7 Types of speech that are more important than free speech for a civil society (and 2 for our role in it as Christians)

We’re told free speech is dead. And that the Coopers fiasco killed it (or revealed it to be dead, but let’s not get technical when making hyperbolic and overreaching claims).

But I don’t buy it. What we’re seeing in the rise of boycotts, no platforming, protests, and online outrage are exercises of free speech. Effective ones. So loud they drown out other positions.

Civil discourse relies on more than just free speech. Free speech means, essentially, that I am able to cover my ears and yell ‘la, la, la’ when I don’t like what you are saying. My children often exercise free speech in our household, and that doesn’t make for a more civil domestic situation.

Image: If there’s one guy who knows the cost of ‘free speech’ it’s Cicero. Who was executed and whose tongue was nailed to the rostra in the Roman forum, because of a series of speeches he wrote against Mark Antony. This painting depicts his arrest.

When we overreach in response to speech we don’t like what we’re revealing is just how good we’ve had it for so long. Our ideas; our positions; as Christians, have been the default. And it turns out they’ve been costly for people who don’t share them. And it turns out that part of the age we live in is that ideas are contested now. There are no sacred cows anymore. There are no ‘defaults’… at the moment it feels like the loudest voices are the ones that are winning, and we’re in trouble because we’ve been the loudest, freest voice for so long (did you know, for example, that the Bible Society is Australia’s oldest institution), and people are tired not just of listening to us, but of the way we exercise our freedom to speak without exercising a bunch of other civic virtues.

Free speech won’t, and can’t, secure a civil society. It’s part of it. But I’d argue a civil society is not where everyone yells at the top of their voices and the loudest voice wins; it’s one where all voices are listened to, and as many as possible are accommodated into the way it operates. This is what I mean when I use the word ‘pluralism’ — not that every voice is treated as true, but that every voice is listened to, and where the convictions are coherent, robust, and freely form a community of people within our society, those voices should be accommodated. Because that’s just — if I expect my views, and my community, to be accommodated, then I should extend that to others.

Seven types of speech more important than free speech for a civil society

Here’s a bunch of types of speech, built on the bedrock of free speech, that we need for a civil society. I’d suggest that free speech isn’t actually dead. What’s dead is a common commitment to these concepts as virtues, and it’s a mistake to lump them in all together to claim ‘free speech is over’… Most of these ‘types’ are explained with reference to how you get there from the Bible (cause most of the people who read this will be Christian, probably), but I think they’re pretty basic virtues for a civil society apart from Christianity too; it’s not that we’ve got a monopoly on civility, we do, however, have no excuse to be uncivil because it just doesn’t mesh with who we are as people who follow Jesus.

1/ Slow speech

Were you shocked by how many people talking about the Coopers stuff hadn’t even watched the video that started it (from both sides). One of the pubs boycotting Coopers admitted that they hadn’t watched it, but they were still prepared to grab the metaphorical pitchfork and head towards the large burning beer bottle.

We love a good hot take. A call to arms. The idea that our words might make a difference. Social media and clicktivism feed this. We feel like we’ve done something by clicking a link, or a virtual petition. We especially love hot takes that come from people we trust; from our ‘camp’… that’s why fake news has become so powerful, it’s always aligned to an ideology, and people like to be fed stuff that tells us what we already think. Algorithm driven social media platforms like Facebook feed this because they calculate what to serve up to us based on a growing sense of what we’re interested in. They feed us according to our self-interest. And that becomes a bit of a shortcut. Talk isn’t just cheap online; it costs nothing once you’ve got an internet connection. Media has been ‘democratised’… you’re a publisher. And we don’t just love a good hot take, we love being the first to share it in our circles, we love the likes and the acclamation (like old media loves good circulation numbers)… We also have FOMO (the fear of missing out). If there’s a bandwagon and it’s rolling and turning into some sort of juggernaut, we don’t want to miss out. So we don’t really have time to read and digest things (even the stuff we agree with, let alone other opinions), we just share stuff that we think lines up with some fundamental convictions about the world.

Ironically, the verse from James (in the Bible) that was used in that video is a good circuit breaker for outrage (with additional principles for ‘civil society’ for Christians).

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. — James 1:19-20

Just a few verses later, James also says:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” — James 1:26-27

2/ Loving speech

It’s pretty self-evident that you can use free speech to be a total jerk. And a bunch of people doing that makes society uncivil, not civil. Some of the points that follow are expanding on the idea that our speech should be loving if we want it to be worthwhile. Indeed, many of them are expanding on this verse.

 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. — Ephesians 4:15

The literal sense of the Greek word translated  ‘speaking the truth’ is ‘truthing in love…’ — there’s more than just speech in view. It certainly includes speech, and where Paul goes next in his argument talks about the types of speech that lead to a civil community (at this point he’s looking at the church). He says:

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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. — Ephesians 4:29-32

It’s not good enough just to have free speech, if we want a civil society our speech also needs to be loving.

This is all well and good within a community where identity is shared, and reinforced, as we speak to one another. But it should also frame how we speak with people outside our communities. We’ve too often traded loving speech for malicious speech (and by we I mean everyone, not just Christians), and that is a vicious cycle. A cycle of vice. A reinforcing feedback loop.

3/ Understanding speech

The sort of speech a civil society requires involves understanding one another. This carries a few things with it… it involves listening to others, it involves interpreting with charity so that when you respond, you’re actually understanding what the other person is saying, thinking, desiring, and experiencing. This involves cultivating empathy, and listening hard to people who disagree with us. It involves speaking with clarity, when we do speak, so that we to are understood — even if when we are understood people disagree with us still.

It’s very possible that we will never be understood; that the people we are speaking to will not be committed to this idea. But that doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing this ideal.

I think Jesus models this over and over again, in every conversation. He understands the pharisees, and the traps they’re trying to catch him in, and the state of their hearts, and where the story is going. He also understands the people he heals, protects, calls, and saves. He understands the deep desires that the woman at the well has, and why she’s at the well by herself in the heat of the day, and what she’s looking for in her relationships with the men of the town. He understands why the prostitute who washes his feet with perfume, tears, and her hair, is doing what she is doing. He understands what is happening at his trial, and how Pilate wants an easy out, and he doesn’t give it to him.

But I’m not Jesus. Lots of his understanding comes from unspoken stuff and the ability to pierce the hearts and minds of others… I don’t have that. I think we can be a bit more like Paul, who observes the rhythms of a city, listens to its people, reads the philosophers and poets underpinning the society, and speaks in a way that shows he knows what is going down… he gets laughed at by most, but he has done the work of understanding Athens before he opens his mouth in Acts 17 (and in other moments like when he’s on trial).

