Israel responded not to exile in Babylon as they hoped for a return to power (as we see it in the Prophets, and in characters like Daniel), but under Roman rule, where that return had failed. There are parallels in Jewish history for each of the paths taken by the protaganists in the X-Men franchise.

Weapon-X: The ‘Hellenisers’, Pharisees, and ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join em’ Option

Under Roman rule the easiest thing for the Jewish community to do was simply to, as much as possible, act Roman. To cuddle up to the empire and, as a result, be allowed the freedom to practice their religion so long as it didn’t upset the Imperial apple cart. Tertullian, a Christian guy writing in the late 2nd century described the status as Judaism in the empire as being a religio licita; a legal religion. Judaism enjoyed a privileged place in the empire — they didn’t have to physically bow the knee to Caesar, so long as they offered prayers for the emperor and empire in the Temple. Both Tertullian, and the Gospel writers, point out that this concession was largely symbolic; it was pretty clear who really ruled, and never clearer than in the battle between Caesar and Jesus that the arrival of God’s promised king represented.

The Sadducees went a step further than the Pharisees in that the Pharisees maintained a degree of difference, proudly, from the people around them. The Sadducees, it seems, were ‘hellenised’ — they took on the cultural and physical appearance of the Graeco-Roman world they lived in so they wouldn’t stand out. They were happy to deny spiritual and supernatural concepts like the resurrection of the dead — a concept the Greek world, especially the world of Greek philosophers (and the Areopagus in Athens is an example of this) found pretty laughable, but which even the Pharisees held on to. It made sense for them to conform because they didn’t believe anything particularly distinct anyway… They just wanted to look like everyone else, so they became like everyone else.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were so keen to hold on to their privileged place in society that they threw Jesus under the bus and joined Team Caesar, the equivalent of William Stryker’s Weapon X program, where mutants fought for the empire.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” — John 11:47-48

This came to a head at the crucifixion, where it was pretty clear they weren’t separate any more…

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

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

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

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

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

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

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12-16

There’s an incredible temptation for us to do this in the church today, and plenty of people are doing just this. Going as far as the Pharisees in giving up any sense that the Lordship of Jesus requires anything other than totally bowing the knee to Caesar. Christians are told to pray for and honour those in authority and to be oriented towards living at peace, but not at the expense of citizenship in God’s kingdom (1 Timothy 2:1-2, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11-17). We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees.

Tertullian doesn’t really want the empire to assume that Christians are a religio licita simply because we share a history with Israel, he has a different view for what life as exiles looks like that we will return to below…

 “I have already declared the Christian religion to have its foundation in the most ancient of monuments, the sacred writings of the Jews; and yet many among you well know us to be a novel sect risen up in the reign of Tiberius, and we ourselves confess the charge; and because you should not take umbrage that we shelter ourselves only under the venerable pretext of this old religion, which is tolerated among you, and because we differ from them, not only in point of age, but also in the observation of meats, festivals, circumcision, etc., nor communicate with them so much as in name, all which seems to look very odd if we are servants of the same God as the Jews” — Tertullian, Apology, XXI

He’s also not so keen to cuddle up to the empire, as we’ll see below.

Brotherhood of Mutants: The Maccabees, Zealots, and the ‘Culture Wars’ Option

Magneto: This society won’t accept us. We form our own. The humans have played their hand, now we get ready to play ours. Who’s with me?
Magneto: [to Mystique] No more hiding.
Professor Charles Xavier: [to Mystique] Go with him. It’s what you want.

Raven Darkholme: And one more thing. BEAST!
[Raven places free her hand on her chest]
Raven Darkholme: Mutant and Proud! — X-Men: First Class

Magneto’s goal is to use power — his power — to win a victory for his people; to take the ascendancy in the culture wars so that his people rule everyone else. In the first X-Men movie, Magneto wants to use a machine to turn everyone into mutants; like it or not. In others, like First Class, he simply wants to win freedom for mutants to be mutants, but he wants to do so using power. This isn’t so different from the Maccabees in the second and first centuries BC.

Before the Romans took hold of Israel there was a period when they were under the rule of the Greeks and then the Seleucid Empire. Israel was in exile, and they didn’t love it. They staged a violent revolution, led by the Maccabees family. They were largely successful in reclaiming Judea, and tried to use military force to convert people to Judaism. They cleansed the temple and looked like they had things all together; until the Romans arrived and took over about 100 years later. The zealots picked up where they left off… they were around in Jesus’ day, but rather than fighting as an organised army, they were like ninjas… they launched stealth attacks on Romans and Roman sympathisers with sharp knives. But zealotry didn’t really work… the ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ maxim proved true. 

