Tag Archives: Jesus

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Hey ACL: If your “Christian Values” endorse One Nation, you’re doing it wrong

It’s election time in Australia, which means its time for various Christian pundits and thought leaders to put out their ‘how to vote’ guides, because, clearly, most of us can’t possibly work out how to participate in the democratic process without some sort of pre-packaged checklist highlighting where the parties stand on the issues we’re told we should care about. If you’re after advice from me I’ll stand by my how to vote in (not) easy steps post from the 2016 election, and leave you trying to work things out.

Long time readers (if there are any) of this blog (if that’s even what this is) will know I’ve been a strident critic of the Australian Christian Lobby for various reasons; but mostly because they, historically, never spoke about Jesus, or about why a particular policy direction they took was a particularly Christian approach. There were some observable changes when former chief Christian, Lyle Shelton, left to fight for marriage with the Coalition For Marriage, and then to run for the Australian Conservatives. The new chief Christian, Martyn Iles, has been doing a creditable job making Christian arguments for various (conservative) positions on various issues, he even made promises to broaden the platform a little (as the former chief did when tackling penalty rates). The change has been, I think, a breath of fresh air and represents at least a desire to enter the political realm or public square in a pluralist, secular, democracy as Christians, rather than as people who neuter ourselves and argue for and from status quo assumptions given to us by a hard secularism that assumes religion doesn’t belong in the public life of any individual or society.

The breath of fresh air turned fetid and stale overnight, for me, when the ACL issued its ‘how to vote’ card for the May election. They’ve picked five, that’s right, just five, ‘key’ battleground issues for Christians in this election. And there are certain issues that seem particularly self-serving for Christians, which then frames how our positions on issues like abortion and euthanasia might be understood (that we care more about being in control than being considered as a voice in the mix). The ACL’s “Policy Analysis” considers abortion and reproductive health, euthanasia, religious freedom (specifically for Christian schools), sexual orientation and gender identity, and keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament. Picking just these five issues seems an interesting narrow cast; and perhaps it’s because on all the other big issues all the parties are exactly the same? Maybe that’s it? But given the ‘wings’ of this table are ‘all green ticks’ and ‘all red crosses’ it does appear at least to be about contrasting the ‘Christian’ options (the Australian Conservatives) and the ‘non-Christian’ options (the Greens). It’s weird to devote so much column space to Derryn Hinch, and not the many, many, minor parties throwing hats into the ring this election. But what’s perhaps most beyond the pale for me is that picking such a narrow agenda ends up not just endorsing Bernardi and Shelton’s Australian Conservatives, but Hanson’s One Nation Party.

I’m going to put it out there that if your policy platform ends up endorsing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a ‘Christian vote’ in the current climate, there’s probably a problem with how you’re defining your platform. Especially if you don’t prosecute a party’s platform, persona, or character beyond those issues that serve your own interest — or worse, beyond the way that party promises you access to the political process. This is the mistake evangelical Americans have made as they’ve been co-opted by the Trump administration in the U.S; a failure to maintain a distinct sense of Christian character and virtue beyond what is politically expedient, and what is happening to the church in America. These politically active Christian conservatives in the ‘religious right’  have done significant, measurable, damage to the reputation of Jesus amongst the general populace of the United States (and possibly globally) because of the way they’ve jumped into bed with a bloke who literally embodies the vice list in Colossians 3 just because it’s politically expedient to do so; because we Christians, like our neighbours, have bought into an ethic detached from a ‘telos’ or from life in a cosmos where God and his nature defines what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and started pursuing politics like good little utilitarians; jumping on board whatever train will deliver our political ends, no matter what that means.

When I pressed Martyn Iles about this expression of a ‘preference’ for One Nation on Facebook, he justified the position with the following remark:

“…their doors are far, far wider open to Christians than most of the groups listed. They are easy to deal with, are often convinced to do the right thing, and they happen to line up on the social policy issues listed here.

I am pretty happy to defend where they’ve landed in our flyer just on the basis of how willingly their elected politicians work with Christians.

I get it that they have their problems (including serious ones, like their support of euthanasia), but I’ll take 10 One Nation Senators over Palmer, Hinch, or the Greens any day of the week.”

Their relationship to One Nation is, then, analogous to the relationship between the big end of town and the major parties, and the sort of insidious relationship we keep seeing exposed between foreign ‘soft power’ and our parties; the kind that leads people to suggest banning political donations from such quarters. Votes for access is a terrible pathway to the worst kind of democracy; the craven type where elected representatives act based on what will secure votes, rather than what is good, true, and beautiful, and where lobby groups that aim to distort the process for the sake of special interests urge for votes not based on what is best for all, but what is best for them — measured, predominantly, by questions of power and access.

If you chuck virtue and character out the window when assessing what party to vote for, in the name of results, you are making a bed that the rest of us have to lie in. If you end up platforming a party whose leader consistently appeals to the worst ‘angels’ of our nature; who promotes conspiracy theories rather than truth at every turn, who blames the media when her chosen representatives are exposed as degenerates, whose party cosied up with the NRA to try to soften Australia’s gun laws, whose positions on issues affecting the most marginalised members of our society or the global community are well documented, and who moved a motion in the Australian senate using a phrase (“it’s OK to be white” typically used by white supremacists). Hanson is a climate change denier (and the Australian Conservatives come pretty close), she is opposed to foreign aid (in all its forms). The party can’t seem to keep an elected representative in its folds, let alone in parliament. And according to the Australian Christian Lobby they’re the party who’re the second most deserving of your vote, because of what we Christians might get from the deal. Donald Trump might embody the vices in Colossians 3 solo, One Nation’s candidates prefer a cooperative approach.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.  You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other… — Colossians 3:5-9

I’m not suggesting that One Nation’s elected representatives should behave like Christians, or that we should expect them to… but I do think Christians should behave like Christians and exercise our participation in the political process as Christians who are ambassadors for Christ — and so not endorse vice for the sake of being closer to worldly power. I’m suggesting that virtue matters for us (and that it’d be nice to elect politicians who display virtue rather than vice, or to call for those sorts of standards rather than pure utility). A Christian vote is not about how they behave, so much as how we behave, and about what it is we express is important. There is no current political party that exhaustively embodies “Christian Values” (even the ones that have Christian in their name), which means a ‘Christian’ vote is not about who we vote for, but how one votes (and participates in political life) as a Christian.  Here’s what should mark our participation in public life.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

If you want to “vote for Christian values” then those are the values, or virtues, you might want to see on display in the people you’re electing and expressed by their policies. What’s tricky, in the way politics happens in the modern world, is that these virtues are thoroughly embedded in a life where a community ‘lets the message of Christ dwell among them richly’… And perhaps a better way of framing our participation in politics (beyond just the ballot box) — a politics built from “Christian values” — would be for us to push for Christians to deliberately and transparently bring Christian virtues into public life. The problem is we’d be bringing them into a “public” that has largely rejected virtue for the sake of utility, and where the key, distinctive, Christian idea that virtue comes not just dispassionately from ‘nature,’ but from a relationship with God is even more remote. To embrace a politics of utility enforces this chasm, which is the very chasm our Christian witness seeks to close.

In his work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor makes this observation about the ‘field’ public life, including politics, now takes part on, or at least about the way we think about how we should live as people in the modern world.

“The dominant philosophical ethics today… conceive of morality as determining through some criterion what an agent ought to do. They are rather hostile to an ethics of virtue or the good, such as that of Aristotle. And a Christian conception, where the highest way of life can’t be explained in terms of rules, but rather is rooted in a certain relation to God, is entirely off the screen.”

Taylor suggests the stakes of playing the game with these rules and assumptions are high; they reinforce the view that reality is a ‘closed system’ or an “immanent frame” that excludes God from the picture. There’s a real danger that the way we do politics, if we embrace ‘utility’ or the idea that being good is about obeying certain rules, or having a certain moral framework, rather than imitating the character of God, actually serves to reinforce the assumption that God isn’t in the picture, Taylor says that promoting a morality (or politics) that arises from ‘an impersonal law” or “impersonal order” — rather than from “a personal relation” is a problem for Christians. He says: “All these forms of impersonal order: the natural, the political and the ethical can be made to speak together against orthodox Christianity, and its understanding of God as personal agent.” Playing the political game this way, as Christians, takes the game further and further away from a Christian view of reality.