4/ Space-giving speech

There’s been a whole lot of boycotting and no-platforming going on lately. Especially in universities. We’ve decided that one of the best ways to use free speech is to stop other people speaking as our own speech-act. And we’ve realised that it’s more efficient to simply close down opportunities for people to speak from platforms we control, than it is to shout over the top of them. To no platform someone is to make a statement about the value of what they say, as we perceive it. It’s an act of speech but not an act of understanding.

Churches have been doing this for years. We have a platform. It’s often called a pulpit. We also have buildings. Most churches I know have policies about who they’ll let into the pulpit, and most churches I know who own buildings have limitations on the sorts of people they’ll allow to hire the venue and the activities that happen there. This is free speech — and it’s fine for us when it’s stuff we control… so I’m not sure we are in a position to make loud angry noises when our access to spaces we don’t control is cut off.

People who have websites/blogs do this too. I have a comment policy. I limit spam (though that is a form of free speech), and once or twice I’ve blocked comments I thought were malicious or slanderous. We also, rightly, have censorship laws, defamation laws, and other ways that we limit free speech for the good of the general population.

If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to carving out space (physical and virtual) to speak from. It might be that it has been a bad strategic move for so many churches to now meet in space they do not own. One of the benefits of a freeish public square (especially a public square not controlled by the state) has been that the need for ‘temples’ for various ideas has dropped. We don’t need space for every club or society if they can hire a room at the library, or book the town hall… one of the costs of a fragmenting society will be a return to those sorts of ‘temples’ for different associations (including churches). That will be a financial cost, but it will also come at the cost of space being public and porous. People will have to decide to go into a ‘temple’ — a non-public space — and the people who are part of those temples will have to decide to leave and to listen to other ideas. Temples will become bunkers (except for polytheists). Churches could become bunkers too.

And when you get ‘bunkers’ you get stuff like fake news, and echo chambers, and a lack of empathy and understanding for the other. You stop getting a ‘civil society’ and start getting a tribal one.

I think we need to go further though. If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to giving space to people who don’t share ideas, definitely in common places like universities and public venues (and arguably within laws and legal structures and how we define words like marriage). This is where the pluralism stuff really kicks in. We need ways to be different and clear in our speaking so that we might be understood, but we also need space for other people to speak too.This is why I loved this idea from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics guru Scott Stephens:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.”

And why I think we should stop spending so much time as Christians building web space (TGC, Thinking Of God, etc) and physical space (church buildings with exclusive use policies) that reinforce the bubble. And start being generous space givers to other ideas, confident that truth wins, and our truth is true. This doesn’t always work. The podcast from the US called The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea shows that when other people aren’t committed to the same sort of civil society they’ll do their best to shut you down. But you don’t fight incivility with more incivility. And you don’t go into public space as Christians expecting anything other than crucifixion.

5/ Ethical speech

For speech to contribute something valuable to civil society it has to have a more civil society as its end; not just the self-interest of the speaker. Back when people were figuring out the power of human speech to persuade, and what limits should be put on that power if unscrupulous speakers were running around manipulating people by being super-persuasive, there was lots of ink spilled by philosophers and orators like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian on how to control the power of free speech for the good of society. There were lots of speakers who were great with words and fancy arguments (logos), that stirred the emotions (pathos), and moved people through fine sounding arguments to hold positions that weren’t good for them (but usually beneficial for the orator or whoever was paying the orator). The pen — or word — really was mightier than the sword.

These philosophers valued integrity, character, and virtue — and the sense that ideal speech both comes out of an ideal, virtuous, person, and shapes an ideal, virtuous, society. They often also wrote books on politics, and ethics, and oratory was the path to their vision of the good, well-ordered, ethical society. This worked best if they embodied the picture of the good, well ordered, society, and that created a sort of obligation underpinning speech. Speech wasn’t just ‘free’ — it wasn’t enough just to use flashy words that excited people and evoked an emotional response (though that is part of oratory) the control was your ethics. You didn’t just need free speech and the free exchange of ideas to produce a civil society. You needed speech shaped by action that shaped actions. You needed ethos. Character. You speech needed to line up with your actions, or pull you towards certain future actions if you were talking about a wrong you had noticed in yourself or others.

We’ve always, as humans, hated hypocrisy. And a civil society is one where people’s actions and words line up. Where our words oblige us to a certain sort of action. Where we say ‘tolerance’ and mean it. The apostle John puts the relationship with words and actions like this (and, on the whole, in this letter is making the case that our actions, and the experience of God’s love in them reinforces our speaking about the Gospel so that we can believe).

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

6/ Costly speech

This ethical speech idea underpins the idea that speech should actually be costly. Talk should never be so cheap that it doesn’t also involve action. You are the medium for your message. If we are ‘worshippers’ you are actually the medium for the gods we worship (be it sex, or Jesus, or any other thing we love ultimately). We are the model ‘citizens’ of the civil society we hope to see our neighbours live in (whether or not they worship the same thing as us).

The catch is, for Christians, our God is a crucified God. The message we speak is one that says love looks like self-sacrifice, but also that this way of living, exclusively, is the path to the true God. And people aren’t always going to like that. And, just as they killed Jesus for saying that other gods and kings (and god-kings, like Caesar) were false and that belief in them is totally permissible, but foolish, people will probably want to crucify us, even if we get our approach to speaking totally right. Aiming for a civil society doesn’t guarantee one, cause the barbarian impulse is strong in all of us. We do want, as humans, to tear down other societies when they do threaten us, or when we feel like they do.

As Christians the cost of living out our message — incarnating it, even — is that we’ll probably end up like Jesus. Or, as this quote I love puts it:

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

I expect to be crucified — whether that’s laughed at, excluded, or anything up to execution, the goal of loving, costly, ethical, understanding speech for me is not just that in doing so I’ll definitely persuade everyone (though hopefully it’ll persuade some). My goal is that something like what happened at the cross will happen. That the person, or people, responsible for my pain, will, in inflicting it, see something true about what I’m saying and wrong about what they’re doing. That they’ll have a centurion moment.

My optimism is simply that God works through weakness and crucifixion. Which is the same optimism Paul brought to Corinth, a city obsessed with uncostly, unethical speech. Corinth loved flashy, substanceless, oratory that made them feel good about themselves and never questioned the status quo. Paul brought the message of the cross. In word, deed, and posture. And then wrote stuff to the Corinthians about their expectations (and his), stuff like:

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” — 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

And:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

His goal in doing this in Athens, where he was mocked (but some were saved), and in Corinth, where even people in the church thought he could’ve been a more impressive speaker, was that in ‘becoming all things to all people,’ even a slave, he might win some to the truth.