 The equivalent these days is to act as a combatant in the culture wars; to take up your political sword (more often than not a keyboard) and attempt to use power to secure your desired outcome at the expense of those who disagree with you, rather than figuring out how to live at peace with one another. This option, if you’re successful, produces short term success but your opponent comes back at you holding a grudge, or people know what it takes to unseat you from power — they just have to use power against you. It didn’t work for the Maccabees as a long term strategy. It never works for Magneto. Plus, a pretty smart guy (Jesus) said those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

District X: Essenes/Qumran and the Benedict Option


This hasn’t happened in the X-Men movie universe yet; but in the comics, a collective of mutants form a community-apart-from-the-community called Mutant Town or District-X. A place for mutants to be proudly mutant; apart from the world. In Israel, under Roman rule (and a bit before), the Essenes formed counter-cultural communities who behaved in counter-cultural ways; there’s a good chance they authored the Dead Sea Scrolls and that they viewed the Hellenised Jews as compromisers and covenant breakers. Their communities-of-difference were designed to maintain the faith. Josephus writes pretty extensively about them… here’s a couple of quotes about their differences from the world around them:

“Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character…

… these two things are matters of personal prerogative among them: [rendering] assistance and mercy. For helping those who are worthy, whenever they might need it, and also extending food to those who are in want are indeed left up to the individual; but in the case of the relatives, such distribution is not allowed to be done without [permission from] the managers. Of anger, just controllers; as for temper, able to contain it; of fidelity, masters; of peace, servants. And whereas everything spoken by them is more forceful than an oath, swearing itself they avoid, considering it worse than the false oath; for they declare to be already degraded one who is unworthy of belief without God.

The Essenes were basically a Jewish monastic movement. They withdrew from society — or formed a counter-society in order to not be tainted by the wider society, but also to serve it. One response to our present life-in-exile that seems to be gathering momentum is conservative pundit Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, in a sense it’s Alasdair MacIntyre’s Benedict Option in that it comes from this paragraph in After Virtue. It seems to be both a new District-X/Essenes movement based on the order started by St Benedict at the decline of the Roman Empire; a monastic movement that focused very much on virtue formation in an alternate community. MacIntyre wrote:

“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.” — Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

This all sounds very ‘Essene’ or very ‘District-X’… Dreher is keen for Christians to take up this vision; rightly calling us to remove ourselves from being too caught up with earthly empires — not making the Pharisee/Sadducee mistake, and calling for an end to the culture wars where we’ve tried to do a Magneto/Maccabees to fight off the imperial regime of our day. There’s been quite a lot written about this stuff since Dreher first proposed it; and frankly, it’s confusing exactly how engaged or disengaged with the wider world those pushing this barrow want their communes to be. It’s like a Benedict Option can be anything along a spectrum from Amish to just being a distinctly different community within the community (namely, the church), where you’re focused on cultivating virtue by being different in practice. Very few people would want to disagree with that… But there are three things I think are worth thinking about when deciding if the Benedict Option is the way forward:

  1. Are we in pre-dark ages Rome or pre-Christian Rome?
  2. Is withdrawing actually effective, or when all the Christians turn their attention inwards does that actually hasten the decline.
  3. Is virtue formation a means to an end, an end in itself, or a fruit of a good life, such that virtues are the character produced by a life lived towards a particular telos or mission, rather than being the aim of our mission.

In X-Men terms — are mutants the best version of themselves if they go off to mutant school to participate in a bunch of skill-honing montages, or are they better off training in mutant school, while stepping out to use their powers for the sake of others (which has the effect of training and forming these mutants to an end more inline with what goodness looks like (‘mutant and proud’ maybe?).

Dreher reads the cultural landscape pretty well, I think, its just that his solutions are a bit pessimistic and his view of Christian mission and what the church is for is a little too inwards looking for my liking.

Over the past decade, especially in the struggle over same-sex marriage, some of my friends and allies among social and religious conservatives have called me a defeatist for my culture-war pessimism. I believe that pessimism today is simply realism, and that it is better for us to retreat strategically to a position that we are capable of defending. The cultural battlefield has changed far more than many of us realize…

If by “Christianity” we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it. We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order… This is not to endorse quietism. I don’t think we can afford to be disengaged from public and political life. But it is to advocate for a realistic understanding of where we stand as Christians in twenty-first-­century America. Our prospects for living and acting in the public square as Christians are now quite limited. — Rod Dreher, Christian and Countercultural

I’m a little more hopeful than Dreher that if we were to get our house in order, in the church, we might ‘catechise the culture’ via the Gospel, rather than being losers in the worship wars. I think we can revive Christianity first by returning to the Gospel, not by withdrawing from the world then returning to the Gospel in isolation. In Dreher’s Benedict Option the benefit is primarily for the church and the Christian — with a long term potential benefit for those seeking to come in to these communities for some sort of ‘protection’ from the new dark ages.