“On one level, we have the natural order, the universe, purged of enchantment, and freed from miraculous interventions and special providences from God, operating by universal, unrespondent causal laws. On another level, we have a social order, designed for us, which we have to come to discern by reason, and establish by constructive activity and discipline. Finally the Law which defines this order, whether as political/constitutional law, or ethical norms, can be expressed in rational codes, which can be grasped quite independent of any special relationship we might establish with God, and by extension with each other. The human relationships which matter are those prescribed in the codes (e.g., Natural Law, the Utilitarian principle, the Categorical Imperative).”

Christian values are going to be the ones that push back on the idea that we should make political decisions simply about what’s going to be convenient for certain groups — including us — here and now, they’re going to be the ones that say there’s more to life than just political success, or lawmaking, or winning, they’re going to be the ones that point to an actual, not just mechanical, relationship with God being at the heart of reality. And while keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament could be a nod to this higher ordering of reality, I’m not sure that having a bunch of politicians pray the Lord’s Prayer — including the line ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ (which is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come, and for the sort of kingdom ethics expressed in the Sermon On The Mount, where the prayer is found, to be lived) — who are then going to do their best to do the opposite — is the sort of pushing back on this closing of the system that’s required. Hypocrisy is not a “Christian value” and I think we should avoid the enshrining of ironic hypocrisy, especially given how Jesus opens up his teaching on prayer when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:5). If we’re going to ask our politicians to keep praying the Lord’s Prayer, we’ve also got to ask them to both believe it, and mean it, and to turn their attention to the sort of ethical vision and kingdom that the prayer entails.

I’m not going to cast my vote just to secure an ‘open door’ and a few key ‘ticks’ on policy areas that serve my interests. A Christian vote is not the vote that secures the best possible result for us on certain positions, or the best access to those in power, no matter the cost. A Christian vote is the one that looks to our relationship with Jesus as Lord, to his example, and to his commands, where we vote with integrity and character and virtue — the highest of those virtues being love. This will certainly mean that Christians consider the elderly, the sick, and the unborn in our political matrix — but also the refugee, the foreigner not on our shores, the widow, the poor, the not yet born (whose natural environment our decisions affect), and just about any ‘other’ — given that they all fall into the category of ‘neighbour’ or ‘enemy’ and Jesus calls us to love both (but first to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength). Here’s the paradigm that’s meant to mark our politics as Christians because it’s what it looks like to be a citizen in the kingdom of God — the kingdom Jesus launched in his death and resurrection, at the cross.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” — Matthew 16:24-27

Cosying up to One Nation might gain us the whole world in terms of political access and power (it probably won’t); but what if the cost is not just our soul, but our witness to our crucified king? Is it worth it? Or is it the equivalent of trading our birthright in God’s family of promise for a bowl of gruel?

UPDATE: A friend connected to the ACL has reached out to suggest the take put forward by this piece on the flyer is less than charitable, and that a statement posted by Martyn Iles might clear up what the aim of the flyer is. Iles says:

“There is an important difference between an education resource and a political tool.

A political tool has to effectively appeal to people who are disengaged and influence them.

An education resource is for people who are engaged, and it takes them on a much bigger journey.

If our flyer were primarily an education resource, it would include all parties and all conceivable “Christian” issues (which I do care about – anyone who follows my vlogs and blogs will know that). It would also have a small distribution, targeted to rusted-on Christians.

But it is not.

(Actually, it wouldn’t be a flyer at all – it’d be a website).

There are a number of good resources of that kind already available, which most people who are that engaged will already have seen.

The flyer is for middle-Australia, marginal seat, politically disengaged, Christian-sympathising voters. It has a mass distribution.

It’s for a target that other groups are simply not reaching. It is for a target that is not in yours or my mindset.”

I’m not sure I understand how this makes my post unreasonable, I’ll let you be the judge. There’s a little more in his post.

I will say, briefly, that I think this explanation makes things worse, not better. If this is designed to present a ‘Christian values’ approach to politics to people who are largely not actually Christian, but might share some Christian values, then this misrepresents the heart of Christianity (and Christian political concerns). It might be politically expedient (or utilitarian), but it is not helpful for the wider mission of the church (or the Kingdom of God, of which the ACL is, universally, a part). I’d also point out that there is a website that goes with the flyer, and lots of opportunities for the ACL to be clearer in its repudiation of One Nation, especially for the sake of those who receive this flyer in the mail who might be confused about how Christians stand with regards to that political party.

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The Greens are right: Easter is political

The Australian Greens have announced they won’t join a tradition as old as the World Wars  — joining a cease fire over the Easter weekend(ok, so it was Christmas in World War I, but there are modern conflicts where the combatants lay down arms for the Easter weekend) — but they will hold back their political cannons over ANZAC Day.

This is fascinating; one, because it reveals that in the ‘post-Christian’ landscape, the new national ‘holy day’, recognised by all parties, is one connected to our national mythology, ANZAC Day, not to our Christian heritage. Two, because the Greens point out that Easter has already been de-sacralised in our national calendar (even if our retailers keep a certain sort of liturgical year that marks out the period between Christmas and Easter as ‘hot cross bun’ season).

Greens Leader, Richard Di Natale, says:

“We’ll be campaigning hard through the Easter period and be doing everything we can to make this a climate change election.”

The major parties have agreed not to campaign over the Easter period as a mark of respect to its ‘sacred’ nature. There’ll no doubt be many Christian, or conservative, pundits who’ll cry foul at this sacrilege. But there’s something fundamentally real being recognised in the Green’s approach — it’s not that ‘nothing is sacred’ any more, in our secular age, it’s that everything is religious. Every day is sacred; which is something Christians can agree with — because every religious action is political. Every act of a religious person, every word, is an articulation and embodiment of a certain vision of a political kingdom. Christians, as we live in the world, as we speak and proclaim the lordship of Jesus and obey him as king, are living out a political vision; which means that rather than being ‘not political’, Easter is profoundly political — it’s the moment that Jesus, our king, was crowned and enthroned as king of the Kingdom of God.

It’s not that no day is ‘sacred’ — it’s that there’s a growing realisation, or revelation, that every day is sacred. That we live in a time where the soul of our nation is being contested and contended for, and where we’re trying to figure out how to live together with different holy days; different understandings of what is sacred and what is profane.For the Greens, digging up coal and destroying the environment is an act of sacrilege, of desecration, of destruction of their material ‘god’ — the natural world. It would be easy for Christians to see the Greens choosing to protest the Adani coal mine as an act of ‘sacrilege’ that cheapens the holiness of Easter, but many Christians will see their actions being in line with the Lordship of Jesus, the king appointed by the creator who called humanity to steward his good creation.

What’s changed in our culture that brings about political campaigning on Easter — brazenly campaigning for other gods — is a loss of consensus in our institutions and our calendar that Jesus is king; this is contested — political contests (religious contests) don’t just happen at election time; because every moment is sacred, every moment is also political. 

There’s a challenge here for Christians as we engage in the politics of our nation — to have our participation shaped by our primary political identity; our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, where the call is for us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, before working out how we love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We have a larger view of the sacred than our neighbours, one that might allow careful participation in their political institutions, but we need to be careful not to become polytheists. God’s people were, from even before the 10 Commandments — but specifically in them — called to live political lives that articulated a certain vision of a kingdom, and behind that, a vision of God. Their neighbours were doing the same — the first two commandments deal with this reality.