Society more generally would be better, I think, if people weren’t hypocrites but were committed to the idea that our words create obligation. It’d bring an end to clicktivism, and we might see Kony in chains, research for motoneuron disease fully funded, and a bunch of other substantial changes in the world around us.

 

7/ True speech

A civil society is built around a shared pursuit of truth. That’s why civil societies have libraries, universities, and education systems. These often become weaponised in ideological wars. But truth matters. Pursuing it matters. Listening for it is a good thing.

One of the biggest problems with the idea that free speech is what really matters is that it’s exactly the line used by perpetuators of fake news, or people who are spreading untruths who have that brought into question (think the anti-vax movement).

True speech is better than free speech, and more costly. It costs time, attention, energy, listening, wisdom, critical self-reflection, awareness of bias (and privilege), observations of structural, cultural, and individual power at work in our truth-seeking institutions, and a bunch of stuff most of us just can’t be bothered with.

People like Augustine, ages ago, recognised that all truth is God’s truth, and his vision of a civil society, built from his confidence that the Gospel is true, meant he really valued education. And his writing, and practice, on education has shaped much of the way the church has been, historically, involved in providing a liberal arts (wide) education to as many people as possible, not just a theological education. Maybe it’s time we rediscovered this  — first the value of knowing about things beyond just what will get us a job and beyond the things we think simply because of our prior convictions (theological or a-theological), and then the value of getting the sort of education that threatens us and gets us to read beyond our circles.

Two types of speech for Christians within our society

These are all more important for a truly civil society than just free speech, free speech is like a gun. You can give it to people, but unless you model how to use it, it’s dangerous.

1/ Prayerful speech

It’s not just opening our mouths and speaking to the world that should create in us a sense of obligation, and reflect our ethic (how we live). Prayer does this too, but ‘vertically’ not just horizontally. Christians who are worried about our place in the world need to keep reminding ourselves whose world it really is, and whose we really are. And we do that through prayer. Prayer reminds us that God is real, and as we pray that his kingdom might come (because his king has come and the kingdom is launched in the church), that shapes a particular way of living for us. Prayer is a vital part of how we’re going to go about creating a more civil society in the church. A society that models something different and compelling to the world around us.

If we think we’ve got it bad, Paul says:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. — 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

And he says something similar reflecting on his situation where the state has put him in prison for his faith…

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” — Ephesians 6:18-20

Without ceasing… continually. We’d be better users of speech in the public square if we were doing more of this I reckon… Also. If we want to speak meaningfully into the public square, it pays to keep Paul’s advice at the front of our minds too. The government he’s asking for prayer for is a hostile government… ours isn’t that yet, but it could be, and even if it is… this is the sort of speech he urges us towards.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people —  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-4

2/ Gospel speech

Oh great, you’re thinking, here’s the Jesus bit. I’ve been banging this drum for a while, but the reason to do all nine types of ‘civil’ speech outlined here is that we are citizens of a very different kind of civil society; a society built by the good news of Jesus — a message we heard about God’s great love for us despite our unloveliness. A society that ‘truthing in loves’ that good news to the people around us; in word and deed. The Gospel is the thing that should be shaping our ethos and our logos and our pathos. The words we speak, the lives we live, and the things we feel (like how we deal with fear and the threat of a changing world) all display what we think the Gospel (the good news) is. We all become the medium for what we think is true about the world, God, and life in the world.

If we live and speak the Gospel coherently it encourages people who already believe the Gospel to keep on keeping on, even in the face of danger and adversity. This is part of why Paul’s life — and chains — are actually an encouragement, rather than a discouragement, to the church. We serve a crucified king, and God’s power is displayed in weakness and its critique of uncivil, barbarous, societies.

The Gospel is good news because the society it creates is not exclusive in the way all other ‘gospels’ are. Think about what the average Aussie thinks ‘the good life’ looks like, and then ask how accessible that vision is for the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, the refugee, the broken, the depressed, the fragile, the homeless, the uneducated, the addicted… the Gospel is actually good news for lots of people in our world, even if the elite in our society want to paint it as a terrible and oppressive thing. Their visions of the good life are terrible and depressing.We have the words of eternal life, that create a civil society that is life bringing and inclusive. Words that create love, forgiveness, and mercy for our neighbours, fellow Christians, and even our enemies; not words that create outrage, boycotts, hate speech and lynch mobs.

Things feel like they’re really bad… the sort of bad Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 3-4. And I’m just going to leave this here… because it has what Paul suggests is how we should respond to this sort of world; the sort of speech we should be exercising.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth… 

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. — 2 Timothy 3:1-7, 10-4:5

The Light Beer Apocalypse: 9 things a viral video reveals about the world

This week a Christian organisation, The Bible Society, hosted a civil conversation featuring political disagreement between two members of the political party who, at least in the short term, will be the people who determine the future of marriage in Australia. It featured some cross promotion with Aussie beer company, Coopers, who were going to release some special edition beers in support of the Bible Society’s 200 year anniversary. And the world exploded. Coopers backflipped on the deal. It’s a real brewhaha (sic).

Disclosure: I write for the Bible Society’s Eternity Newspaper. They’ve paid me for some stuff. I like them. I like the video (though I think it has some issues). I know the host, and like him. I think public civility is really important. 

You’d be forgiven, reading the response pieces around the Christian blogosphere (and the outraged responses in comments sections and the Coopers Brewery Facebook page) for thinking that the world as we know it is ending (or has ended), and that we find ourselves in some sort of (un)brave new world. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but I do think this episode is truly apocalyptic.

apocalypse (n.)
late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal”

An apocalyptic text doesn’t really describe the ‘end of the world’ (not primarily), it reveals the world as it truly is. And that’s what has happened this week; the discussion around this video has been revealing both when it comes to the church, as we speak about issues our world disagrees with (and about our expectations about speech), and about our part of the world and its religiosity. Because what’s going on is really a clash between religious views of the world. A clash between the religious, the irreligious, and those who are fundamentally religious without realising it.

The religion of a section of the Australian left treats heretics with the same sort of sympathy that the church has, historically (when the church has been closely linked to the state and able to punish with the full force of the law); which is to say it seeks their utter destruction. Just ask Coopers (or read the one star reviews on their Facebook page, and see the pubs that are moving to quickly distance themselves from the company). And the thing about these moments of revelation is that they’re actually ‘apocalyptic’ in a true sense; they pull the curtain back and reveal the world as it really is, and give us a sense of the future as it could be. Stephen McAlpine’s posts on this story are worth a look (yesterday’s, and today’s), and ultimately his conclusions from the wash-up today look a bit like mine. Only I’m more hopefully optimistic about things than he is.

