Tag Archives: james davison hunter

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The church of the excluded middle

If there’s one thing we learned in the recent Australian election, just one ‘take home’ message, it’s that there aren’t just deep fault lines between religious and non-religious Australians, but, increasingly, there are fault lines running through the Christian community. I’m not sure ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Australian politics — or within the Australian church — have ever been more polarised. But then, I am still reasonably young…

The stakes seemed pretty high for religious Aussies, what with lobby groups like the ACL doubling down on ‘religious freedom’ and ‘keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament’ as two of their top five areas of policy concern for Christians’ (which led them to hand out how to vote cards that supported One Nation in certain ‘battleground’ seats (for what it’s worth, Tony Abbott’s pugilistic campaign page ‘battlelines.com.au’ seems to have been a misfire)). The Labor Party’s policy on abortion was also an issue of widespread concern amongst Christian voters — but that tends to be one that crosses the right/left divide amongst Christians in lots of cases. Meanwhile, my friends on the left seemed keen to play down religious freedom as an issue (especially as it connects to the ongoing imbroglio surrounding ex-Wallaby Israel Folau), even as Labor Party insider after insider comes out flagellating the party for ‘disconnecting’ itself from the average religious punter (and, for what it’s worth, in my little bit of political punditry in my previously linked piece on abortion, I suggested Labor’s platform revealed they believed the Christian constituency to be so insignificant a force that they could not just ignore it, but trash it and ‘wedge’ Christian conservatives as the ‘bad guys’, turns out if that’s the strategy, they were wrong, and I remain curious about the impact Israel Folau had on this misread)… That said, my friends on the left are dismayed by the failure for, in Abbott’s words, the issue of climate change to be treated as a moral issue not an economic one, for a lack of movement in Australia’s generosity via foreign aid, and for many of us with friends who sought asylum in Australia there’s a particular grief about more years of limbo and dispassionate dehumanisation of these vulnerable members of our community (calculated dispassion at this point seems morally worse to me than passionate objection to the issue — plus, if boat turnbacks have “stopped the boats,” the whole rationale for keeping people from settling in Australia permanently is gone; either that policy is working or it isn’t). 

The stakes seem high for fellowship amongst Christians who are ideologically convicted or partisan, or even just ‘centrist’ (and not in the sense of trying to find a synthesis between every policy issue, but rather, in the sense of recognising that where the right tends to focus on individual responsibility and a conservative impulse, and the left tends to focus on systemic issues and solutions, and a progressive narrative, there’s actually truth and wisdom to be found in holding those poles in tension). People on either pole seem keen to take to Twitter to disavow the political other — to pull the church in a political direction based on an ideological assumption of ‘Gospel truth’ linking up with a particular stance, and in doing so, to dismiss the good faith reasons their brothers and sisters in Christ give for holding different convictions as matters of liberty, wisdom, and an application of our limited, creaturely, ability to actually know how to tackle incredibly complex questions in an increasingly globalised world. 

At the same time as political questions get treated as though the answers must be found at the ‘poles’; theological questions are also being resolved in the same way; ‘tension’, ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox’ are increasingly terms to be viewed with suspicion. Where once unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things might was an ‘ideal’ — it has been replaced with a sort of philosophy that looks like:  ‘unity is essential, charity towards those who disagree with us is unnecessary and perhaps unfaithful’. This seems to come from a growing fear that our churches are like the lifeboats dropping off the sinking Titanic of Christendom which has just crashed into the iceberg of secularism — means everybody is clamouring to clearly mark out their space. The way this plays out is in a phenomenon observed by James Davison Hunter in his To Change The World; he was writing about the polarising nature of public life once everything in public life is ‘politicised’ — where we outsource all major decisions and recognition of what matters to law makers — but this observation is also true of the institutional church as it adopts the ‘politics’ of the world around it. Hunter says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicisation is the turn toward law and politics—the instrumentality of the state—to find solutions to public problems. The biggest problem is how to create or reinforce social consensus where little exists or none could be generated organically. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases.” — James Davison Hunter

In a time where we feel a need for certainty within our church structures — the sort you want when you jump in a lifeboat hoping it will hold up your weight — our churches seem to be turning to writing ‘policies’ or ‘statements’ (or feeling the pressure to sign up to competing statements like the Nashville Statement or the Revoice Statement on sexual ethics) where once there was liberty. We’re running to the poles and creating ‘laws’ or ‘lines’ or ‘boundaries’ on questions where uncertainty might not have been such a bad thing; partly this is a pressure placed on the church by external political forces — the more our civic life is subject to legislation around what behaviour and expression is welcome in public, the more clearly we will be compelled to outline our ‘doctrinal positions’ in the face of legal action, like, for example, whether or not a Christian school’s treatment of a same sex attracted staff member or transgender student is an expression of its doctrine; that these questions are now viewed through a political or legal lens rather than a pastoral one is one of the great failings of the church as we’ve been co-opted into this new reality. 

Hunter sees this ‘politicisation’ emerging as a result of an increasing trend for people to process truth through the shortcut of their ideological framework. We no longer have shared beliefs about much of what was once held in ‘common’ which means everything is contested; and if truth is contested, especially in the public, and especially where the ‘public’ is the same as ‘the political’ — you’re better off being a ‘winner’ than a ‘loser’; and ultimately we lose (as we seek to find) our ‘self’ as it becomes subsumed into an ‘ideology’ and then an ‘identity,’ he says:

“Politicisation is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicisation provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarisation is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics.” — James Davison Hunter

In his book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says there’s a ‘religious’ fervour at the heart of polarisation in the west; he sees it as a product of a political Manichaeism — where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are polar opposites at war with one another and the ‘good life’ or ‘good society’ is about victory over evil, not compromise. His model of human behaviour — where ‘the rider’ (our reason), tries to control but is ultimately pulled about by ‘the elephant’ (our emotions and desires), suggests attempts to negate polarisation without tackling this ‘religious’ elephanty disposition towards combat will be pointless. He also says that in this climate using reason alone in political (or theological) disagreements won’t persuade the other, because discussions in this context will feel, and often be, combative. 

“If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”

He, like Hunter, sees polarisation coming as a result of ideology — and his book makes interesting observations about the different moral foundations brought to bear by the left and the right on each issue (and Christians can readily affirm each category). The catch is, those different foundations gear us to respond differently to the same facts — and our view of what is ‘true’ in areas of dispute will be affected by these foundations not just our theological system. Haidt says:

Several studies have documented the “attitude polarization” effect that happens when you give a single body of information to people with differing partisan leanings. Liberals and conservatives actually move further apart when they read about research on whether the death penalty deters crime, or when they rate the quality of arguments made by candidates in a presidential debate, or when they evaluate arguments about affirmative action or gun control.

As this politicisation, polarisation, and move to ‘lawmaking’ plays out at a ‘structural’ level in the institutional church, it also hits home in the local church. I can speak from personal experience that to either deliberately not adopt a position (as our church did during the plebiscite), or to adopt a ‘nuanced’ theological position (as our church does on the question of same sex attraction — where our public teaching has been more aligned with Revoice than with Nashville in that particular part of an inter-nicene ‘culture war’ (I am way prouder of that pun than I should be), comes at a cost. People leave. People want the certainty of a floating lifeboat with high rigid walls, not a rubber dinghy that might get tossed about a bit, but that might also allow a few more people to cling to the sides because it’s closer to the waterline. This too, is a failing of the modern church — a failing to understand who we are called to be; and what sort of community we are meant to be united in Christ, by his Spirit, maintaining fellowship as our chief expression of that unity when it comes to ‘disputable matters’ (note Paul’s ethical approach in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10-11). To leave a community over a political issue or an attempt to be accommodating to people with multiple views is to tear apart the body of Christ that the Spirit of God is knitting together and taking towards maturity; and this maturity is the sort that comes from bumping into one another; from disagreement with a commitment to relationship in Christ above our political concerns, or even matters of disputable doctrine in areas where our knowledge or certainty is limited, like, for example, if intersex people are intersex because their bodies have both male and female characteristics, and we are forced to accommodate such a reality in our theology, how is this definitively different not so much from the ‘psychological’ reality of a transgender person but the physical and neurological realities that we can observe with brain scans? How can we speak with dogmatic certainty on that issue, or, like the current debate around the language of ‘gay Christian’ adopted by same sex attracted people who hold to a traditional Biblical teaching on sexual ethics, but nonetheless want to make claims about their experience without making a claim about their ‘identity’ or ‘ontology’ (a group explicitly excluded by the Nashville Statement, and a position championed by Revoice (which has now been rejected by the Central Carolina Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America whose panel again (which included the Gospel Coalition’s Kevin DeYoung), seems to have brought their conclusions to the table before listening to the people they’re engaging with on ‘their’ terms).

Why must we draw ‘lines’ on these issues? What purpose does such line drawing serve except to move more into the ‘essential’ category, bound by ‘laws’ that suddenly exclude those previously included in liberty or treated with charity?

There’s a law in logic, that when falsely applied creates a fallacy — the law of the ‘excluded middle‘. 

“In logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true”

When we reduce our beliefs to propositional statements; to ‘law’; we don’t just codify a position, we negate other positions. Nashville does this with a series of ‘we affirm’… ‘we deny’ statements; but even simply by affirming a particular propositional truth and not bringing the denial to the table we necessarily exclude. 

The ‘fallacy of the excluded middle’ kicks in where a propositional statement creates a false dilemma; where we create ‘poles’ where no poles were necessary and declare the other pole ‘negated’. It’s this rush to the poles that is excluding so many Aussies in the political process, so that many of us report being disenfranchised and disillusioned; but it’s a similar rush to the poles that is destroying unity and fellowship the same way a mad rush for the lifeboats at the expense of all one’s fellow travellers ‘excludes’ those who don’t get a berth. 