These communities offer a way for believers to thicken Christian culture in a time of moral revolution and religious dissolution. And if they’re successful over time, they may impart their wisdom to outsiders who crave light in the postmodern darkness. — Rod Dreher, Benedict Option

“Benedict did not leave the world for the sake of saving it. He left the world for the sake of saving his own soul. He knew that to put himself in a position where he was open to the Holy Spirit required living life in a certain way, in community. Hence the monastery. The monastic calling is a special one given to a relative few men and women, but the principle that believers need a community, a culture, and a way of life to keep themselves open to the formative (re-formative) power of divine grace is true for all of us.” — Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option Still Stands

For most of us, though, that degree of commitment isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. Our Benedict Option will express itself within institutions—churches, schools, para-church organizations, and so forth—whose purpose is to keep orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture… We need to teach ourselves and our children to desire Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, as preserved within our traditions, and to make that pursuit the focus of our moral imagination. This is not a lofty ideal, but a matter of intense practical urgency. We do not have time to waste in building our little platoons… There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive. — Rod Dreher, Christian and Countercultural

Dreher also published a sort of FAQ guide to the Benedict Option if you want to get your head around it a bit more. If Carl Trueman is your cup of tea (he’s often not mine), he’s written a few pieces worth considering about the Benedict Option including: The Rise of The Anti-Culture, and Eating Locusts Will Be Benedict OptionalIf you really want to understand the Benedict Option you could do much worse than read this piece by Matthew Loftus. For those following the Worship Wars series of posts here, there’s also this from Dreher which quotes the reasons James K.A Smith doesn’t like the Benedict Option. Also, for what it’s worth, Stanley Hauerwas says MacIntyre regrets the Benedict line as he puts forward what I think is a better alternative. Another thing by Greg Forster points out that:

“The Benedict Option” is a phrase now so thoroughly jawed over that it effectively means whatever you want it to mean. No amount of effort by Rod Dreher to clarify what he means by it can prevent everyone else who is looking for something new from using it to mean whatever they happen to be fascinated by…The overarching problem, however, is the Benedict Option’s failure to love the unholy world. The holiness of the church has crowded out its divine mission.” — Greg Forster, The Benedict Option As Culture War

The thing about the Mutant Town project, and the real, historic, Essenes community, is that neither of them had a lasting impact on their world and neither of them had the desired effect on the people leaving the world. They were failures. Unless the preservation of scrolls in some jars is a success. There’s probably even more concern for us as Christians if we take Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 9-11:1 seriously — it seems that imitating Christ is about the desire to win some to the Gospel by becoming like them rather than them becoming like us, and that the key to holding on to the Gospel is actually holding out the Gospel. It may be that being Christlike and on mission with the Gospel (and thus habitually living out the Gospel story) is what will cultivate real virtue for us, not simply withdrawing and doing a bunch of Holy sacramental, discipline type stuff.

The X-Men: The Jesus option

Raven/Mystique: You know Charles, I use to think it’s gonna be you and me against the world. But no matter how BAD the world gets, you don’t wanna be against it do you? You want to be part of it. — X-Men: First Class

Raven: Get out of my head, Charles!
Charles Xavier: Raven, please do not make us the enemy today.
Raven: Look around you, we already are!
Charles Xavier: Not all of us, Raven. All you’ve done so far is save the lives of these men. You can show them a better path.
Hank McCoy: [to Xavier] Shut her down, Charles!
Charles Xavier: I’ve been trying to control you since the day we met, and look where that’s got us… everything that happens now is in your hands. I have faith in you, Raven. — X-Men: Days of Future Past

But what if we’re not in the Dark Ages at the end of the empire? What if we’re in first and second century Rome?

 

What if District-X was as bad an idea as the Brotherhood of Mutants and Professor-X’s X-Men actually have it right? What if the key to virtue formation, the church’s survival, and the salvation of the world actually lies in us fighting to save it by lying down our lives for the sake of others? Living as exiles but seeking the welfare of our place? Our enemies even? Imitating Christ. What if our job is to show a better path as part of the world; fully engaged, fully on mission to keep people alive.

What if Professor-X is basically Jesus (and Cerebro something like a mechanical version of the Holy Spirit)? And what if we’re formed as virtuous people by living out the mission given to us by Jesus for the sake of the hostile world that crucified him. How do these very clear instructions end up with the Benedict Option rather than with a team, or community, of people on mission?

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? — Matthew 16:24-26

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20

How does the Benedict Option (or any of the others) represent a life that extends Jesus’ mission into the world, where he became ‘God with us’ — present and engaged with a hostile culture; light coming into a darkness he knew was not going to receive him (John 1); how does it reflect this model of God’s engaged presence in the world that begins at the start of the Gospel and continues here in the Great Commission with the promise that he is with us?