You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” — Exodus 20:3-6

Part of the nature of the prohibition in the second commandment is that we humans are meant to be the images of God — living, breathing, ones — and to make other images and then worship them distorts who we are, and how we understand God. The other part of the problem with worshipping created things is not that they aren’t sacred, the ‘heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19), it’s that their sacred purpose is being profaned and cheapened by false worship. Israel failed to live out this distinction; their commitment to God’s kingdom was undermined by their worship of foreign gods, and their buy in to the politics and way of life that came from that. Man made religions — the ones that replace God with things he made, or with other gods — always lead to damaging systems of power that ultimately, as they stop God being God, stop humans being seen fully as humans. Distorted politics ends up not just desacralising, but also dehumanising. When Paul talks about this in Romans 1 he argues that false religion — taking that which is sacred (created things), that which is made to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God’ and worshipping those things, leads to broken humanity and, ultimately, death. The decision to worship ‘other than God’ in systemic terms, leads to politics and political kingdoms that reject God, and reshape humanity to different ends. This was the problem with the nations surrounding Israel in the Old Testament, but also in the New. Kings in the ancient world consistently set themselves up as ‘the image of God’ (using the same words the Bible prohibits, the claim of the Old Testament is a polemical claim against ancient political visions where other humans were plebs for the powerful to use and abuse as they saw fit). Nobody did this more than the Caesars — Augustus turned ’emperor worship’ into a new art form, and by the time Jesus was tried and killed, the Caesars, by then Tiberius, had mastered the art of promoting their divine image (Jesus’ statements about coins with Caesar’s image on them are particularly pointed and political against this backdrop — give Caesar what his image is on, and give God what his image is on — our ultimate ‘political’ allegiance belongs to the God who made us). When Jesus came he came making claims that put him specifically at odds with the Caesars; and with all other would be ‘images of God’ who were not worshipping the God of the Bible, the God of Israel. He came making political claims. He came calling people into a kingdom. He came announcing that attempts to divide the political from the sacred were nonsense… because the sacred has always, and will always, be political. The people who killed him, and the people who wrote about that, were very clear on this. Here’s the political Easter story, as told by John.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.

Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” — John 19:1-6 

This is political, not just religious.

Pilate has a chat with Jesus at this point, trying to figure out why the Israelites are so keen to kill Jesus. The same Israelites who are meant to be God’s representatives, his kingdom, turn on this king, and turn to another one…

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

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

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

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

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

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

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:13-16

Jesus was killed on the basis of political claims — he claimed to be king, and Rome — the leading political vision of this world — wasn’t interested in a ceasefire. Its politics was also religious… and so is ours.

So if there are political parties who are honest in their desire not to participate in that kingdom, but to work towards some other religious agenda, we should welcome that — rather than those who pay lip service to Easter and its essence, without political fidelity to the Lord Jesus. This isn’t to say there aren’t Christians in any of these parties, but that so long as these parties aren’t lining up their agenda with ‘the kingdom of God’ their ‘politics’ — especially when they want to distinguish ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ — are fundamentally religious, and are in competition with the Easter message — the coronation and enthronement of ‘the King of the Jews.’

I’m not ceasing fire this Easter. I’ll be proclaiming the very political message that Jesus is Lord, and that Easter isn’t just about his death bringing about some obscure spiritual transaction where my personal sins are forgiven (though it does do that), it’s about his resurrection and then the pouring out of the Spirit, being what launches a new kingdom in this world with a new politics that we get to be part of as his kingdom of priests, his ambassadors, his nation.

Infinity Wars, the trolley problem, Abraham, Jepthath and Jesus…

This piece contains some spoilers about a minor element of the plot for Avengers: Infinity War.

There’s a plot thread in Infinity War continuing in Marvel’s exploration of parenting (see also, Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, etc). Thanos is the adopted father of Gamora; the adoption comes in the midst of his committing a semi-genocide (killing half the population) of her planet ‘in order to save it’. Thanos’ mission to ‘save the galaxy’ what is driving his pursuit of the ‘infinity stones’ and the power they offer is a mission to make life sustainable by halving the population. It’s a vision for human and alien flourishing that he is utterly committed to in mind, heart, and action. He is willing to make big sacrifices to achieve this end, including the life of the daughter he loves; Gamora, one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos’ conviction to his mission is essentially religious; it’s the pursuit of his ‘kingdom of heaven’ in a physical sense in the cosmos, that he is willing to sacrifice and work for… even to make the semi-ultimate sacrifice; the sacrifice of a beloved child. It doesn’t appear that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice — himself — to achieve this end. When his mission is accomplished, he sits watching the sun set over a valley; a scene he foreshadows as ‘what he’ll do when his task is complete’ earlier in the movie. It’s clear he saw his task both as a personal burden, and as moral (a conviction he’s held since his own planet was destroyed because people refused to do hard things for the greater good)… it’s also clear he pursues his task with a sort of religious fervour, or zealotry. Nothing will stay his hand; no price is too great. It’s also clear his willingness to ‘exchange lives for outcomes’ is being pitted against the Avengers’ steadfast refusal to ‘trade lives’ (right up until Vision convinces his beloved Scarlet Witch to help him sacrifice himself for the cause of resisting Thanos’ cosmic vision). There’s a Cinema Blend piece doing the rounds arguing that Thanos sacrificing Gamora is the worst part of the movie, because Thanos’ actions in sacrificing his adopted daughter make it clear that his claims to love her are a lie.

When Gamora and Thanos arrive on the planet Vormir, they learn that in order to obtain the stone, one must sacrifice somebody they love. Gamora believes that Thanos has been beaten by this, because he loves nothing. But it turns out that, because he loves Gamora, he can, and does, sacrifice her to obtain the long-lost Soul Stone.

The idea is that, while Gamora doesn’t consider Thanos’ treatment of her to be love, in his own way, he does care deeply for her, and because he does, her life can be given up by him to get what he needs in order to complete this terrible task that he has burdened himself with. That’s a load of bullshit.

I have some substantial problems with the argument in this piece; but I think it’s revealing. We’ve, as moderns, collapsed our understanding of ‘love’ to be totalising and utterly focused on the people or things in front of us; the idea of having greater love for some cause beyond ourselves is, at least in this piece, unpalatable. For Thanos to say that he genuinely loves Gamora he has to love her above all other causes. This is tricky ground to cover; especially in a world where a family with deep religious convictions can do what a family in Indonesia did to some churches over the weekend. There’s something to the argument that unfettered fanatical devotion to a cause can warp our commitment or love for other things in such a way that the commitment can no longer be called love. But we also, as humans, live with conflicting loves and with ultimate loves that shape our interactions with all other things — it’s part of being ‘worshippers’ or ‘lovers’ to orient ourselves to the world based on some vision of what is ultimate, and to organise our ‘sacrifice’ (of time and energy and relationships) accordingly; whether it’s career, or success, the improvement of the world for future generations, or the propagation of a culture or religion, there are socially acceptable and unacceptable ways to order our loves and the impact those loves have on others. The effect of our worship on how we treat the people in our lives is a good thing to think through (and a good criteria to figure out the validity of our object of worship using criteria that include things like our emotions). It is good to ask a workaholic (someone who worships work) about the impact that has on their family (and whether they truly love their family, or on what basis they see their work as an act of love or sacrifice for their family). It’s good to consider whether the ‘worship’ or ‘sacrifice’ required in a religious system makes that religious system worthy or good (and even true or reasonable). If a God really is capricious, then worshiping rather than overthrowing that God is preposterous; and if a vision for life in this world requires awful costs imposed on others, then we can ask if it is truly a better alternative.

It’s not that Thanos doesn’t love Gamora, it’s that a greater love allows him to sacrifice Gamora (while grieving over that sacrifice). This isn’t the worst bit of the movie, but part of what makes Thanos such a compelling villain; we understand his motivations, and they are costly and coherent. He genuinely believes that what he is doing — and even the costs imposed on himself, and those who die in his pursuit of the cause — serve a ‘greater good;’ the moral question we have to resolve here (at least to understand whether this sacrifice means he doesn’t actually love Gamora) is more complicated than the Cinema Blend piece allows. We have to ask questions about how moral it can be to co-opt another person for your cause — to play God, rather than virtuous creature — in pursuit of a ‘kingdom of God’ (or gods); and Thanos is certainly depicted as being quite prepared to play god (and slay gods). The minions who buy in to his mission and who carry out the mass killings of people required to secure his vision of the future, are interesting pictures of whole-hearted, unwavering, religious zealotry too.

At least part of the problem we’re faced with in assessing the morality of Thanos’ behaviour is the question of whether his vision is utopian or dystopian (can anybody ever find real peace and happiness knowing the price paid to secure it?), but another part is the question of how much the ‘ends’ ever justifies the ‘means’; and one thing the Cinema Blend piece does well for us is it exposes just how hollow a dispassionate, utilitarian, framework is for us in questions of life, and death, and love.