So many of our present political and theological dilemmas are built on false dilemmas; on zero sum games that simply fail to imagine third options. Talk to people occupying those positions — like those in the Revoice Movement, or other ‘celibate gay Christians’ and you’ll hear they feel stuck in the middle of the full blown ‘affirming’ movement — the iceberg — when it comes to questions of sexual ethics and desire, and the ‘negative’ movement which has us running to the life boats on the HMAS Christendom. Not just ‘stuck in the middle’ — but ‘excluded in the middle’; and this seems true in my experience of so many other ‘flashpoint’ issues in our churches and especially in the church’s relationship to worldly power and politics. 

It is hard to be a ‘church of the excluded middle’ — because both poles don’t want to make space for you; nobody is sure if you’re an ally or an enemy. You catch friendly fire and unfriendly fire, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. People flee the ‘uncertainty’ of no man’s land for the trenches on either side of the culture war, when it’s actually drawing combatants from either side together in no man’s land that might create the conditions for a cease fire in the culture wars, not a ‘total defeat’ of the other, but a figuring out how to live side by side, peacefully, in disagreement. It’s precisely those who don’t have a ‘polarised’ position (and the centre probably is a pole all of its own) who might actually help persuade your ideological enemy of the benefits of your position, if they can draw you from your ideologies long enough to talk to one another.  

Here’s my hunch though; and it’s one that I’d say is a driving philosophy behind how we’re trying to approach being the post-secular-iceberg church — a ‘church of the excluded middle’, one that rejects the push to polarisation and to ‘legislating’ on issues of liberty is better placed for both discipleship and evangelism. It’ll keep more people afloat by being less brittle or rigid, and it’ll allow more people to cling to the sides before pulling themselves on board. A group of churches — or Christians — functioning this way will also be the sort of group that can accommodate people who have ideological convictions built from different moral foundations that would otherwise throw them to the poles; and this will be for the good of our shared moral vision. But more than this, a church of the ‘excluded middle’ that is clear on the essentials will cling to Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith; it will see unity in Christ and in the truth of God’s word as timeless, and so be less shaken by the winds and waves of the freezing and deadly water we now navigate. It will listen to those voices that might otherwise be swamped — like those occupying the middle ground in the sexuality debate who are clinging both to Jesus and the traditional teachings of the Church seeking to faithfully interpret the Bible. It will conserve what should be conserved as conservative voices are heard charitably, and will reform what needs to be reformed as progressive voices call for change. It’s a utopian vision, to be sure, an ideal of its own; an ideology to be pursued in ways that might ultimately also exclude ‘truth’ or certainty. But it might just be the sort of community that Paul is imagining in 1 Corinthians 12 as he’s just outlined some real issues around the disputable matter of idol food in the city of Corinth; the sort of community that is to find its unity in Christ, by the Spirit, and use that unity as a foundation, or corrective, in all their disputes (like those Paul addresses in the rest of the letter) as they grow towards maturity and the most excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13). This necessarily requires people living together in disagreement and working out how to love one another in disagreement not just running to lifeboats where you agree with everyone else on board. 

This is also the picture Haidt paints of the sort of community that might escape the destructive ‘religious’ spirit of our age; and the sort that might be not a lifeboat escaping an iceberg, but a lighthouse pointing people from it; the sort that might model an alternative to the politicisation of everything and the reduction of each person to a combatant — enemy or ally — in some culture war. Here’s Haidt:

“Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).”

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How the church failed Israel (and modern Australia is too)

Izzy is in hot water again with calls growing for the Australian Rugby Union and the New South Wales Waratahs to tear up his contract because of his (admittedly clumsy) public expression of reasonably orthodox, mainstream, Christian views about sin and salvation.

The ‘Australian church’ and by that I mean, those who belong, visibly, to the kingdom of God, in both its ‘institutional’ forms and those who gather on Sundays claiming to follow Jesus and to belong to communities of people who gather around certain beliefs (as expressed in statements like creeds or doctrinal statements), has contributed to the mess Israel Folau now seems destined to face alone. I’m defining ‘church’ up front, because many Christians might feel like we, as individuals, simultaneously belong to or represent the church while not being complicit for, or responsible to, Israel Folau… and I’m going to make the case that those of us who share similar orthodox, mainstream, Christian views (and even where we’d quibble) bear some responsibility for the tonne of hate and anger that will now be poured out on Izzy, and that we shouldn’t abandon him even if we profoundly disagree with the way he has expressed himself, in form, content, or forum.

And I’m going to paint with a broader brush and say that an entity, Australia, via its institutions — such as the press (and our ‘social media’), a Rugby fraternity including a governing body and a national representative team, and the ‘market’ — and the way this entity ‘Australia’ responds, to this (and other) expressions of religious belief is also failing its citizen, Israel Folau, rather than him failing us (even if there are ways his expressions of his beliefs, publicly, hurt others and are clumsy or even uncivil). The way we collectively respond to incivility expresses something about our ‘civilisation’.

How the church is failing Israel (Folau)

Our current cultural milieu believes that religious belief is a private matter that shouldn’t be expressed publicly — so Israel is transgressing on this front, and while we might want to point the finger at ‘society’ or ‘Australia’ for this problem, it’s a problem that begins with us; it’s a problem because on one hand we Christians, ‘the church’ have bought into and promoted an individualistic understanding both of what it means to be a human and of what it means to be a Christian; the Gospel Israel preaches is a Gospel of personal salvation, with personal, individual, implications (salvation), and little corporate or communal impact. Israel is a preacher of this Gospel it would seem appointed by nobody except our celebrity driven culture (that cares far too much about what celebrities say or think on instagram), and a church that wants its celebrity members to operate as public champions of Christian belief simply because they are Christians with a platform. If Israel was a Christian whose approach to promoting the Gospel I found more personally compelling (and my take on Israel’s public Christianity hasn’t changed since last time), wouldn’t I be encouraging him to use his platform to promote the Gospel? Of course I would; but is it his responsibility? Is this actually his calling (or the way we view how Christians should operate in the world?).

We fail Israel when we want him to be a solo point-scoring champion for Jesus off the field, rather than freeing him to be point-scoring champion on the field, and part of a bigger team, the church, off it.

I don’t want to be a broken record banging out quotes from James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World, but he makes a point towards the back end of his book about our particular corner of the church (evangelicals) and our view of work being not super different to an anabaptist view of work (which he takes umbrage with) even while we have a more robust doctrine of creation in the reformed theological tradition. In identifying a certain sort of Christian posture with regards to the physical world, to culture and politics (basically to what we would see as ‘secular’ rather than ‘sacred’) that he labels ‘defensive against,’ he writes:

“In the “defensive against” paradigm, it is the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who have fashioned a somewhat unique approach to these issues. The backdrop for their approach is the dualism created by the division between public (and secular) and private (and religious) life inherent to the modern world. As we know, this dualism is both embedded within social institutions and legitimated by political philosophy and they mutually reinforce each other in powerful ways. Though in theory Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe God is sovereign in all of life, in practice their traditions of pietism actually reinforce this dualism. All of this has resulted in a peculiar approach to faith and vocation. For generations of faithful Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, vocation in the secular world was at best a necessary evil. To the extent that work had “kingdom significance,” it was as a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized—it was regarded as simply a means to spiritual ends. Thus, if one achieved some distinction for the quality of one’s work in any field or for reason of an accomplishment, its significance was primarily because celebrity brought attention and credibility to the gospel. As Eric Liddell’s father says to him in the film Chariots of Fire, “What the world needs right now is a muscular Christian—to make them sit up and take notice!” “Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder!” Likewise, if one achieved any disproportionate influence in a sphere of life or work, this had significance primarily as a bulwark against the tide of secularism or liberalism.” — To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

In sum, for Israel to feel like a full participant in the life of the church — as a good ‘religious’ person participating in a ‘sacred calling’ — we’ve set up the game in such a way that he must necessarily use his platform to evangelise (or to give generously to evangelism), because pursuing excellence of character and performance, and loving the people around him is not enough. Or not all it could be. What sort of pressure does this place on those Christians who happen to be able to make an income in fields that produce ‘celebrity’ and a ‘platform’ — how would my tweets, or blog posts, or social media presence stack up with the sort of audience Israel gets? Is it fair to expect him to champion orthodox Christianity or to ‘evangelise’ simply because he has a platform that most of us do not? Is that what ‘faithful presence’ requires of him; if so, how have we, the church, equipped him for this task?

On the ‘individual’ Gospel front; I wonder if this is precisely both how Israel has been equipped — in terms of how he has been evangelised, and discipled, but also a product of the bifurcation between secular and sacred Hunter (and others like Charles Taylor) observe; the ‘secular age’ we live in makes religion a private matter and ‘salvation’ not a call to belong to some new public order, or kingdom, with an accompanying account for human behaviour and morality that comes from a spiritual commitment or something transcendent that we connect to and belong to (that Christians would typically say comes, literally, from the Holy Spirit and a real encounter with God as a reality not just an abstract concept). We feed that by how we talk about and understand both the Gospel of Jesus and conversion; this failure is one Scot McKnight unpacks in The King Jesus Gospel, a book I might have some quibbles with in terms of the ‘bigness’ of the alternative Gospel he offers (whether the Gospel is ‘Israel’s story’ that began in the Old Testament or God’s cosmic story of redemption that began before the creation of the world). In Dallas Willard’s forward to McKnight’s book he describes McKnight’s work as addressing ‘contemporary misunderstandings that produce gospels that do not naturally produce disciples, but only consumers of religious goods and services’ — that’s not far off the problem the church must bear some responsibility for here (fascinatingly, Folau devotes much more Twitter air time to rebuking prosperity theology than he does to calling out homosexuality as a sin that leads to Hell). McKnight identifies a phenomenon that you might recognise at play in Folau’s own presentation of the Gospel where he says:

“Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.”

This Gospel, or this approach to evangelism, also makes ‘repentance’ the act of ‘making a decision’ not the life of turning to Jesus from alternative kingdoms, visions of the good, or ultimate loves. It makes repentance what Folau proclaims it to be — a rejection of sin — without the expulsive power of not just a new object of love, Jesus, but a new way of loving life. An instagram post can’t possibly capture or convey the bigness of what this looks like, or what’s at stake in repentance or following Jesus; but instagram is all the faithful champion athlete has in a world where his religious views won’t otherwise be heard, but he’s told that faithfulness for him looks like using his platform to share his faith.