The conversation itself featured two politicians — a gay agnostic, and a Christian conservative. These white blokes trotted out well worn arguments for and against a change to the definition of  marriage in Australia over a light beer in a product crossover that has copped some flack. What was remarkable was that they were attempting to model civil debate, that they listened and disagreed respectfully. What is even more remarkable is what the fallout reveals about the end of the world as we know it. Twitter went nuts. Coopers was flooded with one star reviews on its Facebook page, accusations of homophobia (for a video they didn’t make, that featured a gay man who will potentially be the most effective advocate for marriage equality if the Lib/Nats move towards a free vote), and boycotts from individuals and pubs. Coopers released three statements; one in favour of dialogue on the issue, one distancing themselves from the video, and a third and final statement capitulating and signing up as paid up members of the marriage equality movement. They’re also pulling the release of the Bible verse beers… the Bible Society has been criticised for featuring two liberal MPs, but this criticism seems to miss the point that only Liberal MPs think this issue is possible to discuss anymore…

Personally, I’m tired of the idea that marriage is a zero sum game; that we (as Christians or conservatives) can only conceive of an approach to marriage that is a binary ‘no gay marriage’ or ‘gay marriage’ — this is where most of the anger seems to be levelled at us. Why we can’t do pluralism well and figure out ways to acknowledge the religious import of traditional marriage for some Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc, and protect that for both institutions and individuals within the community, while also acknowledging the religious import of changing the marriage definition for those who do not worship a god at all, but individual freedom, is beyond me. That’s my disappointment with the ‘debate,’ and why my position is closer to Wilson’s than Hastie’s.

Here are some things I think this episode reveals about the church and the world.

1. Our failure to practice listening as Christians means later attempts at ‘civil conversation’ fall on deaf ears

In terms of revelation, this reveals a certain degree of ‘out-of-touchness’ when it comes to Christians in Australia and our sense of just how distant our assumptions are from some people around us. That this video seems quite reasonable and good to us but to others is the stench of death (and the sort of thing that certain people believe should lead to the death of Coopers). If people are shocked by the vicious outrage in response to the video it probably represents how far removed some people advocating for traditional marriage are from the lived reality of those arguing for it.

There has been a tendency in some corners of the church — some that I move in — to suggest that we do not need to listen to, or understand, those asking for same sex marriage. Our job, we’re told, is simply to speak ‘God’s truth to the world’ not to listen to sinners or understand what they want; I can point to specific examples of this in the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and I’d say a new Sydney Anglican website on same sex marriage also does this when it employs slippery slope arguments and just generally fails to listen to what people on the other side are actually asking for and why, while ‘speaking faithfully’. The Bible Society is doing something different and commendable in this video, but it can’t escape the baggage of the Christian brand at this point.

It is possible that if the church continues apparently not listening our own speech will be treated the same way by those who disagree with us (and I think that’s happening), so it was nice to have this circuit breaker that said “hey, we’re not afraid to listen to a guy who disagrees with Christians, or even to give him a platform and share his thoughts with Christians all over the country”…

Our engagement in this debate as the church has involved a failure to listen, and so our arguments always feel like non-sequiturs, or nonsense, to the ears of people who have totally different understandings of what it means to be human. From where I stand, there has not typically been much sympathy for the desires of same sex marriage supporters or their view of the world; we’ve tended to impugn the motives of those asking for it, to see a bunch of other potential changes being ‘freighted in’, to be fearful of our own place in society, and there hasn’t been a real attempt, by Christians, to grapple with how our moral vision fits in a pluralist, secular, society where many of our neighbours don’t believe in God so reject the natural law arguments we serve up (Hastie offers a conservative, natural law, argument for maintaining the traditional definition of marriage).

This means it feels like we’re not interested in listening to, or understanding our neighbours, which means it seems disingenuous for us Christians to be making the case for civil discussions of the issue now. The great irony here is that we have a Christian organisation also giving a platform to a conservative case for same sex marriage from someone who is on the record as being sympathetic for a range of religious freedom concerns. If I was a non-Christian I’d be celebrating that a Christian organisation is providing a platform for that sort of view, and a conservative Christian politician is modelling actually listening.

2. The church needs to figure out how to operate in a pluralistic world… and fast

This video from the Bible Society was a nice example of a step towards pluralism. It doesn’t actually pick a side in the marriage debate, despite what those who’ve already settled on changing the definition of marriage might tell you. If we can’t figure out how to operate in a pluralist, secular, democracy then we can expect much more of the sort of treatment Coopers got from this video. And it’s not so much Hastie’s position (though he’s a Christian) that reveals the problem here, it’s a thoroughly consistent conservative position; it’s the ongoing sense that the future of the church’s witness, or our position in society, depends in some way on how this debate goes; it’s that the video presents the options on marriage as a binary choice between legislating same sex marriage, or maintaining the conservative position. This binary lacks imagination and backs us into a corner; if we can’t advocate a generous and pluralist solution to those opposite, then we can’t very well turn around and ask them for a pluralist solution (religious freedom) if/when they win. When it comes to same sex marriage it doesn’t have to be a choice between Wilson and Hastie.

Every belief about marriage is a position derived from a type of ‘religious’ conviction (a ‘theological anthropology’ even). A belief that there is no God brings with it a certain account of who we are, and opens up a range of potential visions of ‘the good human life’ — our ‘religious beliefs’ shape our understanding of what is and isn’t good for people. For the theist, the ‘good’ is the personification of the nature of God, for the non-theist the thing that acts as ‘god’ (a sort of organising force in the world) is the deification of the ‘good’ (in the case for same sex marriage the ‘divine good’ looks like love and individual freedom). We’re not good — many of us (Tim Wilson is an exception) — at accommodating different gods, or visions of ‘the good life’ in a shared political framework.

3. We need to be slow to overreach in our reaction to the reaction, because the outrage cycle is built on perpetual overreach

It’d be a shame to over-reach though, in terms of what the reaction to this video represents for us as the church. We’d need to do a good and careful job at parsing out exactly what people are angry at, and why, and whether they’re angry at Christians speaking at all, or angry because of the way Christians have spoken out on this… and we need to ask ourselves some pretty bracing questions if it’s the latter (and I think it could be, in part because as a Christian looking at how we speak about marriage, I think we’ve often got this wrong).

The thing about the outrage cycle is that it often involves a tit-for-tat ‘hot take’ driven over-reach, and there’s not always enough time given to that careful analysis of what is happening and why (this tends to be diminished the more somebody has been developing a systemised approach to understanding something more broadly, when it’s possibly a response to ‘data’ rather than anecdote).