Basically, what we’re seeing in Avengers: Infinity War is a CGI heavy, cosmic, re-imagining of different versions of the Trolley Problem (and one that allows a sort religious motivation to provide the ‘moral frame’ for making a life or death decision (or acknowleding, perhaps, that the moral frame for such decision making is almost always ‘religious’ in some sense, in that purely rational decision making is utterly unsatisfying to us as humans, and needs to be built on subjective value-based criteria that are more emotional or intuitive than we’re sometimes prepared to acknowledge). If you’re not familiar with the Trolley Problem as an ethical test via imaginary scenario… Here’s how Wikipedia lays it out.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:
1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

For Thanos, the problem might be presented this way:

You believe life in this universe is unsustainable and that all people will die terribly if left unchecked. There is a stone that will secure the sustainable life of half the existing population, and life of future generations. Achieving that outcome requires running over the other half of the existing population. You can:

  1. Do nothing, and everyone dies.
  2. Claim the stone and kill half of all lives in the universe.

The dilemma, in a utilitarian framework seems fairly straight forward to this point; securing the best outcome for the greatest number means option 2 (for a moment granting the premise that there is literally no other hope or destiny for the people currently alive; no better solution than the death of half of them… the real problem in this movie is a total lack of imaginative alternatives (particularly alternative uses of infinite God-like power from the stones).

The Avengers play out a different ethical system in their initial refusal to intervene to even trade one life for the greater good; there’s tension when Doctor Strange breaks that pact, giving up a stone to Thanos to save Iron Man (though Doctor Strange is no stranger to making sacrifices for the greater good, having died a seemingly infinite number of deaths to save the world from destruction in his solo movie, and he also does this with a sort of ‘infinitely bestowed’ foreknowledge of the paths to the best possible future). This refusal to make trades doesn’t hold forever though; because when it comes to making sacrifices to save half the world’s population from Thanos’ vision, they have their own version of the trolley problem. Vision is alive because of an infinity stone embedded in his head. Thanos wants the stone, and will kill him to take it. Wanda, the Scarlett Witch, has the power to destroy the stone, but she loves Vision and does not want to pull that lever… Their version is:

  1. Do nothing and half the planet dies.
  2. Kill Vision, destroy the stone, save half the planet.

The only option on the table at that point, it seems, is option 2.

It’s interesting that both of these dilemmas are built around the idea that to be moral, or ethical, when faced with a scenario like this, is to intervene; the notion that we are the ‘ultimate actors’ in every moment, and that individuals bear a sort of corporate responsibility if they want to be considered ethical or loving.

Thanos faces an even trickier version of the Trolley Dilemma than that first version; on the mountaintop he faces an earlier form of the dilemma… “in which the one person to be sacrificed on the track was the switchman’s child” (wikipedia)… coupled with a version created by controversial moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Thanos faces a scenario where only Gamora’s sacrifice can meet the conditions (in his account of reality) to secure the best possible future for the greatest good, where she is both his beloved child and as a result the person who is ‘weighty enough’ to be sacrificed to secure that future. This version of the trolley problem exposes some of the weight behind the ‘mechanical’ pulling of a lever by making you get your conceptual hands dirty; and this was the price Thanos was willing to pay to secure his religious vision. He was prepared to personally sacrifice his beloved child in order to secure what he believed was good for the world.

I want to suggest that the problem with Thanos; what makes him a villain and his love hollow is not that he sacrificed Gamora, but that his vision was not good; that the killing of half the life in the universe to save the other half is vicious, rather than virtuous, that with the power of God in his hands he had myriad better options if he’d bothered to use his imagination, that he should’ve learned something more about the tragic destruction of his planet through the selfish consumerism of its inhabitants than ‘beings need to die so that other beings can consume’… and that perhaps what he should’ve done, morally speaking, was thrown himself of the cliff to give Gamora, his much more worthy and virtuous daughter, the power of the gauntlet, trusting that she would use that power to create a better world; that it’s clear that in sacrificing her he is just as guilty of the distorting self-love that destroyed his planet, and that this selfishness actually colours his distorted vision of a solution to the problems of the universe.

In doing this I want to suggest a better solution to Thomson’s version of the Trolley Problem, and I want to use the Bible to do it… I want to suggest that one element of Thomson’s “fat man” trolley scenario must always be challenged and re-imagined if we’re to pursue true other-centric virtue; and let’s call that other-centric virtue what it really is… love. It isn’t true that we are at the centre of the universe, and that its problems must be solved by our actions and decision making on behalf of others. Where the problem states “your only way” is to take the life of another, there’s actually a question left hanging… what if I jumped in front of the train instead… What if I’m the heavy weight? And even if I’m not, do I gain more in terms of ‘goodness’ or virtue — am I more moral — if I at least try that form of intervention instead. The intervention where I am not the most important person in the world.

I think this is part of the answer the Bible gives to the trolley problem; or the Thanos and Gamora problem… When Thanos is standing on that mountain top with Gamora there are eery echoes of a thread of stories in the Bible involving the death (or near death) of children for the greater good. Passages that have vexed moral philosophers (the sort of people who like trolley problems) and at a gut level, vexed plenty of us, forever — the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jepthath and his daughter, and God and his son, Jesus. I’m going to suggest that Thanos is more like the abhorrent Jepthath than Abraham and God — and I’m going to be drawing on this excellent article, ‘The Condemnation of Jepthath,’ by my friend Tamie Davis to make this case. Let’s recap the two Old Testament stories…

Abraham is a pivotal figure in the Old Testament narrative; an archetype of faithful trust in God and someone who makes sacrifices in response to that faith, and according to the visions of the ‘good life’ in this world supplied by God. God speaks, and Abraham listens. God calls him to leave his home and his family, and to set out to a new land; Abraham obeys. God tells Abraham he’s going to be the father of a great nation, and despite his being old and childless, Abraham believes. Abraham’s not blameless; he does some stupid things in the story and tries to take fulfilling God’s promises into his own hands a couple of times (in different ways that are less than commendable), but his faith is held up as exemplary, bumbling though it is, and eventually he and his wife, Sarah, have a son, Isaac. What follows is one of the most disturbing stories in the Bible; but also one that gets used to unpack different moral philosophies within a framework where God exists and cares about life in this world (especially in discussions around a thing called ‘divine command theory’). Here’s what happens:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” — Genesis 22:1-2

Like Thanos, who takes Gamora to a mountain top where he is forced to decide if he can give up the child he loves for the cause, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop. He is prepared to go through with the sacrifice — though you get some sense from the ‘whom you love’ that this preparation is not without inner turmoil and conflict. He’s about to carry it out when God stays his hand and provides an alternative sacrifice (to Abraham’s joy, and Isaac’s relief). It’s a strange story; but one thing that is clear (though Cinema Blend might disagree) — Abraham loves Isaac, and that love is what makes what he’s called to do a sacrifice (if he didn’t, it wouldn’t be one). What’s clear is that Abraham trusts God’s vision of the future, and his ability to carry it out, more than he trusts his own vision of things.

What’s a bit trickier is that in the context of the Genesis story, Isaac is already marked out as the ‘child of promise’; God has already says he’ll create a nation through him, so though we’re rightly disturbed by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, there’s more than meets the eye… and it does seem legitimate to read Genesis 22 the way the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews does when it commends Abraham as an archetype of faithfulness.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” — Hebrews 11:17-19

What I’ve always wondered though, is given Isaac has been marked out as the future for God’s promises — should Abraham have offered himself in his place (he’s quite happy bargaining with God earlier in the piece when it comes to the future of the citizens of Sodom and Gommorah)… this sort of speculation seems permissible in the light of where the story of the Bible goes in terms of a mountain top sacrifice, and doesn’t necessarily contradict the way Hebrews reads the narrative (especially the phrase ‘one and only son’ that has a particular resonance with the Jesus story).

Jepthath’s story is an even closer parallel with Thanos and Gamora than Abraham’s.

Jepthath is a leader of Israel. He’s a warrior. Where Abraham left his family for another land as an act of faithfulness to God’s promises, Jepthath left his messed up family, he was the son of a warrior and a prostitute, and his brothers drove him away, and gathered a gang of outlaws. Israel pulled him back from living amongst foreign nations to lead them in to battle, and he uses their request to secure himself a place as leader of the kingdom — if he successfully delivers them (Judges 11:9). On the eve of battle he strikes a bargain with God. He makes a vow (a stupid vow).