This is dangerous when coupled with a broader social trend that sees religion simply as a consumer choice in pursuit of the ‘authentic you’ — part of your constructed ‘identity’ or story you tell about yourself — rather than as a fundamental conviction about a bigger story you belong to, that shapes the way you engage with the world as a person, while also seeing religious practice as a ‘private matter’ not something you take with you into the public. If identity construction via consumer choice is where we think ‘it’s at’ and identity is performed and constructed via social media (which it is, when identity is so thin a concept and is about authenticity), then where else should Folau perform his faith publicly? It’s either instagram or the Rugby field with painted on (or tattooed) Bible verses… A ‘decision’ to be religious then is about a personal preference, evangelism about ‘the expression’ of such preference, and we, the church reinforces this in extra-bad ways when we make religious belief — the Gospel message — about personal salvation alone (rather than seeing discipleship as forming persons who participate in public together as members of the church, an alternative kingdom — ie, where I think McKnight is spot on is that the Gospel is not just about Jesus as personal saviour, but Jesus as king of a kingdom).

We’ve also, simultaneously, both had a low view of the ‘church’ so that to even speak of the church being responsible for an individuals actions feels like ‘over stating’ what church is, and we’ve contributed to a view of religious belief that sees the very nature of religion as ‘private’ not public in how we’ve, as an institution, participated in public debate. On the first, point, we’ve arrived at a moment where “church” is either an ‘institution’ that doesn’t speak for its members (because we want to distance ourselves from the worst expressions of institutional church — like the Royal Commission or the way institutions behave in public), or we see ‘church’ as an event that is only constituted in the gathering of people to worship together on a Sunday, not a community of interdependent ‘belonging’ to one another. This latter point would mean that when Israel, or anybody, speaks, he speaks for ‘us’ not ‘him’… but my first response to his instagram post this week was to seek to distance myself from him, rather than recognising the things we have in common as religious believers, and possibly as members of a universal church (though, I believe there are certain heretical beliefs he holds, and beliefs I hold, that would see both of us excluding one another — in that from what I understand he denies, and I affirm, the Trinity). I do wonder what accountability Israel Folau believes he has, as a Christian, to any particular community, tradition, or institution — because in an age of consumer Christianity and individual, personal, salvation that sort of accountability is not a thing we do any more, we don’t belong to a church we choose a church, and we leave if it challenges our ‘personal’ authentic expression of faith in ways we don’t feel comfortable with to find places where we feel a better ‘fit’. On the second point, the privatisation of religious belief, when it comes to not the moral standing of homosexual behaviour in modern Australia, but the spiritual standing of such behaviour — and those other Folau calls out as sinful — we don’t participate in public debates in good faith; ie we didn’t argue against the legislation of same sex marriage on a spiritual basis, or even for a pluralist accommodation of our spiritual position on homosexual relationships; we (the institutional church) argued on secular terms that same sex marriage was ‘unnatural’ and not a civic good (because parenting and gender are ‘naturally ordered’); once the public at large dismissed that view we couldn’t (and can’t) fall back on the spiritual account of such behaviours and expect to be understood or welcomed in society (or its institutions, such as the national football team).

If this comes close to describing how the church conceives of itself — or if it describes a complicated mess of contradictions — which is does — then what else can Israel do as a Christian? There’s no real institution behind him, articulating his views in public or shaping his sense of how to engage in public as a Christian; nobody offering a view of being part of the church that is not ‘being an individual who must save individuals using his individual platform,’ then how else is he meant to act? If there’s no ‘good news’ except ‘repent or go to hell,’ then what else should he proclaim?

It’s one thing to deconstruct how the church has failed Israel, and so, how Israel is failing to articulate the Gospel; both in content — even if what he says is totally true, it is incomplete in a way that is unhelpful and distorting (when it comes to repentance, and conversion, and the relationship between sin and Jesus), and in form, even if what he said was complete, saying it on instagram, as a celebrity, is unlikely to ultimately be helpfully geared towards actual repentance (the sort of turning to Jesus that is about discipleship — the shaping of a life around the Lordship of Jesus), not simply a decision (the realisation that one is a sinner in need of a saviour), it’s another thing to deconstruct the way Australian society is failing Israel and other religious people because of how it has replaced ‘thick’ or substantial religious belief and institutions with ‘thin’ alternatives.

How Australia is failing Israel

When I read people like Peter Fitzsimons go to town on Israel Folau I feel like I’m reading a post-religious zealot attacking a heretic. The church used to burn heretics at the stake because we realised how important orthodoxy was, and pursued unity in that orthodoxy by eradicating anybody who threatened it. This lead to some pretty dark chapters in church history, but since the modern secular mind is so keen to remove any religious influence from the way we do business we’re unlikely to see secular priests and prophets learn from those mistakes. And so, where once we had religion occupying a place in our understanding of what it meant to be human — so that our understanding of personhood came from the divine order and the ‘givenness’ of reality; now we have less inclination to look for transcendence (so religion is just one choice we make about how we understand ourselves, and it’s a private thing… see Charles Taylor, again), but we replace the role religion and religious institutions played in giving us a sense of who we are with other institutions. Like Rugby teams. Where the national Rugby team, or other Aussie institutions, used to be purely secular, operating in society alongside ‘sacred’ religious institutions like the church, they now have to carry a more sacred mythology and purpose to fill the void left by the privatisation of the ‘religious’ sacred (the same is true of things like ANZAC Day, and other common objects of love in our modern world). Where once you were chosen to play Rugby for Australia because of Rugby ability, now you are chosen to uphold certain quasi-religious values and to be a ‘role model’ for those values, especially in public. Here’s Fitzsimon’s pontificating (he’d probably like to be a pope) about Folau’s ability to hold a place in the game once he’s expressed, publicly, his reasonably orthodox, mainstream, even if un-nuanced, religious views.

In the wake of his latest homophobic outburst – gays, among other sinners, are heading to hell once more – Israel Folau has to go, and will go.

Quick. Clean. Gone. At least until such times as he repents.

His contract will be suspended or terminated on the grounds of having breached either rugby’s social media policy, or his contract.

Rugby Australia simply has no choice. They cannot go through one more time the agony of last year when Folau’s social media comments trumpeting that gays would go to hell, saw rugby lose sponsors, fans, and support.

Then it took three weeks for Folau to pull his head in, and it seemed like he got it: that you couldn’t be a standard bearer for the inclusive game of rugby and put out bigoted nastiness like that.

This time, it won’t take three weeks. Rugby must surely move quickly, or be made to look ridiculous.

All of the dynamics that applied last year – outrage in the rugby and wider community, people swearing not to go to games, volunteers threatening to leave the game, sponsors looking at tearing up their contracts – apply this year, but there is one difference.

Back then, it seemed it wasn’t clear to Folau what he could and could not do.

Rugby is tolerant and inclusive so long as we’re talking about bits that are public and part of somebody’s identity, not the bits that people should be keeping in private — but Rugby is also now part of a civic religion, and it can’t handle such heretical views being expressed. Because our public square isn’t pluralist, it’s aggressively monotheistic. Its monotheism isn’t the traditional religious monotheism, where there’s a transcendent God who sets moral standards and judges accordingly, it’s the new monotheism, where our personal, individual, liberty — our freedom to self-determine our own authentic identity through personal choice, where nobody but the self can sit in judgment — except against those who reject this view or refuse to conform.

Fitzsimons points out (perhaps poisoning the well) that there’ll be objections to Folau’s dismissal on the grounds of ‘freedom of speech’ — because all issues are now interpreted through a grid of individual freedom. He’s right that commercial ramifications aren’t actually restrictions on Folau’s free speech, but ‘free responses’ to Folau — that the market will solve the problem (and force the hand of the new ‘religious’ regime which is thoroughly wedded to the market). Free speech and ‘religious freedom’ are ultimately concerns that come from a certain sort of view about ‘the good’ being tied to unfettered personal liberty… But my argument about Australia failing Folau isn’t about freedom of speech or expression, but about a failure to accomodate or understand religious belief (perhaps as a result of the failure of the church outlined above). There’s a great new podcast, The Eucatastrophethat has been exploring some of these foundational issues in recent episodes — which I’d commend to anyone who wants to think more about this stuff.

Australia is failing Israel in precisely the way the church is — in needing a celebrity to use their ‘platform’ to promote a particular sort of ‘gospel’ — but further, in refusing to make space for other expressions of other convictions. The church failed to embrace pluralism when we were tested in the same sex marriage debate; we failed to properly account for our belief in a spiritual order and made natural arguments, and we failed to make space for different spiritualities or understanding of life. We pushed a zero-sum agenda; we pushed for monotheism (bizarrely without making a case for monotheism), and now ‘secular’ Australia, after a decisive public decision making process, has adopted that zero-sum, monotheistic, approach when dealing with opposition. We’re reaping the whirlwind, and it’s unclear how the Australian ‘public’ square is going to change any time soon, especially if we, the church, can’t recognise our failures and shift accordingly.

 

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Christian, is there room in your church for an ____ voter? Would they feel welcome?

Our desire to verbal process the world, and our almost frictionless ability to process the world verbally in front of crowds of people on social media is a funny modern novelty. My wise old dad, he’s 60 soon, once said to me that for the vast majority of his life in ministry he’d have had no idea how his friends and ministry colleagues voted; politics just weren’t a thing that mixed with the pulpit.

How quaint, I thought.

And then I decided I’d dearly love to not know how a preacher votes. In a great twist of ironic fate, an article might come out elsewhere in a couple of days where I explain not ‘who I vote for’ but ‘how I vote’ (I’ve covered this in depth here previously). You may think you can guess how I vote from what I write, and what sort of moral matrix or grid I appear to filter things through, and that would, I think, represent a failure on my part. My prior training as a journalist, my career in a not-for-profit ‘apolitical’ lobby group, and my current vocation all require, I believe, a certain sort of objective detachment from the cut and thrust of party politics; a detachment that means it would be inappropriate for me to hold my job and be a member of a political party, or obviously partisan.