We might be tempted to describe this as the death of free speech in Australia. It could be. Free speech is definitely under attack from a certain section of the Australian community; and the attackers do have some politicial clout. I’ll suggest below that Christians shouldn’t be into free speech, but costly speech, anyway… but I think it’s a mistake to think that the chattering class (who can be found writing opinion pieces, blogs, and comments below the fold on these pieces) represent the whole Australian landscape. It certainly doesn’t seem to value Tim Wilson or see his perspective as one shared by those outside a particular intellectual circle.  I spoke to someone yesterday who had reached out to Tim Wilson to see how he was coping with the fallout, and he’d remarked that the outrage simply proved his point. Not everybody in this world, outside the church, finds outrage appealing (just as not everyone in the church wants to join in the outrage but from the opposite end).

It’s possible that the hardcore, reactionary left is massively over-reaching in its response to this video (and Coopers is over-reacting, and responding far too quickly in response to this over-reach). I’ve written lots about marriage and same sex marriage, I haven’t hidden my Christian convictions, and yet I manage to have pretty robust and civil conversations with gay friends, my neighbours, my friends from the left, and friends from the right. The hard left gets a disproportionate and distorting influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Labor Party, just as the hard right gets a disproportionate influence on certain issues (including marriage) in the Liberal Party.

I do think our problems, as the church, are more about a failure to listen, a failure to do pluralism, and some problems when it comes to what we say when we speak… I don’t know many people in the real world who planned to change their beer buying habits as a result of this campaign; I don’t know many people who have the sort of spare time that allows them to fill up the comments sections on different websites, or write one star reviews. We need to be careful not to over-react, in fear, to a noisy minority (while being careful in how we engage) because that actually serves to amplify the voice and impact of the over-reachers.

4. The new religion of the secular left learned how to treat heretics from the best… the church

In the 14th century there was a guy, John Wycliffe, who dared to translate the Bible into the language of the people. The church felt like its power was threatened by this dissenter. Sadly he died before they could kill him. So the church dug up his body and burned him. In the 16th century there was a guy named Servetus; his teaching was heretical and considered dangerous. Calvin reluctantly worked with the government of Geneva to have him executed. When religion co-opts political power, bad things happen to ‘heretics’… the state religion destroys them. The state hasn’t destroyed Coopers in this case (and the future of Coopers remains to be seen), but the treatment of the company, and its business, at the hands of their critics looked a lot like a witch hunt, a lynching, or a heresy purge. It remains to be seen whether Coopers’ repentance and contrition will save them — it would’ve saved a Christian in Rome, if they’d just chosen to bend the knee to Caesar… but it feels like the online outrage machine is less forgiving than Rome, and it’s certainly less inclined to forgive than Calvin was with Servetus. There isn’t much space for grace in the ‘gospel’ of the hard left. Just shame and destruction. The more we point that out not just by decrying it, but by modelling a compelling alternative, the better…

5. We need to tighten up our speaking; sometimes we can try to be too clever and homophonia gets us in trouble

The Bible Society has, for some time, had the slogan ‘live light’ as part of its brand. But its playfulness and lack of clarity about what ‘light’ is, has bitten pretty hard this week.

In its mission statement is says:

“Early in the life of Australia, passionate community leaders like Lady Macquarie created the Bible Society. They knew it wasn’t just government that could build a nation. It would need people of hope, people who live light.”

Indeed, its logo prior to this bicentenary celebration was this…


It’s not (though the tone of the video might suggest otherwise) really about treating the issue lightly (as though they don’t matter or should be laughed off); the two people conversing are very serious stakeholders in this debate mounting serious arguments for their position. It’s about bringing ‘light’ not darkness.

The bit of the verse featured on the Coopers carton in the picture above (a ‘light beer’) says:

“Whoever lives by truth comes into the light”…

That’s, of course, not the full story. It leaves ‘light’ a bit ambiguous. The verse that is, in part, featured on the Coopers cartons that support the campaign is John 3:21:

But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

This is about light as opposed to darkness; not light as opposed to ‘heavy’ (as in beer), or light as opposed to serious (as in discussion)

The context of this verse is:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. — John 3:19-20

This verse is ultimately about Jesus. Coming to Jesus. Jesus is the light. He’s not darkness or watery beer.

Bible verses don’t work so well if we pull them apart and lift them from their context. And it’s especially dangerous to take a word like ‘light’ and be flexible with the definition for the sake of a clever campaign. Biblically, in the Greek, light in weight is ἐλαφρός while light as opposed to darkness is φῶς. It’s not a great bit of word play to let the definitions creep into each other. It’s confusing.

That the public conversation is now about how wrong it is for the Bible Society to treat such a significant conversation lightly shows that we have a real problem, in our culture, with homophonia. When words sound the same, we take the least charitable possible understanding in a way that serves our own purposes. But it doesn’t help when the people speaking are obscuring the charitable understanding they should be promoting… Sometimes we try to be too clever with slogans — so when we have ‘a light discussion about heavy issues’ in connection with a Bible verse about Jesus, that can catch us out. Mixing metaphors gets us into all sorts of trouble, and this campaign mixing a Bible verse, light beer, and a light hearted conversation is a bit confusing for all of us.

6. The Bible has useful principles when it comes to public civility; but its point is usually about something much more important than that

The video is meant to promote the idea that following the Bible’s advice when it comes to disagreement produces better outcomes (I think it does). It’s part of the Bible Society’s campaign to show how the Bible brings light to the world. What the video was meant to demonstrate, or reveal, is that it is possible that living in the light of the Bible, and its wisdom, produces better, more civil, conversations in public about significant issues. The way Wilson and Hastie attempted to model advice from the book of James does seem to demonstrate a virtuous type of public civility that I desperately crave in and for our nation. It’s not that the Bible alone produces this civility, Wilson isn’t a Christian, but the Bible does, or should, produce people who do this. The fuller context of James 1 says:

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Now. I’m sure that being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry is good advice for civil conversation. But really… that’s not what James has in view — he’s writing to Christians (brothers and sisters) and the way we’re meant to approach speaking is connected to the ‘righteousness God desires’ and is meant to be about a connection between words and actions. There’s a lot more behind this verse than just a guide to civil conversation, and we’re not actually helping people see the value of the Bible by limiting its impact to ‘wise advice for everyone’… When Jesus talks about the Bible he says stuff like:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me…” — John 5:39

It’d be interesting to consider how this shapes how we should speak about same sex marriage, or what our position we should be advocating with great civility.

7. Talk is cheap, but public speech should be costly not free.

As Christians we signed up to the idea that speech should be costly when we signed up to follow the crucified ‘word of God’… Jesus. I don’t think ‘free speech’ in a political sense is dead; words have always had consequences because speakers have always been challenged to back up words with actions (cost), because without that you’re a blowhard or a hypocrite.