What if it’s not the monastery we should be looking to for inspiration for how to handle the barbarians at the gate, but to the early church living amidst the barbarous Roman Empire which executed Jesus. Oh yeah. Christians building systems based on the halcyon days of the Roman Empire — as if the barbarians only came from outside are like those who think America or Australia were ever really Christian empires, who are more shocked than the rest at the secular juggernaut because it represents a greater loss of territory and influence. The world is yet to see a political empire built with Jesus as king. The church is yet to be anything other than a community of exiles; an alternate polis.

What if we should assume Christendom ended so long ago that what we’re dealing with isn’t a world about to enter the darkness, but a world that has been dark for so long it forgets what life really looks like? What if we’re not the church in Benedict’s day, but in the time where Jewish exiles were running around getting in to bed with the Romans, stabbing them with knives, or setting up communes only for Jesus, and then his church, to emerge as a real alternative kingdom so thoroughly engaged with life in the empire, from the margins, that the values of the Empire eventually turned upside down? What if an optimistic taking up our cross is the answer; if it virtue-formation looks more like martyrdom than life in a commune? What if the hope for the empire doesn’t lie in us pulling out in the face of hostility, but pitching in.

What if instead of looking at the Benedictine monks and their practices we looked to texts like Tertullian’s Apology and the ancient Epistle to Diognetus, to see how the early church — those exiles — responded to the Empire (and how this differed from the suite of Jewish exilic models in Rome). Is the Benedict Option really going to produce the sort of Christian who so relies on the truth of the Gospel that we stand in front of the secular juggernaut and say “bring it on, the Gospel will go further if you steamroll me…” Cause that’s what Tertullian said… 

“And now, O worshipful judges, go on with your show of justice, and, believe me, you will be juster and juster still in the opinion of the people, the oftener you make them a sacrifice of Christians. Crucify, torture, condemn, grind us all to powder if you can ; your injustice is an illustrious proof of our innocence, and for the proof of this it is that God permits us to suffer; and by your late condemnation of a Christian woman to the lust of a pander, rather than the rage of a lion, you notoriously confess that such a pollution is more abhorred by a Christian than all the torments and deaths you can heap upon her. But do your worst, and rack your inventions for tortures for Christians—it is all to no purpose; you do but attract the world, and make it fall the more in love with our religion; the more you mow us down, the thicker we rise; the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more.”

Is withdrawing into our own communities, ultimately for our own sake, really going to provide the sort of schooling in virtue that we need to love our enemies and lay down our lives for them? Is it going to produce communities whose engaged difference works for the good of the empire as it transforms one life at a time until our momentum is irresistible? Until the Gospel becomes a juggernaut with more momentum than the secular community trying to ram us? It has happened before, and the key wasn’t people pulling out of society that did it… it was a bunch of exiles living as citizens of a better kingdom, lives like those described in the Epistle to Diognetus an anonymous description of Christian community and beliefs from the late 2nd century:

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”

This doesn’t sound Benedictine to me. But it sounds powerful. It sounds like Jesus.

What if the answer isn’t withdrawal into ‘communities of virtue’ outside the mainstream but being an alternative community desperate to love the mainstream with the Gospel where our virtue is shaped by our interactions with the world such that martyrdom of some sort — the practice of self-sacrifice and rejection with our eyes fixed on the greater kingdom we belong to — is our process of being formed as virtuous people. There’ll be a certain sort of rich, thick, loving, community that makes martyrdom more plausible — if the love of the church is more compelling than the love of the world — but this sort of monastic way of life, even if still engaged, is both too negative and pessimistic about our chance to change the empire (as we did in the past) and too disconnected from the way of life we’re called to imitate. Jesus did not live in a monastery but spent his time amongst friends and sinners. The way to save our own soul, to run our race and hold on to the Gospel is to hold the Gospel out to others. To love others at cost. To be prepared to lay down our lives to do so. The way to be virtuous is to be on mission, to be the church, as Hauerwas puts it (confusingly, Dreher says he’s on board with what Hauerwas says in this interview, which is one of the reasons everyone is so confused about exactly what the Benedict Option is):

“The church doesn’t have a mission. The church is mission. Our fundamental being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses to a Christ who is known only through witnesses. To be a witness means you bear the marks of Christ so that your life gives life to others. I can’t imagine Christians who are not fundamentally in mission as constitutive of their very being – because you don’t know who Christ is except by someone else telling you who Christ is. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore it is the task of Christians to embody the joy that comes from being made part of the body of Christ. That joy should be infectious and pull other people toward it. How many of us have actually asked another person to follow Christ? In my experience, far too few.”

If you’re going to be ‘mutant and proud,’ in exile, be the X-Men. They always win. The movies tell me so.

There’s a better story that tells me that putting my pride in Jesus, for the sake of my neighbours, is a better way to win, and a better way to be an exile.