I’m not saying I’d love preachers and Christians to not be engaged in political issues — I’m with sociologist/theologian James Davison Hunter on the criticism of a modern attitude that leaves complex social and political issues to politicians and lawmaking; I’d love the church to be modelling an alternative vision for life together as the kingdom of God in this world, and for us to speak winsomely on political issues in the public square as ambassadors for Christ, trying hard to persuade our neighbours of the truth, goodness, and beauty of life with Jesus as king. I’d love us to be participating in, or creating, institutions that seek ‘political change’ or to impact the public, or commons, in positive ways as a way of loving our neighbours and testifying to the lordship of Jesus. I’d love us to speak widely, beyond just the few issues that seem to be identity markers for ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ politics to model what ‘Christ centred’ politics looks like; where there is no inch of life in this world that Jesus does not declare ‘mine!’

But I’m concerned, with James Davison Hunter, about ‘the culture wars’ (he coined the phrase back in 1991 in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America). He described these wars as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” and emerging from opposing “assumptions about how to order or lives – our own lives and our lives together in this society.” It’s fine to morally disagree with people, across political, philosophical, and religious lines — the art is figuring out how to live in disagreement, and listen to the other, without adopting a winner takes all approach to wiping out those who disagree with you. Our desire to wipe out the other, the ‘culture war’ is a product of a polarisation that treats ‘other’ as enemy, and then justifies their extermination, or forced conversion via the threat of excommunication or exclusion from ‘society’.

Here’s what Hunter wrote in 1991:

But there is still another factor that contributes to the polarisation of public discourse and the eclipse of the middle. The polarisation of contemporary public discourse is in fact intensified by and institutionalised through the very media by which that discussion takes place. It is through these media that public discourse acquires a life of its own; not only do the categories of public rhetoric become detached from the intentions of the speaker, they also overpower the subtleties of perspective and opinion of the vast majority of citizens who position themselves “somewhere in the middle” of these debates…

“Middling positions and the nuances of moral commitment, then, get played into the grid of opposing rhetorical extremes.”

The problem with this last bit is that if this grid exists, and people place themselves in a position to listen to voices that reinforce their particular cultural convictions (including a position on ‘the other’), then nothing that is said, whether extreme or ‘middling’ is ever heard properly, it simply reinforces the polarisation. This is damaging for society at large, but it is even more deleterious to the project of unity in Christ within a church community. Is it possible for a church in this cultural climate to be a place where individuals from the left and right come together in fellowship, in a way that allows both left and right — all our politics — to be transformed by our union with Christ, through the Spirit, shaped by the ethics of Jesus’ kingdom as revealed at the cross?

What makes this vision for church community even trickier is when Christians leaders, or individuals, adopt combative positions in the culture war in ways that alienate the other, or worse turn the ‘other’ into an ideological enemy to be defeated rather than embraced.

What also makes this difficult is where the ‘culture wars’, politics, and the media have gone since 1991. Hunter describes the general tone of public discourse, in 1991, pre-social media as: “…elitist, sensational, ambivalent, suspicious of new voices, and intensified and further polarised by the very media by which such discourse takes place.”

This was before social media, which exists to serve up users more of what they want, which tends to be ‘more of what they have expressed an interest in’ that the algorithm can measure, which tends to be ‘more of what they already think but packaged in more sensationalist and titillating ways that retain attention by amplifying feelings (especially feelings of outrage)’… The mass media was bad for polarisation — targeted, algorithmically driven, social media that fragments right down to the individual level is worse. I wrote a series about social media, outrage culture, and virtue back here. Especially when the sort of positions that Hunter suggests represent the majority, de-escalate polarisation, and cultivate virtue and civility, the “middling positions’ that involve nuance take time and attention and space to think and process were hard enough in traditional media contexts, but are anathema to our infinite scrolling through social media newsfeeds.

Mark Zuckerberg once described the ‘self interest’ at the heart of Facebook’s newsfeed by saying:

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

This is also why you’re likely to see more online about New Zealand than about religious killings in Nigeria; this is the algorithmically perfected editorial policy of most major commercial news services — such services exist not for civic good, but for profit. Our media platforms serve up stories that appeal to their audiences. It’s now on us, the public, to cultivate the sort of consumption of media, and lives, that de-escalate the culture wars — especially those of us in churches where we’re first focusing on relationships in church.

In a 2018 interview about where these wars have gone since Hunter coined the term, he said the cultural conflicts in this war have amplified and intensified, and this is because ‘culture’ is actually profoundly important — it sits upstream from politics and law because it shapes our moral imagination.

“That’s because culture is not a marginal concern, as many educated people profess to believe—even as they often espouse their own dogmatic cultural positions. Rather, culture is “about systems of meaning that help make sense of the world,” Mr. Hunter says, “why things are good, true and beautiful, or why things are not. Why things are right and wrong.” Culture “provides the moral foundation of a political order.”

It’s not just Hunter who predicted the culture wars in ways that seem prophetic now, especially with the addition of social media.

Back in 2006, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a prescient piece about the polarised nature of two-party politics, and how the two parties rely on such polarisation fuelled from within, and by a war footing of sorts, to continue to exist. This leads to the destruction of public, political, conversation — and especially shapes how we see ‘the other’.

“The flamers in the established parties tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious too. They rationalise their behaviour by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country. They imagine that once they have achieved victory through pulverising rhetoric they will return to the moderate and nuanced sensibilities they think they still possess.”

Sadly, he predicted what might happen if his invented ‘moderate coalition,’ the ‘McCain—Lieberman Party’ (Republican senator John McCain and Democrat senator Joe Lieberman), did not get ‘absorbed’ into the policy platform of one of the major parties. This was pre-Obama, and certainly pre-Trump.

“The McCain-Lieberman Party … sees two parties that depend on the culture war for internal cohesion and that make abortion a litmus test. It sees two traditions immobilized to trench warfare.

The McCain-Lieberman Party is emerging because the war with Islamic extremism, which opened new fissures and exacerbated old ones, will dominate the next five years as much as it has dominated the last five. It is emerging because of deep trends that are polarising our politics. It is emerging because social conservatives continue to pull the GOP rightward (look at how Representative Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican, was defeated by a conservative rival in Michigan). It is emerging because highly educated secular liberals are pulling the Democrats upscale and to the left. (Lamont’s voters are rich, and 65 percent call themselves liberals, compared with 30 percent of Democrats nationwide.)

The history of third parties is that they get absorbed into one of the existing two, and that will probably happen here…

But amid the hurly-burly of the next few years… the old parties could become even more inflamed. Both could reject McCain-Liebermanism.

At that point things really get interesting.”

And, so, Brooks predicted Trump. The collapse of the political middle into a zero-sum culture war that sees the ‘other’ side as an enemy to be polarised, whoever or whatever the other side stands for. A politics filled with political actors who’ve lost touch with the ‘moderate and nuanced sensibilities’ that produce stability and a ‘commons’ of sorts between right and left, in exchange for an entrenched flame war.

And here we are 13 years on from Brook’s piece. And the flames are burning. And violent political language and battlelines being drawn begets violence in the real world. I highlight that link only because it was particularly pugilistic, and it appeared in my Facebook feed for no reason that I could fathom. You might say ‘that’s just hyperbole’ — but it’s hyperbole that fits a trend that has been recognised and described for some time, and while it’s the nature of the business of Aussie politics, with our two party system, for politics to involve a certain sort of adversarial ‘theatre’ and an ‘us v them’ mentality, in order to divide and conquer… that’s not the business of the Aussie church.

Political idealists, especially partisan ones, whether left, or right, are now turning on the centrists — those who try not to play the culture war, or who seek moderation in all things — idealists on the extremes are increasingly suggesting that to adopt a ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ stance on an issue — to not speak or act — is to adopt the status quo. This is not just a new type of ‘culture war’ against the middle, which was previously just eclipsed (Hunter) or encompassed (Brooks). It’s a deliberate move to exclude the middle in the name of the greater ideological conflict between the poles.  It’s an insistence that to be moral one must pick side, and that to be a moderate is to attempt to sit on the fence on all things. It is to insist that the ‘other’ is evil or complicit, and to stay on the fence makes one complicit too. This classically works better from the left, who tend towards systemic views of evil, and to annoy the right, who tend to see evil as an individual, personal, choice — where if you aren’t making it, you aren’t evil… but that’s changing the more the conflict ramps up, the more there’s an apparently clear ‘us’ and ‘them’… Quite apart from this turn towards resentment of the moderate position being a damaging move when it comes to individual conscience (you ‘must’ choose a system that tells you how to think), and our creatureliness (we must act on every injustice to be moral, if to not act is to participate in evil), and our limited ability to know and form thoughtful positions on many, often competing issues (ideology is a nice shortcut to deal with this), these idealists would say (and do say) that to listen to the concerns of the ‘other side’ is to legitimise those concerns (not simply to see the ‘other’ as a human worthy of love, attention, and understanding). This move is a move to dehumanise or dismiss every other who does not share your convictions. Christian idealists of any variety — those who ‘baptise’ a particular political stance as representative of the kingdom — would have us eradicate political difference as part of the kingdom of God; this makes Christian ‘how to vote’ cards, from the left, or the right, very simple to produce because voting as a Christian, and participating in the polis as a Christianis quite simply a matter of adopting the ideological platform, and fighting the opponent. I think this approach is wrong for a bunch of reasons alluded to above — but I think it also reinforces the culture war by amping up polarisation — the way to minimise the rapid run to the poles is to resist those forces that fling us there. It’s to engage in careful listening; to pursue understanding, and to arrive at conviction making sure you’ve charitably understood the position of the other. This is where the best sort of disagreement is possible, the sort that actually has the possibility to persuade the other, not just to re-convict them of their prior convictions (in other words, it’s not just a more virtuous, less vicious, strategy, it’s also more effective). Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, talks about the polarisation of left and right and how each group tends to assess morality using different categories and frameworks that mean we often use the same words to talk past one another. He talks about how we humans are less purely rational and in control of our decision making than we might think, and how ‘wars’ and ‘tribalism’ feed our decision making instincts, which are profoundly ’emotional’ — he talks about our emotions as a rampaging elephant in our decision making and our reason as the rider trying to tug on some reigns.