“If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. — Judges 11:30-32

Predictably, the first thing (or person) to come out of the door of his house is his only daughter. He then gives her up, and it seems from earlier in the narrative that this isn’t just about keeping his dumb promise, but about not threatening his motivations for signing up for the fight to begin with; power. What also seems clear is that he loves his daughter; but his vow and his vision of the ‘greater good’ drive a particular course of action.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child.Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” — Judges 11:34-35

Tamie brings feminist readings of the story into conversation with evangelical readings, and a parallel with the Abraham and Isaac story; she says:

“Maltreatment of women accompanies the fall of the nation; it conveys the terrible extent of the moral decay of Israelite men and society. When it comes to reading the story of Jephthah, then, located in the middle of Judges, we may have room to read the daughter positively but certainly no warrant to view Jephthah as faithful… Unfaithful Jephthah is representative of Israel’s own turn to apostasy; to construe him otherwise would present a sudden upturn in the downward spiral. Such parameters as these are not at odds with feminist concerns. Jephthah’s actions are by no means commendable; the death of his daughter is in no way endorsed. These are part of a loathsome era of Israel’s history.”

When Tamie compares the two stories, to help unpack this reading, she points out thematic links between the narratives (that also apply to the Thanos and Gamora scene, except that Gamora isn’t the only child, Thanos has just been torturing her adopted sister, Gamora is, it seems, the only loved child):

In their narrative contexts, both children are the sole descendants of their parents, the beloved child and the only hope of the continuation of their line. The parent on view in both cases is the father and he is to be the sacrificer (Gen. 22:2, 10; Judges 11:31, 36, 39). In both cases, the sacrifice has a religious character: it is to fulfil an obligation to God, and the child is to be sacrificed to God. Both stories hence play with questions about the duty to protect family coming into conflict with loyalty to God. Which allegiance is stronger? How should the father adjudicate two conflicting moral imperatives?

The difference between Abraham and Jepthath is key to our comparisons here, and helps to position Thanos as a ‘type’ of Jepthath not Abraham. But these two questions about allegiance and competing moral imperatives are the ones that make the Thanos-Gamora scene compelling rather than ‘the worst’… despite our modern, secular, objections to a religious ‘greater good’…

God speaks directly to Abraham, both in promise and in the call to sacrifice. He’s more like a lever in the Jepthath narrative, a being to be used for the purposes of securing Jepthath’s place at the head of Israel, and Israel’s success over their enemies. God doesn’t speak to Jepthath; Jepthath strikes his own bargain, and carries it out without reconsidering (or imagining that maybe when his daughter comes out of the door he should consider that his vow, in itself, was sinful and that there were ways to deal with breaking bad vows in Jewish law). Like Thanos, he commits himself to an unimaginative view of the best possible future for the world — a future where he is at the centre, enthroned. His daughter is a small price to pay to achieve that end; and yet, a large price to pay (what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet forfeit his soul, as Jesus might put it). Jepthath, like Thanos, is a true believer in his place being beside the lever, deciding the fates of all other people.

Tamie also unpacks the inversion of the structure of the two stories (it’s great, read it), suggesting:

“While the backdrop of Genesis 22:1-19 may lead us to expect to see a faithful man and a faithful God, instead, we are left with a God who is sidelined as the unfaithful man treats him like a pagan deity.”

One of the starkest parallels between the stories, at the heart of Tamie’s essay, but also one that is a line to the Thanos story, is that where Abraham is called to sacrifice his son, Jepthath (and Thanos) sacrifice their daughters.

What’s interesting though, is that Jepthath also gets a gig in Hebrews 11, a passing mention, but a mention nonetheless.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” — Hebrews 11:32-33

Somehow, in the awfulness of Jepthath’s actions, and the degeneration of Israel (Samson is also a flawed hero, or an anti-hero, used in God’s plans). God is actually at the lever in these stories — even when the human characters think and live as though they are… even in their unfaithfulness (or the behaviour that specifically puts them at odds with how humans are meant to live under God), God is still at work fulfilling his promises to Abraham, and plans for Israel.

If we were left with just these two stories — Abraham and Jepthath — to assess morality and love, and what you should do with the trolley on the tracks in your own life, then we’d be in a little bit of a pickle. If Abraham’s willingness to ‘pull the lever’ to sacrifice his ‘one son’ on the tracks is our archetype, or if he and Jepthath are totally competing archetypes, we’re left with a pretty arbitrary utilitarianism; the idea that we’re left deciding on the ‘ultimate’ vision for the good life for everyone on our own terms… which inevitably leaves us in the centre of the action, lever in hand (unless we outsource the decision making to others). Abraham’s story centres on a paradox though, which leaves us even more confused — he’s told to kill the child he’s been told is the future, and God has been doing the telling the whole time… He is different to Jepthath (and Thanos) because his vision of the ‘kingdom’ he is sacrificing for isn’t his own kingdom, with him at the centre.

Hebrews actually points us to an interesting ‘final version’ of this story; an archetype to look to in our own trolley problems, and in questions of sacrificing and what is worth sacrificing for… a story that won’t have us sacrificing our children, whether on the altar of our careers, addictions, or visions of a better world, but will have us sacrificing for our children as we live the moral, ethical, and loving life patterned on this story of ‘child sacrifice’.

One of the things that stops God being a moral monster — a Thanos pulling Abraham’s strings — in the Abraham story is the way it is actually used to foreshadow God’s own actions in history — actions the Bible suggests were part of God’s plan before Abraham (Jesus even says at one point ‘before Abraham was, I am’)… another thing, obviously, is that he stays Abraham’s hand and provides an alternative sacrifice to secure his plans (a kingdom built on faithfulness to his word)… first the sheep, and then, Jesus.

If we acknowledge that the Abraham story is internally paradoxical, then the sacrifice of Jesus blows it out of the water in the scale of the paradox. The Trinity, and the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Jesus as God and son of God are complex realities at the heart of the Christian faith… but in the dynamic of the Trinity and the acts of Jesus at the cross we have a father offering up his only son as a sacrifice, but also Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice — the only sacrifice ‘weighty enough’ to stop the train of death and judgment not just destroying five people, but all people. It’s not just a case of God with a lever, redirecting the train to hit Jesus on the tracks, but Jesus, the weighty sacrifice jumping between the train and us, voluntarily and deliberately, both out of love for God and us, and because he trusts the plan — the ‘vision’ of a new reality; he acts from the ‘religious conviction’ that God the father is author of life, and that this sacrifice is not the end of the story to secure a particular future vision, but a step towards resurrection — both for him, and for the ‘greater good’ — the resurrection of as many people as possible in his re-making of the world; his kingdom. Jesus trusts God to pull the lever; and in trusting God to pull the lever, ‘jumps off the cliff to halt the trolley’ himself… what a weird archetypal solution to any formulation of the trolley problem, or the ‘there’s a necessary sacrifice’ problems… to put yourself in the firing line out of love for others, not the self interested belief that you’re at the heart of reality.

In the way father and son combine in the sacrifice of Jesus we’re not just seeing the alternative to Thanos, but the end of Thanos… Thanos is the word for death in Greek, and outside the Marvel Universe, Thanos is the Greek god of death. The sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus represent the defeat of death and the kingdom of death — the spreading of death across the face of the universe; and the replacement of death with life.

There’s obviously not a direct parallel between Thanos and Gamora on the Mountain and Father and Son on ‘Golgotha’ — the ‘place of the skull’ — the hill Jesus was executed on… and yet, there are thematic links (as there are with Isaac and Jepthath’s daughter). Like the differences between Abraham and Jepthath, the differences between God and Jepthath (and God and Thanos) are important ones… Gamora is not a willing participant in Thanos’ plans, she is not Jepthath’s daughter, who submits to her father’s stupidity, she is not Jesus, who willingly entrusted his life (and resurrection) to his father… she has no reason to believe that her father should be entrusted with her life, or that the payoff will be justified.

All these sacrifices share a certain ‘something’ in common; they’re all the life of a loved child being offered up with some sense of the greater good — the trolley problem. But only one of these stories has the child going willingly, and the child being an equal stakeholder in the plan with equal power.  After the long line of ‘faithful’ examples, ‘types’ of sacrificers, Hebrews points to the ‘perfecter of faith’ — the actual archetype — Jesus, in his humanity. The example for us when faced with our own trolley problems — all of these stories involve a father who loves their child, but only one of these stories comes with an example that is worth applying in ethical scenarios (real or hypothetical).