The problem with the virtual outrage machine is that clicktivism costs nothing. People are free to jump on to a business’s page and destroy its reputation without ever changing their actions. This is what some now call ‘virtue signalling’ — for talking about virtue to be real not just a signalling exercise, it has to be backed up with action.

Ethical speech should not be free for Christians. It should be costly. Political speech should also be costly (I fleshed this out a bit more in a thing about how to write to your MP). Words for Christians need to be underpinned by action. We’re meant to do what the word says (to quote James). Speech should at least cost us ‘having listened’… but it must cost us more than that. If we want our speech to have integrity we need an ethos that supports our logos. 

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” — 1 John 3:18

8. We should live light in response to this apocalypse (and this doesn’t mean light beer or pulling our punches)

 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him — John 1:4-5, 9-10

The last few days has revealed much about the church, and much about our ability to have meaningful conversations in Australia. It has revealed the gap between what we think and believe about humanity and the world, and what the ‘world’ thinks about humanity. People outside the church have taken offence at a Christian organisation appearing to support a conservative political position because it lines up with Christian moral convictions. They’ve called even talking about traditional Christian views offensive, oppressive, and hateful.

It seems the deck is stacked against us; especially if this is some sort of majority position. If this is the case, we may as well be bold and be offensive for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. If people are going to be offended and mock us whether we make conservative political arguments from natural law, or for approaching the secular political realm as people who believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus (and that this should shape our own politics and how we think of sex and marriage within our own communities, and in terms of God’s design for human flourishing), then why don’t we bring the real light?

“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” — Matthew 10:22

Jesus says that’s what’s going to happen to us because of his name… and this isn’t some shibboleth test, but I’m not sure the name of Jesus got a mention in this little video. It might just be worth our while to be hated for living light — promoting Jesus in word and deed — rather than being seen to be pushing some sort of conservative political agenda according to the secular rules, or even to be seen to be advocating for the very good thing of public civility (as nice as that would be to see from my perspective as a citizen in the Australian public).

Here’s how this worked for Paul…

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. — 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

If we’re inevitably going to be offensive, let’s be offensive for good reason (and we might just be the aroma of life for some people) rather than carrying the stench of stale light beer.

9. We need less ‘hot takes’ and more cold ones

Hot take (n.)

“a piece of commentary, typically produced quickly in response to a recent event, whose primary purpose is to attract attention.”

Cold one (n.)

“a cold beverage, usually a beer”

I’m reluctant to add this post as another piece of chatter on this issue from the chattering class. Another hot take in a sea of outrage. Another rhetorical ship passing other ships in the night. I’d rather be a lighthouse than a ship.

I’d much rather have a beer with my gay friends and neighbours and really listen to them so that together we might imagine better ways forward than either binary solutions, outrage, or totalitarian solutions that aim to silence those who disagree with us. My shout (let me practice costly speech). It probably won’t be a Coopers this week (I confess, I’ve never drunk a Coopers), and it certainly won’t be a light beer, because I don’t want to mix metaphors, nor do I want to drink light beer.

But this sort of conversation should shed light on life lived together in the world, and on where my hope for my neighbours and our society is really found. The one who didn’t just ‘bring light’ to conversations, but who is the light of the world.

I don’t think civil public discourse is served all that well by fast, attention grabbing responses and conversation by hashtag. I hate boycotts — whether it’s Christians boycotting Halal certified food, or LGBTIQA allies boycotting Coopers. Boycotts are self-serving and self-seeking; they are the worst form of virtue signalling. Imagine how much more effective and persuasive it might be to write to Coopers and say “I don’t like that you’ve done this but I’m going to keep drinking your beer because I value you, it, and your workers”… We Christians don’t change hearts and minds through hostility (even if Coopers has backflipped), but hospitality, love, listening, understanding, and then carefully speaking the Gospel as it relates to an issue.

What saddens me is that as much as this has been a useful revelation about the state of public discourse in Australia, almost all of my Christian friends (myself included) have spent the last three days talking about beer, same sex marriage and civility, when we could’ve been talking about Jesus. Let’s aim our ‘living light’ or ‘keeping it light’ at that goal, even if apocalyptic moments like this one keep revealing that the world can be a pretty dark place.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. — 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

How not to vote (2): Don’t vote for a plebiscite to protect your religious freedom or freedom of speech

howtovote

One of the big arguments I’ve read on opposing the plebiscite is that this is the defining moment in the fight for religious freedom and for freedom of speech. The plebiscite will only be this if we religious people make it so; and especially if we make it a defining fight about Christian religious freedom and our picture of religious freedom is based on the yester-years of Christendom; not on what religious freedom looks like in a pluralist, secular, post-Christian, liberal democracy.

Publicly calling for the plebiscite because it is the last battleground where we might secure religious freedom or defend free speech is a bad idea. Especially when we Christians have also called for a ‘no holds barred’ public conversation where people can deliberately say offensive things. It’s too hard for us to differentiate Christian voices in the public square for an audience who don’t care about nuance, unless we’re going to say remarkably different things. But these ideas are out there now. And they’re going to hurt our witness.

Free speech doesn’t guarantee us a hearing for the Gospel

It’s one thing to have ‘free speech’ — it’s an entirely different thing to have a voice people will listen to. Securing the former at the expense of the latter is a terrible strategy.

We, as Christians, are citizens of God’s Kingdom whose shared task — whose ‘great commission’ — is to preach the Gospel so as to make disciples of Jesus. We shouldn’t be so cheaply sacrificing being heard by our neighbours to ‘secure’ freedom to speak. And that’s what this debate represents — its a chance for us to so stridently argue against our neighbours and how they view the world, and what it means to flourish in it, in the name of free speech that they’ll push us to the margins and not listen to what we have to say, or its a chance to model the sort of listening to others that will, at times, result in us being heard.

Free speech and religious freedom are good things, but I’m not willing to compromise my responsibility to speak with love and understanding, and the free practice of my religion — following a saviour crucified by the empire and the religious establishment — to win a fight for things the secular government can’t actually take away.

We might be given speech freely, but being listened to is something we’ve got to earn. We should be much more interested in having our voice actually heard, than in the freedom to speak loudly and obnoxiously in the public square. Earning a hearing is costly, and our core business, as Christians, is to be people who speak words at our cost. The core of our message is the crucified Word. We know more than anyone else that if speech is worth hearing it is incredibly expensive to the speaker. Free speech is for wimps.