He says, in The Righteous Mind, “the persuader’s goal should be to convey respect, warmth, and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case,” he says our inability to understand another person’s point of view, to see the world their way, is at the heart of the polarising force of our political ‘culture war’ — suggesting we should seek this as a baseline for political and moral conversations, or arguments.

“It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.”

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across a moral divide.

It is very difficult. Imagine being called to not just ’empathy’ but to ‘having the same mind’ or ‘the one mind’ or the ‘mind of Christ’ with people where there’s a moral or political divide (ala Philippians 2:1-11). Imagine having to navigate that! Haidt even envisages the goodness that such a community might bring to this fracturing world, he’s not specifically describing the church, although he kinda, sorta, is.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

I think it’s very possible to be partisan and a Christian. I’ve often suggested one of the best things individual Christians can do to embrace James Davison Hunter’s motif of ‘faithful presence’ is join a, any, political party and then be part of policy discussions. I just don’t think the church — be it a denomination, institution, or local gathering — should be marked by a partisan approach to politics. And I fear, because I know how too many leaders of churches vote (both on the left, and on the right), that we are buying in to culture wars in a way that buys into the devil’s hands. The best form of Christian community is one where partisan Christians who are seeking to maintain a faithful presence in our political and cultural institutions shaped by convictions about Jesus and his kingdom, and personal convictions about how that plays out within and against these institutions, whether on the right or the left, can come together in fellowship in a way that models the way forward outside the community of believers — our ability to unite, to listen, to co-operate, and to disagree with one another with love and charity might be a beacon and a blessing to our neighbours. And yet, there seems to be no will to extricate ourselves from the culture wars — especially when it comes to the way Christian leaders (myself included) use social media. This is the sort of time when people say ‘you’re talking in generalities, prove it’ — and at this point I’d suggest that our denomination’s recent statement on abortion, while it adopts a position I agree with, had the unfortunate effect of equating a vote for or presence within the Labor Party as being a participant in evil, and I’d point to this cultural warrior, a Presbyterian minister, who wages the culture war in a media channel that is famously partisan, and I’d ask — could anyone outside the hard right comfortably attend a church where such views are linked inextricably to the pulpit?

Is this what we want?

I am certain that I’m perceived by many to be partisan when it comes to politics; I’ve been described by a dear Christian brother as ‘the left’s form of the ACL’. I felt misrepresented (if the interview I mentioned up top gets published you might see why), and like I was being interpreted through a particular grid, at that time, but I certainly do embrace issues and positions championed by the left (I’d like to think I also do that with the right). I’m distressed that taking a position, a political one, on an issue — even a moderate one — is seen as divisive and a reason for breaking fellowship. And I’ve experienced this as people exited our church community over my (and our) stance on the postal survey. Other friends who don’t buy in to the culture war have experienced a similar ‘exodus’ — these exoduses always end up creating little tribes within our church networks; little homogenous political communities, or demographics, that don’t have the opportunity to be the alternative polis modelling life across divides that we so desperately need. So I apologise and repent for those times when my rhetoric has fuelled partisan division, rather than calling us to a better conversation (note, I’m not apologising for convictions on issues, or for saying things people disagree with).

I fear that part of the alternative community that the church offers to the world is a community where people come together from different positions and backgrounds, with different convictions about political problems and solutions, and find unity in a king.

I fear that church is meant to be a community where people can belong and find their commitment to certain civic goods re-shaped, re-ordered, and transformed by the king — in ways that simultaneously affirm and invert good and not so good things about ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ solutions.

I fear that the church is meant to be a place of re-imagining and re-imaging life in ways that might re-animate our political right, political centre, and political left, and yet we are a place that too often has our imagination co-opted by a political ideology from the world, rather than by the life, death, resurrection and rule of Jesus.

I fear that our rhetoric and culture war fighting as ministers, preachers, or vocally partisan Christian punters fuels the division of our society into tribes even as we call people to follow the king of the universe.

I fear that whether a church leader is known for being partisan in any political direction, that the climate that creates is a drawing in of people who agree with that stance, at the exclusion of those who disagree.

And yet, I am also hopeful.

I hope that church communities can emerge that are the sort of communities Haidt describes — committed to truth, and to listening to the other.

I hope that our churches might be communities that are not ‘apolitical’ or defined by a particular partisan outlook — but rather be models of places where people can come together finding unity in Christ and his kingdom, to be sent as ambassadors into the institutions and political parties of our world.

I hope that we can lead the way for our wider community who so desperately need models of rich, loving, disagreement and co-operation around what we hold in common.

I hope that we can practice listening not just to one another, but to our neighbours who are not like us — that we can model ‘loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.’

I hope that we can steer clear of playing the culture war and power politics game that so defines our civic life now, in favour of patient listening and the pursuit of nuance and wisdom.

I hope that we can look to voices not just explaining the cost of extremes, from the other side — ie listening to those voices we most naturally exclude, but also that we might listen to those voices who are pushing back against the idea that understanding the other is evil, unnecessary, or to be complicit in some horrid status quo (the status quo that conservatives are inherently seeking to uphold and defend).

I hope that we Christians can affirm that there are good things in creation, and in this status quo, things that have been hard won through the influence of Christians in our politics (both on the left and the right, and for progressives and conservatives). I hope that we can also admit that there are areas where progress towards our vision of the good, true, and beautiful — towards the kingdom of God, or shalom, are still possible and that the way forward isn’t simply to shift to maintain some vision of political utopia that we achieved in the past.

I hope that as well as listening to the voices we might normally exclude from our thinking — the voice of ‘the other’ — we might listen more to voices like James Davison Hunter who diagnosed and predicted this cultural problem almost thirty years ago. Here’s something he wrote in his more recent To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World:

 “It isn’t just the Constantinian temptation the church must repudiate but, more significantly, the orientation toward power that underwrites it. The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicisation of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer.

A vision of the new city commons, rooted in a theology of faithful presence, certainly leads to a repudiation of ressentiment that defines so much of Christianity’s contemporary public witness.

Yet it also leads to a postpolitical view of power. It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilisation. This would not mean civic privatism but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.”

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Don’t forget the torches — light trumps darkness: learning about politics and life from some imaginative protestors

Gambling is a scourge on our society. It seems to me that it’s one of a handful of social issues — alongside alcohol, domestic violence, our treatment of our indigenous peoples, and refugees — that occupies a similar blind spot for us Aussies that is similar to guns in the U.S psyche.

We Aussies sometimes like to look down our noses at the stranglehold the N.R.A has on gun control law in America, so this week it’s been revealing to see just how deeply enmeshed the gambling industry is in Australian life as a big-money horse race took over a national icon (paid for by lotteries), the Sydney Opera House. The manager of this cultural precinct didn’t want it given over to this modern idol of our culture, and a radio host with pretty strong links to the racing industry slammed her, leading the charge in such a way that our political leaders fronted the media to justify (and support) an industry that destroys lives (but lines the public coffers, and the coffers of our political parties), first the Premier of New South Wales, then the Prime Minister. Here’s what Prime Minister Scott Morrison had to say:

“This is one of the biggest events of the year. Why not put it on the biggest billboard Sydney has? These events generate massive economic opportunities for the state, for the city.”

It’s the economy. Stupid.

A federal government study on the deleterious impact of race betting on Australians found:

Among other things, survey data tell us that in 2015, nearly one million Australians regularly gambled on horse and dog racing. Most race bettors were men, and aged between 30 and 64. Their typical monthly expenditure on race betting amounted to $1,300 each over the year. Some 400,000 experienced one or more gambling-related problems.

Now. Like many Aussies — including the 290,000 who signed a petition against this advertising campaign that the New South Wales government refused to accept, I’m pretty disillusioned about Australian politics.

I feel helpless and on the sidelines while watching things like this unfold. Political action seems pointless.

I think there are plenty of dark times ahead for those of us who want a democracy built on making space at the table for one another, and pursuing civility and the ability to live well together. I despair about our treatment of refugees, and the unborn. I despair about much Christian advocacy in its misrepresentation of those we disagree with (so, for example, while I think it’s bad legislation, I don’t think the spirit of the new abortion laws in Queensland is to allow women to terminate pregnancies for whatever reason they want up until birth, and I don’t think the pro-life case is helped by painting the ‘other’ side this way).

I’m struck by how much responsibility and hope we give to politicians to solve our social issues, a phenomenon James Davison Hunter observed in his book To Change The World, and how much then we run to ideological camps where we can sling rocks at those opposed. He says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicization is the turn toward law and politics — the instrumentality of the state — to find solutions to public problems.”

This is the way our public conversations are framed — when there’s a problem we want others to solve it; specifically, the state. And we do our part by making lots of outraged noise on social media, and signing petitions (and there’s a place for this, of course). But what if this limits our imagination when it comes to other solutions?

Hunter says:

“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws, and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit… it is only logical then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily, through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them.”

Hunter also suggests this politicization frames our ‘common life’ so much that it gives birth to the sort of ideological posturing that has killed our ability to disagree well, or seek compromise. It also means there is no ‘public’ space or ‘commons’ that is not politicised (like the Opera House). He says:

“Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life, and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.”

Perhaps the only thing worse than the collapse of the public space into the political, is the giving over of public space — the commons — to the market, especially when that’s a political decision made for apparent political gain (it’s the economy stupid). Another book I’ve been particularly challenged by this year, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How To Flourish in an Age of Distraction, makes the point that the sort of paying attention is much harder when our public spaces are now places where we are bombarded with messages from private enterprise. He says clear public space — the ‘commons’ is necessary for ethical life together — for listening to one another long enough to escape ideological posturing, or the darkness of the world around us.

“The idea of a commons is suitable in discussing attention because, first, the penetration of our consciousness by interested parties proceeds very often by the appropriation of attention in public spaces, and second, because we rightly owe to one another a certain level of attentiveness and ethical care.”