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1-2

This is how we know what love is; this is what allows us to take on the burden of suffering, even death, in sacrifice for others… and this is what makes Christianity and its object of worship — our God — better for our kids (and others) than alternatives we might put in its place; any kingdom we might like to build through our own intervention in the world. This is why Christians acting ‘religiously’; with this archetypal story at the centre — eyes fixed on Jesus — are the best thing for the people stuck on the tracks in our world.

This is why the Thanos scene is the best, richest, and most thought provoking scene in the whole movie… because here, the ‘Thanos story’ goes head to head with the ‘Jesus story’…

,

Bloody Hands: What our media and our politicians teach us about us

“People of Rome, we are once again free!” —Brutus, after the death of Caesar


Image: Carl Theodor Von Piloty, Caesar’s Death, via Wikicommons

I keep reading that the problem with Aussie politics is politicians keep turfing/knifing/assassinating one another without going to the people for a vote/voice. I keep hearing media pundits who are angry about leadership changes, but don’t acknowledge the blood on their own hands. Like Karl, in these two clips from the Today Show this morning.

I keep hearing politicians blaming the media. But I’m pretty sure this is a problem with the vox populi. The voice of the people. It’s too loud. It’s too selfish. It’s too powerful. And both the media and our politicians — people who should know better, and should have roles to uphold in public life — are too reactive to this voice. And not active enough in calling us, the public, to match our voice with actions. To do more than just sit on the couch and (loudly) express our discontent as we consume media, which exists, at least in part, to fuel our desire to consume our politicians. It’s a vicious cycle, and this viciousness is at least, in part, our fault.

I think the problem is that our voice is now too loud. It’s amplified by social media, by polling, by a media that increasingly makes us part of their coverage (check out the number of news stories featuring impromptu vox pops via Twitter, or report on discussions on social media as though they are substantial, or required for substantive coverage of a complex issue).

There’s a certain amount of the 5 Prime Ministers in 5 years story that is down to political opportunists within their parties — but most would be leaders want to lead, and have some sense of how that leadership should happen. Rudd and Abbott were both, in some measure, brought down because they concentrated too much power in the hands of an unelected few — their staffers — at the expense of their elected colleagues. Both parties appear to play a game predicated on holding on to government, rather than governing well. But they can be excused for doing this, because our political parties, and parliaments, are actually full of people who’ve put their hands up and said “we want to make a difference” and “we believe in something” and power in a democracy is fundamentally based, and held, on providing good government. Or so it should be. People who want power for power’s sake either already have billions of dollars, and treat parliament with contempt, or they get weeded out by the system. I’ve met quite a few politicians from local, state, and federal politics — as a trainee journalist, in my role with an economic development lobby group in North Queensland, and through various connections — and just about every one of them, from all sides of the political spectrum (including Bob Katter) have been more than decent. They’ve been people of character and virtue seeking the good of their neighbours according to their ideologies. You wouldn’t know it from our media, or from the public perception of politicians — but I think public perception drives the way politicians are portrayed in the media as much as the media drives public perception of politicians. Plus. We make it so difficult for politicians that they constantly walk on egg shells, we nail them for deviating from whatever script we think they should be following, and then complain that they’re ‘robotic’ or ‘inauthentic’… We also tend to believe that government, managing the competing priorities of individuals and community groups, and managing an economy, is simple. I’ve been guilty of this myself.

Why is it that making good decisions and making popular decisions seem to be at odds when they should be synonymous? It’s that we, the people, are typically driven by one agenda. Selfishness. It’s almost politically impossible to bring in unpopular policy that is good policy. And part of that impossibility is the 24 hour news cycle (and its in built cynicism about people who hold public office). This news cycle bombards us with story after story about policies that potentially come at our cost. And so, opinion turns. With social media we don’t just get the media we deserve, we create it. People share outrageous things, and express outrage, as a default.

But good government costs us, and it requires selflessness, rather than selfishness.

We’re facing a population that, on average, will be much older than populations of the past. We’re unhealthier than ever because we stuff our faces with convenient junk food. We are selfish with our money and don’t want to pay more tax in order to pay down spiralling debt. We want government spending on quick fix solutions, or entertainment precincts, where we see an immediate benefit rather than long term infrastructure projects. These problems require tough solutions that come at our cost. But try selling those to the electorate. As Ross Gittins says, we’ve become a nation of selfish contradiction.

People lay the blame for our political unrest at the feet of the media, there was a hint of that in Tony Abbott’s gracious concession speech, but the media is feeding a demand that we create. We buy more, watch more ads, and engage more when there’s a hint of blood than we do when things are business as usual. My Facebook feed last night is evidence of this.

Your voice has not been taken away. Sure, you might never have been polled personally, but polls work because they reflect the people who respond to them, and they get responses from enough people (though only around 6% of people who are asked, are prepared to respond) to give an accurate picture of public opinion. And if it’s not accurate, that’s probably as much the fault of the 94% of people who don’t care enough to respond when polled. Having your voice heard might start with never saying no to an opinion poll, even if the call comes at dinner time.

Even without polls. You have a voice all year around. It’s not just contained in the very small percentage of people who are polled, so that the media know who we want in office. You know what speaks louder than polls? Being active in public life. Writing letters. Calling talkback radio. Speaking out. Serving. Volunteering. Joining a party and becoming part of the process of forming policy. Working in the public service. Meeting your local member. Loving your local member, regardless of ideology. Thanking them for serving you even if the knife is never far from their back, and the electoral precipice that we’re so keen to tip them over, is never too many steps ahead.

Our say has never been taken away. It’s been amplified. Our political turmoil is a reflection of politicians who react too quickly to public sentiment, and a media that is getting really good at quickly gauging public sentiment, but also increasingly good at shaping it. Stop being shaped by the media and start shaping it. Read beyond your circle. Selflessly pursue truth, and share it. Share ideas you disagree with, with grace and charity, not just to show how engaged and superior you are to those who are governing. Be charitable to people on both sides of the political divide rather than immediately, and naively, adversarial. Converse. Find common ground. Try to understand why people hold ideologies other than your own. This stuff isn’t rocket science, but our public square, and the players in it (increasingly including us via social media) are actively working against these ends.

Until we make it clear that we don’t actually want to be governed by a popular politician we’re going to be increasingly subject to a media (and a social media) that is increasingly reactive, and increasingly able to quickly take the whimful pulse of an Australian public. We’re not just driven by whims, we have short attention spans, we love outrage and controversy. We’re fickle. We turn against people quickly on the basis of what we read in the media — be it traditional media, or social media — that has a vested interest in serving us up material that conforms with our ideology (whether we pick our media outlet, or a social media algorithm picks who is serving us up content), and wants to keep us outraged because outrage is sexy, and it sells.

We need to break this cycle which is, at every level, built on the selfishness of the public. Politicians can’t govern well for us because we are selfish. The media caters to our selfishness and self interest because it exists to sell products, and hold an audience. And we, the audience, keep coming back. If we want our voice to be heard in the public square, maybe its time we earned it by working for the good of the public, not our own good? Maybe it starts with a better public square. A better conversation. Maybe it starts with this idea the ABC’s Scott Stephens shared at a recent conference on Faith and Public Office.

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

This idea was caught up with giving the public voice its proper place, and including the excluded voices from that public voice. But Stephen’s vision for the public square went beyond this, it involved a move from the sort of public square that relies on people reflecting the public’s already entrenched (selfish) views back at itself to reinforce them. It involved stepping beyond cynicism into the realm of the imagination, fanning our ability to imagine and work towards something better than we have, rather than just trying to toss out stuff we don’t like. The problem with how things currently play out is that our media reflects our self interest. Stephens expanded his vision for this virtuous public broadcaster with the below, but social media might give us this opportunity. Instead of being an opportunity for more of the same, just without the code of ethics and the professionalism of the mainstream press, these aren’t direct quotes, they’re notes I belted out as Stephens spoke, but they do articulate a picture of something better that we might be a part of:

Is it the role of the broadcaster to give people a vision of what they already think on whatever device they want. The moral responsibility of a public broadcaster has to be something larger than that.