We preach a message that is so at odds with the way people around us see our world, and it produces such cost in itself from the world, that Paul has to keep pointing out to his friends that he’s not ashamed of our crucified king, Jesus, and that his chains are a small price to pay.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” — Romans 1:16-17

The secular world isn’t equipped to respond to the Gospel as truth without the Spirit

Paul says these words just before he describes the world we live in — an unrighteous world where people live by the flesh, and they do that because God has given them over to a particular way of seeing things because we humans reject him (Romans 1:18-28).

This theological reality has significant implications for a plebiscite; implications that mean our political campaigning will probably be a waste of time and energy better spent elsewhere, and if our ‘free speech’ isn’t used to proclaim the Gospel, and if the ears that hear it aren’t moved by God’s Spirit, we have little chance of changing what people worship, and so changing how they see the world.

“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.” — Romans 8:5

Barring a miraculous event where more than 50% of Australia suddenly converts to Christianity and so sees the idol of ‘sexual freedom’ through the lens of the Holy Spirit, the only way we’re going to see a majority of Aussies voting against Same Sex Marriage is if we adopt ‘fleshy’ natural arguments, putting forward a bunch of alternative counterfeit gods to shape the way our neighbours vote. We’ll have to rely on arguments that attempt to put freedom, nature and procreation and other ‘created things’ at the heart of someone’s response to the issue when they enter the voting booth for the plebiscite.

Even if a plebiscite does go this way, if people vote against Same Sex Marriage, we’re kidding ourselves if we think majority rules is a win for the free proclamation of the Gospel, especially if it comes at the expense of us wielding worldly power and appealing to people’s idolatrous ‘natural’ vision of the world, or at the expense of Gospel clarity.

Our job is to hold out the Gospel, speaking at our cost. Just like Paul. Come what may. Come whatever changes the world might bring.

Our job is also to earn a hearing for our expensive message. Here’s what Peter says to the early church, a church living without free speech and with the knowledge that they needed to earn the right to be heard if they were going to fulfil the Great Commission:

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. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:11-17

In order to earn a hearing for the Gospel we might first need to use our free speech to redefine what ‘good’ is, rather than seeking to legislate our vision of good

There’s a difference between doing good ourselves and being known for doing it, and seeking to have our laws established as good for others; especially when nobody really shares an understanding of what good is for humans anymore.

The Christian account of what is good for people is tied to a created telos, or purpose, for humanity; something that we might become if we live with a particular vision of good in mind. This isn’t an exclusively Christian thing, Aristotle was pretty big on this idea too. It is, however,  something we’ve lost in our secular age as we’ve collapsed the ‘transcendent’ spiritual reality that people used to assume existed, into a purely immanent material framework for knowing about and experiencing the world.

In After Virtue, Alisdair MacIntyre makes the observation that modern (and post-modern) secular morality has no sense of a purpose or telos outside of material existence for humanity — no good beyond the idea of ‘being what you are’ — so a very different understanding of good is operating in our world, and being legislated for by our secular government. We’ll talk past each other if we don’t understand the secular world we live in now and its ethics.

I think there’s a good case to be made that loving our neighbours means participating in the political realm and seeking their good. But we’ve got to know the moral field has changed. Our task is first to argue for a different kind of good — which we do via the Gospel — and we do this by both proclaiming the Gospel and investing our lives in the persuasive, costly, pursuit of the sort of good we want to legislate for, to demonstrate its goodness. We can’t achieve good in any real sense just pursuing a Christian moral framework for those “ruled by the flesh,” whose sense of good is limited to the natural world and what is, not a divine sense of what ought to be for humans.

Freedom of religion and our use of free speech need to be pointed at addressing this new secular sense of goodness, not trying to defend the moral framework our world is rapidly walking away from. The gap in understanding what good is between us, and our neighbours, is growing fast, but it’s a mistake to think this wider gap means we need to shout louder; rather than meaning we need to do some bridge-building before we listen to and speak to our neighbours. If we don’t realise why things were the way they were, why they’re not anymore, and what has been lost in our shared life as a result of this change; we won’t be able to speak across this gap. What has been lost, fundamentally, is a sense of both a divine being who made humanity, and any sense of a divine good purpose or telos for our humanity. We can’t argue that people should accept this purpose when they no longer accept the premise. And I don’t think Romans 1 leaves us with any grounds to assume that will work.

The world has, for some time, been influenced by a Christian moral vision, or a man-made religious framework that looked a lot like ‘righteousness’ — and that has worked, in some ways, for the good of many (but it hasn’t necessarily been for the ultimate good of many people if that is caught up with knowing and following Jesus). But the world is shifting, and the way to shift it back is not by trying to maintain a particular moral framework, by some use of the law, against the desires of those in our community, but by listening to Paul and Peter — preaching the Gospel, and living it, free from fear of the changes around us and the costs they might involve for us.

The sort of religious persecution we face in Australia is the ultimate #firstworldproblem; people might mock us, scorn us, fine us, arrest us, take our property in lieu of payments of those fines or in law suits, and they’ll push us further to the margins of our society; but they’re highly unlikely to throw us to lions, burn us alive, or stone us for our beliefs.

We’re not meant to live by the sword; we’re meant to live by the Cross. We’re meant to know that the world isn’t a comfortable place that guarantees our freedom. The world isn’t ‘safe’ for us. Somewhat ironically, the same people getting mad at marginal groups who ask for ‘safe spaces’ in our universities and community spaces are now asking for the whole public sphere to be ‘safe’ for us to safely speak. We get safety to speak and believe freely by extending that same protection to others, not by seeking to curtail it.

Anonymous v Westboro: Unappointed arbiters, justice, and the dangers of repaying evil with evil

In the past, Anonymous, the anonymous group of hacktivists, were reportedly set to lock horns with Westboro Baptist – the hatemongering group who protest at the funerals of dead soldiers and the victims of tragedy, shout slogans outside concerts around the US, and target other churches. They also recently appeared on Russell Brand’s TV talk show.

The problem with being an anonymous group is that you’re pretty easy to imitate, and the group initially denied targeting Westboro – but claimed they were watching, and then hacked their website for the lols.

Now. Anonymous is getting serious.

After Westboro announced they were going to picket the funerals of the victims of the Newtown school shooting (note – not a particularly Christian response to tragedy), Anonymous acted. Circulating contact details for the members of the church around the internet, and posting this ominous video on the Westboro website.

Just be warned – there’s a pretty shocking high pitched noise at the end of the speaking, that might make you jump.

Anonymous – Message To The Westboro Baptist Church from @kyanonymous on Vimeo.

Here’s a snippet of the script – which you can find in full on the Vimeo page.

“Your pseudo-faith is abhorrent, and your leaders, repugnant. Your impact and cause is hazardous to the lives of millions and you fail to see the wrong in promoting the deaths of innocent people. You are self-appointed servants of God who rewrite the words of His sacred scripture to adhere to your prejudice. Your hatred supersedes your faith, and you use faith to promote your hatred.