Crawford uses the example of the airport to make his point — and its a tale of two lounges, the private airline lounges and the public lounges around the gates. In the public space companies have paid to bombard you with advertising material — billboards, TV screens, businesses, while in the private space you’re offered the luxury of distraction free comfort. The wealthy have the luxury of not needing the ‘commons’ to avoid the privatised messaging they don’t want — they pay for something not-so-common (and it’s perhaps, the same with the Opera House, I wonder what the outcry would be like if these adverts were projected on the curtains of the Opera before or after a performance). Here’s Crawford setting the scene:

Or do we? Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport, what you hear is the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. There are no advertisements on the walls, and no TVs. This silence, more than any other feature of the space, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic airtight doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows itself, your neck muscles relax; after twenty minutes you no longer feel exhausted. The hassle lifts. Outside the lounge is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it. As the commons gets appropriated, one solution, for those who have the means, is to leave the commons for private clubs such as the business-class lounge. Consider that it is those in the business lounge who make the decisions that determine the character of the peon lounge, and we may start to see these things in a political light. To engage in playful, inventive thinking, and possibly create wealth for oneself during those idle hours spent at an airport, requires silence. But other people’s minds, over in the peon lounge (or at the bus stop) can be treated as a resource—a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to innovative marketing ideas hatched by the “creatives” in the business lounge.”

Ouch.

Crawford also talks about the mechanics of addiction, and the way the gambling industry (especially pokie machine makers) exists as a parasite with the express goal of having customers ‘play to extinction’… distracting us to oblivion with bright lights and pretty colours (and some other pretty nefarious techniques).

This outsourcing of decision making to our law makers means the stakes are impossibly high. If we think reducing gambling, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, or pregnancy terminations, depends on our politicians we lack imagination, and we over-estimate the capacity of our leaders to escape their own political interests and deliver actual results. If we put all our eggs in that basket then to lose the political battle is to lose the war…

If we want to stand against darkness, the answer is bringing light. It’s to stop outsourcing problem-solving to government and to start acting as citizens, forming institutions and movements, to model a better way forward. This is perhaps particularly true for Christians given the way light and darkness work in our story.

And there’s no better picture of the power of light to trump darkness than the way protestors standing in the Opera House forecourt tonight disrupted the projection of the gambling ads onto the Opera House sails. With torches. With light. They didn’t quite have enough torch-power to overcome the industrial sized projectors throwing the ads up, but they tried, they were noticed, and if more of us imagined non-political solutions to social problems that involved harnessing people power we might see changes to how public life happens… it’s this evocative picture of light starting to overcome even the brightest darkness.

There’s much that we Christians could learn about how to participate in a public that seems increasingly dark. We might stop putting our effort into political solutions to the problems around us and start shining light in such a way that the darkness is obscured. We might trust that eventually, though it feels like we’re pushing up hill, enough light shone on something dark will buckle it and break it… no matter how deeply enmeshed a problem is… And maybe we’ll bring a renewed sense of imagination to the task of ‘politics’…

Instead of standing outside abortion clinics, protesting to change legislation as ‘political speech’ (or just getting in the face of the ‘other’) in what our legislators have created as exclusion zones, we might keep building communities that are inclusion zones for vulnerable parents-to-be. Instead of just looking for political solutions on domestic violence we could start refuges and services to make escaping that darkness more possible for women. Instead of playing the same partisan ideological game where we want to win the political fight at all costs, at all times, we might try to make room in public for the people we disagree with to be truly seen and heard. Instead of making political arguments seeking a win over the other, we might seek to win the other over to the light (you know, by making Christian politics about Jesus…).

Hunter and Crawford are describing some things that I’d love to see transform the way we approach politics in Australia. It would be amazing and transformative if we stopped peddling the narrative that politics will solve everything, or giving the keys to the ‘public’ to these leaders who then rely on private dollars to hold on to power. It’d be amazing if we all took up our torches to bring light into these unseen problems in our psyche — our cultural dependancy on gambling and alcohol, and the violence that seems so endemic behind closed doors (62 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence this year, seven women in the last six days… while zero people were killed by needles in strawberries).

The downside to all this optimism about people power, of course, is the images from history of angry mobs with torches hunting down those on the other side. Here’s where I reckon the optimism of plenty of political activism breaks down — the idea that we could, or would, do a better job than those in power if we took the power off them.

There are plenty of iconic torch-carrying-mob pictures we could consider from some of humanity’s darker moments, but perhaps none are more iconic than this one.

So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.

Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. — John 18:3-5

People power can be harnessed for some pretty dark stuff.

Jesus, the ‘light of the world’, approached in the night by a mob carrying torches trying to outshine his light… but even in this moment, the start of his darkest hours, Jesus is triumphing by refusing to play the political game the world expects. It’s like the words of Jesus that John recorded back near the start of his story were prescient.

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. 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.” — John 3:19-21

This is the uniquely bright light we have to shine on the problems of this world — the light of the world, Jesus, has much to offer when it comes to addressing violence against women, alcohol addiction, gambling, and how we treat the unborn. Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, isn’t just an alternative to worldly powers, but offers a rationale for rejecting the ‘politicisation of everything’ and the idea that human governments should be responsible for solving all the world’s problems. He’s the king who doesn’t sell us out for his own interests so that the ‘commons’ is turned against us, but who gives himself as a ransom to bring us from ‘the kingdom of darkness into light’. He invites us into the kingdom, he invites us to turn on the torches, knowing that even in those moments where it doesn’t seem we’re cutting through the darkness, or over-powering the bright lights of our cultural idols, his light is not overcome. He gives us a type of political action that isn’t pointless — the call to point people to God’s kingdom in our participation in the public sphere.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. — Matthew 5:14-16

Worried about how Christianity gets treated in the political realm? Join a party for God’s sake (and your neighbour’s).

Do you ever feel like Christianity is profoundly misunderstood by those outside the fold? Do you feel maligned by the way the church is spoken about by the ‘left-wing media’ and by those with ‘progressive’ political agendas?

Are you worried about religious freedom, or that Australian culture is falling apart, in part because it is ignoring the Christian framework and heritage underpinning many of the good things and institutions that keep our society together?

Are you a Victorian Christian feeling like the state Labor government has some pernicious agenda to wipe you out of public life?

Are you at the point of wondering whether the approach of ‘lobbying’ is actually working, or even an approach to worldly power that Christians should be adopting?

Are you perhaps frustrated by the fruit borne by the approach to the political sphere that looks like starting a ‘Christian’ party, or ‘Christian lobbying’ that seems to get its agenda from the ‘political right’ or some sort of moralistic framework that seems far too interested in sex or Christian self-interest?

Are you a total Mike Baird fan boy, or fan girl?

It’s possible you answered yes to one or more of these questions; if so, might I humbly submit a solution.

Join a political party, for God’s sake, and the sake of your neighbour. 

Get involved. Not because political solutions are solutions for every problem of modern life. Not to build some sort of Christian empire or the kingdom of God via the political process, but because some political problems actually require political solutions.

You know the thing about political parties in Australia… they’re democratic. They’re also, by lots of reports, struggling for numbers; and perhaps a chance for you to have a disproportionate influence on policy for the sake of your neighbours. You might even get to run for office; and so stand in the tradition of a long line of Christians who have been actively involved in government as a way to love and serve both God and country.

Perhaps the way to no longer be misunderstood is to make ourselves known by being part of the process (maybe we need Christians who pursue journalistic excellence in the mainstream press, so take their place in newsrooms and editorial meetings around the country too). Perhaps our tendency to build Christian cultural ghettos is coming back to roost; ironically as the state steps in to make those ghettos ‘less Christian’ (via legislation about employment discrimination); maybe the ironic and irenic response would be for Christians to stop blasting our politicians with screeds and lobbying campaigns, and rather, to go to where they are.

If regular church attendance in Victoria is in line with the national average (8%) then there are 456,800 church goers in Victoria. In the midst of a membership push and a reworking of the party’s framework a couple of years ago designed to give members more power, Kevin Rudd revealed the Labor Party has about 40,000 members nationally… Makes you wonder, doesn’t it… what it would look like if some of those 456,800 church attendees signed up and just started faithfully turning up to branch meetings?

The church needs both clean hands and dirty hands when it comes to politics

 

I’d like to propose three ways for us to think about being political citizens of God’s kingdom in the modern world. Three ways that don’t necessarily overlap, but that we need to make space for in our conversations about politics within, and outside, the church.

  1. Clean hands: There’s certainly a role for Christians to have a prophetic voice from outside the political system; where we keep our hands ‘clean’ (and non-partisan) in order to call our leaders (and public) to an idealised vision of life together as global citizens. This voice might call for ‘political’ solutions via government, but it might also invite imaginative solutions from the ‘public’ (and Christians in the public) apart from professional politics. This is the sort of approach that recent posts on voting as a Christian and letter writing as a Christian have explored (though they’ve also worked on the assumption that the following two options are legitimate and important).
  2. Busy hands: Which leads to the second sort of ‘political’ work; the work that involves creating institutions that work for ‘political’ change in the broadest sense — ie meaningful change for the good of citizens of the ‘polis’ (be that local, state, national, or global). Christians have a great track record in starting these ‘institutions’ (including schools, charities, welfare agencies, hospitals, and more recently social enterprises that tackle particular problems. I believe we’ve dropped this from our thinking a little recently because we’ve been conditioned to see this third model as the way to make ‘real change’ happen.
  3. Dirty hands: The assumption in the modern west is that real change happens through policy-making. This is the trend that gave birth to the religious right, but that also underpins the progressive movement and its attempt to create a secular utopia via legislation. There’s also a need for other Christians to take up the challenge of getting our hands ‘dirty’ through involvement in the political process, in established political institutions (our political parties) in a manner that will ultimately involve the ‘suffering’ of compromise. The ‘dirty hands’ label comes from a talk I heard from Julia Gillard’s speechwriter/advisor Michael Cooney (mentioned here) on being a partisan political actor with an active faith; it draws on a political ethics essay by Michael Walzer that compares partisan actors who are willing to compromise in hard and messy political situations (and so dirty their hands) to achieve slightly more righteous ends to the ‘suffering servant’ from Isaiah.

Here’s some interesting analysis from a McCrindle Research post on some National Church Life Survey data (it is a few years old now).