More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common.

All journalists want their watergate moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.

Maybe if we start modelling this our politicians will listen, and so too, will the media. Maybe we should, whether we’re part of the church or not, take on this picture of a virtuous contributor to the public square. We have an opportunity via social media to be a new kind of public broadcaster…

Maybe the first step is being comfortable with silence. Using it to contemplate, rather than looking to fill it with arguments and new information that we assess through the prism of our selfish, unimaginative, hearts. The things we tend to imagine, at least in my experience, tend to be caught up with our own self interest, and our idols, rather than the common good and what such a good will cost us (though the common good, itself, can be an idol).

It’s not just our politicians and our press that have blood on their hands. We do too.

23 stab wounds create a fair bit of blood, so you can imagine that as Brutus proclaimed a freedom the Roman people hadn’t asked for, in the aftermath of the assassination of Caesar, he had pretty bloodied hands. Unlike the people of Rome who locked themselves in their houses when Caesar was deposed, and disposed of, because they didn’t want responsibility for his death, we locked ourselves in our own houses last night to watch the execution of a leader. With popcorn. And pithy insights. The blood is on our hands because the assassination, in part, was of our making. A product of our selfish, fickle, hearts, and the self-interested, fickle, public square this creates via the media and political scene that sets itself up and operates according to our whims.

But let’s, for a moment, imagine a different way forward — a different path to freedom. A different sort of blood on our hands.

People of Australia, we won’t be free until we stop crying for blood, we won’t be free until we’re prepared to start spilling our own blood for others.

Those of us who follow the crucified king have a model for a contribution to public life that involves blood on his hands, and our own. And it’s not through the knifing of others. It does involve the death of a king though — and its in this death, and this story, that we see what it might actually cost us to break the hold of selfishness on our hearts, and our minds. It’s this model of open-handed, sacrificial, love that will undo our grasping, and get our hand off the knife. The great irony, of course, is that the execution of Jesus was an example of grasping human hands wanting to usurp the rule of God, and it was an expression of those grasping hands at the start of the Bible, in Eden, that reached out, again, to push God from the picture. Grasping like this is part of the human condition. It shouldn’t surprise us to find the blood of a leader on our hands because we don’t like tobe lead. Selfishly, we love our autnomy. We’ll kill for it — and we’ll end careers for it. It’s why we have blood on our hands. It’s why we grab for the knife. It’s why politics in our country is a fraught business. And it’s why something’s got to give. We’ll always have blood on our hands — the choice is whether its someone else’s, taken for our own good, or ours shed for the good of others, just as his blood was shed for us. The suffering servant, the one who gives of himself, and his comfort, for the sake of others, is a famous picture from Isaiah the prophet in the Old Testament that very clearly describes Jesus, is the real “shepherd of the public square” and keeper of the moral ecology.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. — Isaiah 53:5-6

It’s in Jesus that we see this play out. In his approach to power, in his failure to ‘grasp,’ in his being bloodied on our behalf. This is the pattern we might follow if we want to end the bloodshed, and change the public square for its good, at our cost. It is, too, how we might come close to solving some of the big political dilemmas of our time. Dilemmas created by human selfishness. Because its where we see love that brings freedom in all its bloody-handed fullness.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.— Philippians 2:5-8

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On outrage: The end of outrage

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts.

cecil

Let’s assume for a moment that this tendency towards outrage is natural. That it has a purpose. And lets go further, and assume that because this tendency towards outrage still exists in the human condition, it serves some purpose.

If you’re a materialist, someone who wants a natural explanation for every observable phenomenon, this purpose might be something to do with survival. It may serve some sort of sociological function to limit harmful behaviours by ostracising harmful people.

If you’re open to the possibility of a divine creator, this purpose might be connected to our purpose as people, or some sort of in built purpose in creation. It doesn’t really matter which perspective you come at it from, its interesting to consider why we get outraged, and why we’re so keen to promote our outrage as more worthy than the outrage of another.

It’s possible that we experience outrage in a disordered way because of our disordered, self-loving, selves, and that rightly ordered outrage is not an end in itself, but a means, serving to point us beyond ourselves, not to join a lynch mob, but to pay proper loving attention to something other than us. Perhaps rightly ordered outrage helps us live virtuously in community, helping us see, or feel, truth. If this is the case, then it might be that playing the hierarchy of outrage game —where we suggest certain forms of outrage are less legitimate than others — hampers the purpose of our hard-wired outrage reaction to disorder, because it stops us paying attention, but the game might be necessary in order for us to look to whatever it is that is the root cause of disorder in our world.

Why is our knee-jerk response to disorder to passionately respond as though that disorder should not be happening? Is part of that gnawing sense that David Foster Wallace spoke of, that something isn’t right with this world.

I can’t really answer how outrage fits into a natural view of the world, that’s not the framework I use to view the world, but I think I can suggest a way that outrage-as-natural fits into a Christian view of the world.

We experience outrage because the world isn’t what it was made to be. It is disordered.

This outrage manifests itself in vigilantism or an angry internet mob because we aren’t who we were made to be.

These ideas actually link X, Y, and Z, establishing a consistent hierarchy of outrage, in a way that doesn’t make us pit them against each other. We should be outraged at the disorder we experience in the world, and in ourselves.

The Christian framework works with a hierarchy of outrage because it points us to the ultimate disorder, the disorder behind the disorder, and the ultimate sources of outrage, and invites us to see and experience all other disorder from this perspective. The dead squirrel, the dead lion, dead babies, and all other expressions of disorder in this world are the result of our shared rejection of God’s good design for the world, and his good gift of life. But this shared rejection of God’s good design, while outrageous, is not the archetypal outrage at the top of the hierarchy.

The greatest outrage in this world isn’t that we kill animals, or each other, its that we, because of our self-love, killed God. Our lack of respect for life and breath extended to the life-giver. The disordered events on a skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem, where a blameless man fell victim to an outraged lynch mob who did not care about life and breath, truly sits atop the hierarchy of outrage.

“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last”

This should give us a perspective when it comes to all the other outrages. It should explain the human condition. Of course we have total disregard for the lives of animals and babies — of course we’re annoyed when we’re called to pay attention to these things, to respond with the sort of loving attention that costs us something — humanity was so outraged when God asked us to pay loving attention to him, through Jesus, that it executed him.

If you want to play a rhetorical trump card in the my outrage is better than your outrage game, this is it. God came into that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. In fact, we killed him.

This is the real disorder in the world, this is the culmination of our rejection of the creator’s design, this is where we’re meant to feel outrage at the state of things most keenly — this is what joins the dots to help us see our disordered, self-loving, approach to God-given life.

And here’s how this hierarchy of outrage might work, in line with God’s purpose for outrage…  The Cross is outrageous, and God would be well within his rights to be outraged, and form a lynch mob of his own — which he will. It’s called judgment — but God also responds to this outrage selflessly, by offering a kind of loving attention to those he should be outraged at. Those outrageous words Jesus speaks from the Cross are for all of us, who by nature, form part of the lynch mob that wants to kill God.

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

This is outrageous love. This is love that is not ordered around the love of self, but the love of others. It is love that is not disordered because it does not damage. Outrage that is not disordered, because it is not damaging or costly to the other, is outrage that is forgiving, that seeks to take the cost upon the self.

The events of the Cross are also part of how the God who created an ordered world sets about making the world right. The cross is a promissory note to this end, where God sends his divine son to take the disorder of the world upon himself — his life senselessly taken — in a moment when very few in the world were outraged the way they should have been.

This pattern of selfless love displayed by Jesus, and this vision for a world where disorder will be re-ordered, is what might help us process disorder and outrage now. It might see us looking for disorder beyond our own backyard too, because the re-ordering is global, and its not finished until its all been put right. As long as there are disordered things that are causing us outrage, we know there are things that need to be put right. Outrage, then, should spur us towards a better response, a re-ordering response. A loving response that is not self-loving, but others-loving, and ultimately, creator-loving.

For Christians, this puts our outrage at others in perspective, because until we were united with Jesus, sheltering with him, in and through his death, where he payed loving attention to us, so that we might pay loving attention to him, joining him in his restored life, we were part of the outraged crowd that crucified him.