Since your one-dimensional thought protocol will conform not to any modern logic, we will not debate, argue, or attempt to reason with you. Instead, we have unanimously deemed your organization to be harmful to the population of The United States of America, and have therefore decided to execute an agenda of action which will progressively dismantle your institution of deceitful pretext and extreme bias, and cease when your zealotry runs dry. We recognize you as serious opponents, and do not expect our campaign to terminate in a short period of time. Attrition is our weapon, and we will waste no time, money, effort, and enjoyment, in tearing your resolve into pieces, as with exposing the incongruity of your distorted faith.”

Anonymous may or may not have orchestrated this petition to have Westboro’s tax exempt status withdrawn by declaring them a hate group (perhaps a more useful petition than the bid to build a death star). That petition has passed the threshold required for a response from the White House.

Part of me really wants Anonymous to succeed. I love the idea of hacktivism, especially when it’s directed at such an insidious group who do real harm to people, and to the gospel of Jesus.

It’d be nice to have the power to do something when tragedy strikes. When there’s someone who is clearly in the wrong – be they directly involved, or a parasitic third party.

But another part of me worries about a society where censorship is dictated either by the consensus of the majority, or the activism of a powerful, and hidden, minority.

It presents another dilemma – given that Anonymous is anonymous – and completely not accountable to anybody but themselves – unlike duly elected representatives of the state – this classic dilemma, is expressed in this manner in Latin:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Or “who watches the watchmen?”

Who watches those who appoint themselves as gatekeepers for society? The moral arbiters? Especially if they’re vindictive, and have something that approaches unlimited power to wreak carnage.

The society anonymous seeks to prevent, at least if it’s really channeling V for Vendetta – which the Guy Fawkes mask they own as their own would suggest, is a totalitarian society driven by tyranny, where opposing views are silenced.

There’s something disturbing and ironic about Anonymous appointing themselves as the totalitarian regime, potentially enabling lynch mobs through the publication of contact details of a widely hated group.

There’s a tension here. Words have consequences, and speech is never really free. There’s a problem when “free speech” means you can say anything to harm anybody without the fear of consequences. But there’s an obvious problem, too, with preventing people from speaking because you disagree with what they’re saying.

I hate what Westboro do. I hate that they stand outside funerals and compound the grief of the grieving. I hate that they claim to do it in the name of Jesus. But I’m not called to hate the individuals who make up Westboro. I’m called to love them. I’m not called to silence them. I’m called to speak truth to them. With love.

There should be consequences for Westboro’s hate speech. And they shouldn’t be allowed to say what they want to say wherever they want to say it (namely, outside funerals). But if they want to preach their abominable gospel from their abominable pulpit, and from their website – then they should be free to do it. We get into dangerous territory if people can silence views they disagree with, rather than simply having equal opportunity to speak against them, and let the market decide.

But the Anonymous campaign goes further than that – it aims to silence the group.

They say:

We will not allow you to corrupt the minds of America with your seeds of hatred. We will not allow you to inspire aggression to the social factions which you deem inferior. We will render you obsolete. We will destroy you. We are coming.

Everyone is equal.

They mean everyone is equal – except Westboro. It’s all very animal farm – and they’re the pigs. Again, a subversion of anti-totalitarian literature…

There’s a little bit of recent form for this – Anonymous also targeted the advertisers who were prepared to continue advertising with 2Day FM after the recent tragic outcome of a prank call. Blaming the network for the unfortunate, and unforeseeable, outcome of the broadcast. YouTube has canned the videobut you can still see it at The Australian (you may need to google it to get behind the paywall).

“We have studied the facts and found you guilty of murder. You have placed yourself in an untenable position. You have placed your advertisers at risk – their databases, their websites, their online advertising.

We are Anonymous and hereby demand you terminate the contracts of Mel Greig and Michael Christian. We will not listen to any more excuses. We will not let you escape your responsibility. You have a funeral to pay for. We are Anonymous. We are legion. We are amongst you. Expect us. This is not a prank call; this is no laughing matter. This is your one and only chance to make amends. You have one week to do so.”

They’re Judge. Jury. Executioner. Pretty totalitarian – the separation of powers is one of the checks and balances modern democracies use to prevent something of the situation we’ve seen in the past.

Westboro’s idiocy, their evil, their hate – it doesn’t dehumanise them. It just makes them stupid, evil, hatemongers.

My inner idealist would just like to see people continue to be able to sustain the distinction between Westboro and the rest of the people in the world who call themselves Christians, without the need to even talk about them when they do stupid stuff. But their hateful message is powerful because people are always on the look out for an other to hate, and a cause to belong to. We have skinheads. Gangs. Anonymous web terrorists.

I can’t help but think that a much better – particularly if you’re a Christian – response to Westboro (and to Anonymous) is to respond with unexpected love, bizarrely – this is just what Russell Brand did. And what Mars Hill did when Westboro came knocking at their church doors.

Doing this properly requires two things of us.

First, we’ve got to believe that there’s a just God waiting at the end of time to punish wrong doings, and judge justly. The sins of Westboro will not go unpunished. No wrongdoing will.

And this takes the need for us to act as judge, jury, and executioner out of our hands. Leaving us to love. Romans 12 says it best:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

That’s the first bit – and already it takes some of the wind out of the sails of the Anonymous campaign (and it’s something Westboro should be taking note of too – but they’re not particularly adept at reading the Bible).

The second factor, perhaps more important. Is to remember that not only are we Anonymous – wanting to run things our way. To decide right and wrong for ourselves, and judge others by our standards. We are Westboro. We are the radio DJs whose poor judgment spiralled out of control. We are sinners. We are subject – by right – of judgment, by a perfect juror, and the execution that comes as a consequence.

Only, if you’re a Christian, Jesus took that judgment for you. Who are you to judge, if this is the case. The (potentially apocryphal) story of the woman at the well is a story worth heeding at this point, from John 8.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

At this point Anonymous finds themselves in the dangerous position of being the Pharisees – those opposed to Jesus – who miss the spirit of the law, and the true nature of humanity – rather than the righteous. They’re not claiming to be Christians – but they are claiming to be the righteous judges who serve a higher calling than mere mortals.

But what do I claim? What can I claim?

I am Fred Phelps. I am a hater. I am a sinner. My heart is a factory of pride, and my pride always comes at the expense of others. I need Jesus to step in for me. How can I do anything but offer love and grace to other sinners?

That’s the most worrying thing about Anonymous taking control – not only did we not choose them as the moral police, not only do they lack any of the accountability required stand in judgment over other sinners, they seem unprepared to treat those they oppose as humans. With love.