The NCLS data (2011) shows that most Christians believe that Christians should be active in public policy through making public comment on policy issues (80% support this), advocating and lobbying governments (75%), and almost two-thirds (63%) believe that the church should publically advocate on policy issues, and more than two-thirds (68.5%) believe that church goers should campaign for global poverty and injustice issues.

It’s interesting that the questioning behind these results assumes the role of the church (institutionally) looks like the ‘clean hands’ option. It’s hard to make a distinction between the institution of ‘church’ and what members of the church do in the world if you’re a fan of the ‘priesthood of all believers’… and these categories obviously overlap a little because I’d expect politicians who are Christians to be politicians driven by convictions that their primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, but an awareness that their role will involve some compromise, and I’d also expect them to be more open to hearing the voices of those with ‘clean hands’ (even if sometimes those idealised voices might be frustratingly detached from the real world of politics).

Personally I’ve figured out that I have a strong preference towards 2, with some parts of my job meaning that 1 (particularly being non-partisan) is important… But I would be incredibly supportive of people in my congregation joining (almost) any political party; from the Greens to the Libs, with a vision for being a faithful Christian voice in the policy discussions of those parties. I’m not suggesting engaging in the democratic party by stealth or takeover; but rather becoming part of established community institutions in order to offer a faithful presentation of what Christians believe, and policy solutions that come from a Christian imagination about what a good life in secular community might look like. We Christians have something to offer when it comes to inter-faith relations because the very nature of the history of the church is that we’ve emerged from other faiths and defined ourselves against those faiths while also being called to love our neighbours who disagree with us. Christians have long thought of themselves as ‘exiles’ living amongst people we’re called to love as part of our ‘citizenship’; and that has led Christians, historically, to all three positions outlined above.

… Hands shaped by the cross of our King

If you want a precedent for getting involved in the political process (apart from Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, who managed to work in two of the Bible’s most anti-God regimes while being commended as ‘righteous’); look no further than Erastus, who Paul mentions in Romans 16. Erastus managed to rise to a form of political prominence in the Roman imperial regime in Corinth (then, of course, there’s Constantine).

Part of the more recent secularistion or ‘church in exile’ narrative acknowledges how hard it is to be a Christian in a post-Christian age; but lots of our collective handwringing seems to forget that we’ve still got small bits of social capital to spend on the way out, and also that we were part of setting up lots of these institutions and still have some ability to ‘game the system’… we’ve just been too focused on other stuff. The nature of the sort of democratic approach to politics born out of Christian convictions about the inherent dignity of all people is that politics is still fundamentally (as much as it is influenced by other forces like lobbyists) a ‘numbers game’… and it’s the people who are in the meetings who get to set the policy agenda. This isn’t an invitation to grab power and to use it to beat up our enemies; that would be to make the mistake of the Christian right. It’s an invitation to consider what faithful presence in our civic institutions looks like in a way that makes space for different views and communities in our polis. It’s not about taking up the ‘sword’ of Government (as Romans describes civic rule), but figuring out how the cross of Jesus shapes an approach to the ‘sword’… The cross-shaped approach to politics isn’t about domination or wielding power and influence, but serving; it’s about knowing the limits of human political power, but also about offering oneself as a sacrifice, in this way, for the sake of our neighbours. That, incidentally, is the approach we see modelled in the Old Testament by exiles-in-political office.

I’d love to see Christians joining all our parties; from personal conviction, not simply to win a legislative bunfight out of self-interest (or group-interest). There’s not a policy platform out there that wouldn’t benefit from a Christian imagination being incorporated via the presence of more Christians. A Christian imagination shaped by the message of the Gospel and the understanding that Jesus is both true king and example; this sort of transformed imagination brings both:

a) a particular sort of altruism born from the recognition of the inherent, created, dignity and value of the marginalised or ‘less productive’ person, and
b) a particular vision of what a flourishing secular human society could be, where space is made to see individuals and communities with different convictions about life as neighbours to be loved, rather than enemies to be defeated (and even if people are ‘enemies’ we’re called to love them too).

These would be of benefit to the Liberal/National Coalition, to the Labor Party, to the Greens, to the Nick Xenophon Team, and you know, to One Nation as well. While I don’t want to totally outsource solutions to public life in Australia to the political realm, I’d love to see more Christians join these parties; rather than just sniping from the sidelines, or seeing our democratic participation exhausted at the ballot box or via a few letters here and there. I love the idea too, that Christians in partisan politics might model a better way of operating across the partisan divide (and this is where I think model 2 from the 3 above has real benefit in that it might create the sort of spaces that can unify people across this divide).

There are those writing about the situation for Christians in Victoria who seem to assume that ‘progressive politics’ (or the left) is, in itself, the enemy. I’d want to suggest that we all, as Christians, want some sort of ‘progress’ as a civilisation; we all want to be always reforming, or always transforming; and as Christians we have a particular kingdom shaped view of what progress looks like (and sometimes people in the past got it right, so real ‘progress’ for humanity might lie in conserving certain things). All our parties have ‘messy’ platforms and ideologies that are ‘anti-Christian’ or ‘anti-Christian-values’; so to do the broader ‘right’ and the ‘left’…  but there are also opportunities to bring goodness and truth to our neighbours within the parameters of each platform/ideology. The left tends to see the world ‘systematically’; where problems (like systemic injustice) need systemic solutions (like big government, and legislation that impacts ‘institutions’ or systems); and this does fit with a Christian understanding of sin (when sinful people get together it shouldn’t surprise us that they build systems marred by sin); the right tends to see problems and solutions resting with individuals. There’s a paradox here where the problems in our world are both… Perhaps it is to our detriment that reformedish or evangelical Christians have been so fixated on the individual nature of humanity (and salvation and stuff), that we’ve become suspicious of the progressive left and considered it part of the problem.

Some words of caution from James Davison Hunter

A lot of this ‘faithful presence’ thinking comes as I work my way through James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World; and I’m a bit worried that this proposal runs the risk of reinforcing a problem he’s diagnosed in how we westerners think of public, civic or political life. There are, as option 2 above suggests, other ways to tackle social problems that also benefit from the presence of Christians.

It’s important not to buy into the modern view of politics, and to recognise the limits of political solutions, which, as he puts it:

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them…

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics… Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life. In this turn, we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and the political process…

This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.

Hunter warns Christians in politics (on the right or left) against using the state as a vehicle for a ‘Christian’ agenda; or to ‘aspire to a righteous empire’  (he uses this common criticism of the Christian right to critique the Christian left), and he also wants us to avoid political participation being the ‘easy way out’… he sees a role for the church as an alternative, autonomous, political framework (our first citizenship even), suggesting that Christian engagement in politics needs to avoid reducing the role of the church to just another political party.

“… in the Christian faith, one has the possibility of relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could—in both judgment and affirmation—be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power. But the consequence of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups.”

And here’s two specific warnings on the particular advice at the heart of this post… first, for us not to avoid the difficulty of costly non-political solutions, and second, to work to undo the common view that politics is the solution to all our social problems (it is, however, a solution to political problems), and it would be amazing to have more politicians buying in to a view of the world that doesn’t see politics as where all the action is.

“Christians are urged to vote and become involved in politics as an expression of their civic duty and public responsibility. This is a credible argument and good advice up to a point. Yet in our day, given the size of the state and the expectations that people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.”

“Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression… Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations… To decouple the public from the political will open up other options for engaging the world and addressing its problems in ways that do not require the state, the law, or a political party. There are innumerable opportunities not only in art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better.”

I’ve reached out to a few friends who are members of various political parties to share their thoughts in a follow up post; and if you are a Christian, and a member of a party, I’d love to hear from you about your experience.

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How to write to your MP and the relevant government minister about an issue (as a Christian) in 14 not-easy steps

writingtoapolitician

There are lots of good reasons to write to your local member of parliament or the appropriate government minister as a Christian; we have the incredible privilege of being part of a democracy; where each individual and community of individuals is viewed as having an equal say in how our nation is governed, and where individuals and communities should in principle be entitled to participate equally in public life. One way to participate in our democracy is to vote; but our participation shouldn’t end there (nor should we think that participating well in a democracy, or the public life of our nation is limited to the political sphere and how we influence our politicians and vote).

There are lots of issues where Christians are passionate about how our government makes decisions, and the decisions they make. In my pre-vocational-ministry life I worked for a not-for-profit advocacy group and one of my jobs was to come up with and coordinate public campaigns that involved getting people to contact politicians to ask for things (like V8 Supercars races, significant transport infrastructure, or various election commitments); I’ve put some thought into how the principles for that sort of letter or advocacy translates into how I participate in our democracy as a Christian; and here are my thoughts, please note, there are other ways to skin a cat, how you participate is up to you, and some of this advice is more oriented at what writing a letter should do to you, not just to the recipient, so it might actually end up not being the most effective way to secure a result because there are certain types of persuasion or argument that are no go areas for Christians (manipulation, and or power-grabs run counter to the Gospel).

Communication is always an act of some sort from a communicator to a recipient with the aim of achieving some outcome (understanding and action). It’s helpful to approach writing a letter thinking about each of the elements of this equation and how they relate.

If communication feels easy (as easy as belting out a letter when you’re angry about something, or signing a petition feels) then you’re probably doing it wrong. To make these steps as not easy as possible I’ve also linked to some interesting political theology stuff that you could grapple with if you want to make it even harder to write a letter that doesn’t cost you anything.

So here’s 14 difficult steps to take when writing to your local politician or the relevant minister.

1. Remember the humanity of the person you are writing to; our politicians should be afforded the same dignity that anyone made in God’s image is afforded, and are every bit as human as those we advocate for.

So be gracious and charitable.

Nobody wants to be berated, especially if they feel misunderstood or misrepresented. Don’t make the mistake of dehumanising the person you are writing to because what they’re doing —even if it is dehumanising other people — is making you angry. You’re also less likely to persuade someone if all you do is bang them on the head.

2. Remember to listen well so that you represent and are engaging with the best picture of the person you are writing to and their motivation. If you want to be understood, practice understanding.

So don’t engage with a caricature or simply put forward your own view of reality; take seriously the best and most loving explanation offered by the people you are engaging with and explain how you feel the reality might be different.

3. Remember the complexity of politics, and that you’re not always across all the factors in a decision. Don’t always assume a politician is operating out of self-interest, or a hunger for power, or for an evil ideology (but know that these might be factors in their heart as well as in your own).

So be wise and humble.

4. Remember that a politician is someone who has entered that complexity to ‘get their hands dirty’ and work to a particular vision of what life in our ‘public’ should look like.

So offer an alternative vision and be prepared to be part of the solution you offer.

It’s easy to tell politicians to fix our problems — especially complicated ones — if we stand apart from the solution. It’s easy to be idealistic if we stay pure and detached from the business of compromise and the necessity of governing for and representing people who aren’t exactly like us. Politics, especially democracy, involves the compromise of ideological purity; so we need to be prepared to give and take in order to work towards better outcomes; not in a way that stops us articulate the ‘best’ outcome, but in a way that shows we know change requires staying at the table with people we don’t agree with and working with them.

There’s certainly a time when we need to, as Christians, say we will not participate in evil simply because it is a way to work towards good outcomes; but we also need to realise that working towards good outcomes starts with our actions, but also includes the incremental progress that comes from co-operation and compromise with people we disagree with.

This is really tricky, and where political stuff requires wisdom and grace. There’s a great piece by Michael Walzer called Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands that is worth reading and grappling with; one of the implications of his piece might be that your action shouldn’t start and stop with letter writing, but include volunteering for your local MP, or joining a party, and working towards improving things from within the system. If you’re not going to do that, you should at least recognise that being part of the system brings a cost in itself.

5. Remember that politicians (and their staff who will probably have to read your letter and decide what to do with it) are busy.

So keep things short and to the point; don’t waste their time.

People who get these letters say anything over a page won’t really be read, and suggest around 500 words; it’s hard to get all this stuff into 500 words… but that’s ok, because I think part of the value of letter writing is about what it does to you as a sender as the act of communication shapes you and points you to a particular course of right action… but you don’t want to waste someone’s time, so keep things as short and punchy as you can, and put the important stuff first so they don’t have to get to the end to know what you are asking.

6. Remember who you are (as a Christian); an ‘exile’ who belongs to the kingdom of heaven but who is called to love your neighbours and use whatever power you have for the sake of others not yourself.

So don’t try to play a power game by lobbying or speaking out of self-interest.

It’s not our job to sell a decision based on the votes in it; but on the basis of its inherent goodness for our neighbours (including our politicians). We have a role to play by speaking with a ‘prophetic voice’ which I think is a voice that calls people back to the goodness of God and his design for humanity as we see it in Jesus.

7. Remember that the ultimate good you stand for, for both the politician and the public is tied up with the kingdom you belong to.

So articulate the virtues and values of this kingdom and offer them as a better alternative to the values and virtues put forward by whatever it is that has prompted you to write.

It’s ok to talk about Jesus in talking to the secular state; it’s a massive misfire not to because the ideal secular state provides space for all ‘religious’ or ‘political’ views as much as possible; it’s not our job to find common ground between religions, that in many respects, is the state’s job (though we do need to model what this looks like in our relationships with other religious views, including affording space and ‘representation’ in our laws to views that say religion is irrelevant to public life).

8. Remember that politicians make decisions based on what is best for other people; first the people they’re called to represent. Make your correspondence about (these) people (and you are one of them).

So show why what you’re saying — including the Gospel — is better for the people our pollies are representing.

We have to show our representatives why they should care about the people effected by their decisions, but also how their decisions will effect all of us in a positive or negative way. It’s a mistake to buy into the idea that the only goods for our people are security or economic prosperity. Virtue formation is a good end in itself.

It’s actually possible to argue that acting completely out of something other than self-interest is actually good for our society; we don’t need to frame our advocacy as being good for people in any way other than that it is a call for us to do good. Doing good is its own reward. My friend Luke Glanville wrote this great (journal) article called Self Interest and the Distant Vulnerable that is worth a read on this, I especially liked this bit of John Donne that he quotes:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

9. Remember that as a Christian you have a view of the state and its relationship to God’s plans and purposes (whether the state is an unwitting participant in God’s judgment or an agent of the common good who restrains evil), and that your ultimate calling is to love and pray for those in authority.

So don’t just write to our politicians. Pray for them and be a good neighbour to them.

And tell them you are not to make yourself look Holy (which almost inevitably would make you a hypocrite), but because this is what you are called to do by God. And ask them how you can pray for them; demonstrate a commitment to relationship, and also a belief that their role is one ordained by God so that you’ll respect and submit to them as an act of obedience to him. If letter writing isn’t part of some commitment to a relationship to your representative, and our shared public (our neighbours), then don’t do it; or at least search your heart as to why you are…

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 2:1-3

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, honour the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:13-17

10. Remember that every interaction is a Gospel opportunity and that ultimately it is the Gospel that shapes what you’re asking for and it’s ok to say that; that our democracy is best served by hearing a ‘Christian’ voice, not a ‘one size fits all natural morality’ voice.

So show how your position is a Gospel position and invite people, including the politician you are writing to, to adopt this position by adopting the Gospel; or at the very least to see how your position is part of the practice of your religion and occurs within a community or ‘social institution’ apart from the state.
Paul seemed pretty happy, when he was on trial, to attempt to convert those sitting in judgment over him (Read Acts 24-27).

“Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” — Acts 27:28-29

In a democracy every issue is, in some sense, a trial of competing ideas and our lawmakers are our judges. If you’re going to take an opportunity to speak truth to power, why not also speak the truth to power; part of belonging to God’s kingdom includes belief that the best thing for them (as our neighbour) and for our other neighbours whom they represent is that they come to know Jesus. It’s interesting, and not irrelevant, that almost all ‘prophetic ministry’ in the Old Testament involved God’s spokespeople calling foreign powers to repent by turning to God (eg Jonah); and that when a leader in a culture like this turned, it turned the whole country to God; our western individualism (and our reformed emphasis on salvation as an individual thing) makes this seem less significant; but, you know, read about the Emperor Constantine and the impact of his conversion and Paul doesn’t seem so silly (except that sometimes Christianity gets co-opted as a means to wield worldly power).

11. Remember that ethical speech isn’t free; it’s costly and obliges you to a particular sort of action.

So love with actions; not just words.

There’s a tendency to reduce our participation in the democracy to token activities – like voting (which for many years in many places involved putting your ‘token’ into a particular place to indicate your support), or signing a petition, or writing a letter, and worse, to showing that you’re much better and more ethical than the politician because you’ve done this token thing. This is a particular danger for the left; it seems, in part because often the left turns to the state to solve problems and be an ethical guide, so it is their job to fix stuff. Tokenism is perhaps better than nothing, but it certainly isn’t better than getting your hands dirty and trying to change the situation by acting.

When people were writing textbooks about ethical persuasion in the early years of democracy (in the Roman Republic, or in an attempt to take the Empire back to the Republic) they’d often (think Plato, Cicero, etc) write big books on the ideal politics (eg Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics), on the ideal orator or person (eg ‘Rhetoric’ or Cicero’s De Oratore); these guys almost universally connected the character or ethos of a persuasive participant in the political realm with the arguments they’d need to make to persuade people. Words don’t exist apart from actions in the ethical and persuasive political life. This is certainly true for Christians; Paul’s life, suffering, and chains, were part of his persuasive presentation of the Gospel, and there’s this bit from John which I think should guide how we seek to love our neighbours:

 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

12. Remember that not all solutions to complex issues are political, and if you want your letter to be more than empty tokenism you need to be acting already, or committed to public action apart from the political solution you are seeking.

Before you write, ask yourself ‘is there anything I could already be doing, apart from this politician to address this problem and bring about the change I’m looking for’… then if you’re not doing that, start doing it before you write.

If there is something you could be doing, and you’re doing it, that’ll also make your voice worth hearing because of the logos-ethos nexus; true persuasion starts with your character and actions, not your words… but true participation in the public starts in the public realm and with what is already possible, not just in what you would like to make possible.

Laws provide a floor, ethics provide a ceiling; sometimes the law gets in the way of good solutions, and that’s where I think we should be particularly engaged as ethical agents in a democracy. This will also keep you from the tokenism of the left, and from the weird assumption that it’s your representative’s job to fix things, not yours, or ours together.

It’s a mistake of modern life to assume that every issue is the state’s issue to solve; and that political solutions are the ones we should devote our energy to… Christians buy into this often when we assume our real fight begins and ends with the law’s approach to something like gay marriage or abortion, such that we’ve lost if the law doesn’t represent our view, or that winning looks like overturning a law. This is a failure to really imagine what we can do in the world apart from politics, and an accepting of a status quo view that only really serves the interests of the ‘ruling class’ or the political establishment. It’s also boring and depressing.

James Davison Hunter has some really good stuff for how we should think about this politicisation of everything as Christians in his book To Change The World, while this article ‘Killing For The Telephone Company‘ by William Cavanaugh explores the issue further and includes this cracker of a quote from Alisdair MacIntyre about the danger of having no institutions but the state, and having the state be in control of all aspects of public life (and so deciding what is ethical or what the good and flourishing life looks like).

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” — Alisdair MacIntyre

 

13. Remember politics, and the job of the politician, is about more than the issues you disagree on, and about more than crisis management.

Why not sometimes write encouraging and thankful things to politicians; perhaps especially to those you are most inclined to disagree with or oppose.

14. Remember that the Gospel — the story of God drawing near and becoming flesh — is one that values face to face relationships over the distance. The best communication breaks down distance to bring people together.

So work towards that in your writing… seek to meet with your local MP in person and work towards a longer term relationship.

Our communication often reinforces the distance between us and the people we are trying to communicate with; physical presence breaks that down. All communication between two separate people is ‘mediated’ but some mediums are more distant (in terms of both time and space) than others; and this distance in space and time makes the distance between us feel bigger… when we’re face to face our communication is immediate, proximate, and personal. Face to face communication with all its non-verbal goodness helps you do communication better and to listen to, love and understand the person you are speaking to better.