For non-Christians, those standing apart from Jesus, ignoring God, and wilfully ignoring the Cross, the sense of outrage we experience at disorder in the world is just a finite taste of the infinite, unquenchable outrage, that God feels about that moment in history when the heavens were torn apart, when divine life entered the world and was brutally extinguished (however briefly), God sees you as part of the crowd taking part in that most senseless of all slaughters.

This is truly outrageous.

So perhaps outrage is a natural part of our response to a disordered world, but if it exists to push us towards God, and the good life, we need a vision for what this good life looks like, we need framework for understanding virtue, and paying proper attention to people and things, in a way that helps us put X, Y, and Z in their right place.

Gay marriage, wedding cakes, and Jesus

gaymarriageweddingcakejesus

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a political scientist, to anticipate that Australia will make changes to its laws in the near future to recognise gay marriages. The Labor Party is making noises about moving away from allowing a conscience vote on the issue (even if they’re currently maintaining the conscience vote status quo), the Liberal Party is still a while off moving away from their party line on the issue — but the mood is shifting, partly because it has shifted elsewhere, amongst our international friends.

It seems inevitable.

Which presents a host of challenges to Christians.

The Marriage Mess

We haven’t covered ourselves in glory in the political debate. We’ve bombed it. We’ve messed it up. This is one of the things the church gets wrong about same sex marriage. And marriage in general.

We’re not great at listening to, or understanding those we disagree with in this debate. Especially those people who want gay marriage because they want to be part of a gay marriage. We don’t really hear what they’re asking for, or why they desire it, before telling them that they can’t have it because we know best (often because the God they don’t believe in knows best).

We’ve tended to hold up signs, send petitions, get angry, people have promised on our behalf that our votes as Christians will be decided on this issue, and this issue alone (and this has been true for some of us).

We’ve tended to assume that Christian morality makes sense to a non-Christian world (despite what I think are some pretty clear things in the Bible that speak against this being possible, like Romans 1, which suggests people who reject God can’t possibly understand God’s view of the world (including sex), and 1 Corinthians 5, which calls us not to judge those outside the church as though they should be behaving like those inside the church – and also to behave differently to the world, which won’t work if we all behave the same…).

We’ve failed to listen to, or accommodate, the desires of our gay neighbours because we’ve essentially argued that listening to or accommodating our gay neighbours will damage us and heterosexual marriage, as though that institution is in a pristine state, undamaged by human sinfulness.

Marriage is a mess. Heterosexual marriage is a mess. Even though God made it a good thing, we, humanity, trashed it.

Our selfish hearts damage every institution and culture we build, we’ve — whether inside the Church or outside it — turned marriage into a modern day tower of Babel. A bridge to God. Our stairway to heaven. Without understanding that its only having our hearts fixed by God through the Holy Spirit, and its only when we follow the pattern of life demonstrated in Jesus, that we have any ability to do anything good.

There are, I’m sure, good arguments against gay marriage. But I don’t think they’re arguments that will be all that persuasive to people who don’t acknowledge a creator — or to people who think that everything we observe in this world must be as God made it to be, therefore good. As Christians we believe God made marriage as a committed one flesh relationship between people of the opposite sex, and the ideal family unit involves parents who are married. The problem with defending this ideal is just how clear it is that the world isn’t ideal, and that none of our opposite sex marriages live up to God’s ideal given the selfishness and brokenness of the people involved. This is true of my marriage. If you’re married and it’s not true of yours then I’d love to know how you stopped being sinful. It’s funny that so much of our marriage counselling involves dealing with family of origin stuff, it’s a little acknowledgment to the idea that the source of mess in our marriages is often hereditary, and the result of bringing the functions and dysfunctions of two different families together (and those two different families brought together the functions and dysfunctions of two other different families, and so on, back up the line).

Marriage in this world is a mess. Jesus, when he talks about marriage in Matthew 19, says divorce is a concession God gave us in the Old Testament because of our hard hearts. Our hearts are messy. The way we talk about marriage in this debate makes it sound like an ideal. The way people arguing for gay marriage speak about what marriage robs them of also makes it sound like an ideal. The problem, for Christians, with looking at created things like ideals, like the place that we’ll find true satisfaction or completion as people, is that there sometimes doesn’t seem like a lot of difference between ideals and idols. The problem is that when we defend marriage because of the ideal we do it in a way that is detached from the broken reality. We talk about marriage and children in a way that alienates single parent families. We talk about marriage and its fundamental goodness and the bedrock role it plays in our society in a way that alienates single people who want to be married, or who have chosen not to be married. The world is not an ideal place. That’s observationally true, and theologically true. The whole world has been broken by our collective decision to reject God. This is the problem with arguments from nature — it’s never quite clear which nature we’re arguing from. And even when we’re arguing from creation-as-God’s-creation, if we’re not careful we start defending a created thing, passionately fighting for it, without reference to the creator — and without thinking about how our defence might be relevant to people who don’t even acknowledge the existence of the creator.

The created purpose of marriage, just like the created purpose of humanity, is to reflect the nature of God. The eternal self-giving love of the persons of the Trinity. For Christians, the purpose of marriage — whether we’re married, or not married — is to reflect the nature of our relationship with God through the sacrificial love of Jesus. For married people this means loving each other, and others, the way Jesus loved. For the unmarried this means showing that our real, eternal, satisfaction comes from this relationship. Of course this is easy for me to say as a married guy, and the reality of unmarried life in this world can be hard and lonely. It shouldn’t be. If Christian community was what it is meant to be. But it is. But our relationships are a mess because we’re messy people. We’ve actually made the mess bigger by loading marriage up with expectations it can’t bear — marriage won’t satisfy all your longings, it won’t fix your brokenness, it won’t complete you, it won’t get you out of the mess. If we suggest anything else, if we speak in a way that raises marriage above its station and suggests it will do any of these things (though marriage is good), we’re compounding the felt needs of unmarried people with a bunch of nonsense ideals. If we say “marriage completes you” or “marriage satisfies” or even “marriage will fix you” and then some people can’t get married, and we tell some people they can’t marry, then we’re making a bigger mess of an already messy world.

We’re going to feel the painful results of this mess. It looks like the result of our failure to make a clear distinction between what we think as Christians and what we should expect the world to think, is that victory for the other side doesn’t look like establishing the church’s ability to define marriage as it sees fit, according to its conscience, but for the church to be brought into lockstep with the world. While we hear that nobody will be forced to conduct gay marriages if its against their religious convictions, we’ve heard that elsewhere, and it has turned out just to be the next battlefield in this war. And regardless of what happens in the church, in terms of recognition of gay marriage, it seems that Christians operating in the world are going to face some big challenges.

On wedding cakes

There have been some big, public, lawsuits in the US revolving around Christians who work as bakers who don’t want to bake cakes for gay weddings. I guess I can understand the rationale behind a decision not to bake a gay wedding cake, and part of me wants people to be free to exercise their conscience when it comes to how they run their business, and for the market to decide if that is a legitimate way of doing business. I’m not opposed to women’s only gyms.

Eternity, the magazine thing run by Australia’s Bible Society asked some Christians from Australia to answer the question: “would you bake a gay wedding cake,” there’s some good stuff there.

If I was a baker, I’d cook the cake. Perhaps especially if the person asking was asking because they knew I was a Christian and they wanted to be able to sue me. I think this is probably what Jesus is talking about when he says “turn the other cheek,” I think it’s what it looks like to love someone who is acting as though they are your enemy (although that might also look like lovingly declining the request to bake the cake and being sued, there’s a classy way to do that). And if there’s no malicious intent involved from the person ordering the cake, I think it’s just the reality of life and love in a messy world. I’m not going to say no to my gay neighbours if they ask me to come and help them lift something heavy because they’re gay, why would I, if making cakes was my business, not make them a cake?

I think this is what it looks like to take Peter’s words in 1 Peter 2, and Paul’s words in Romans 12-13, on board in this debate. But I appreciate that this is ultimately a question of conscience, and other people might reach different conclusions.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.  Live as free people,but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor. — 1 Peter 2

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

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

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

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

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. — Romans 12-13

Practice hospitality— this doesn’t just mean put on dinner parties for your friends, but use what you have for the sake of everyone.

If your enemy is hungry, feed him wedding cake.

If you think gay marriage is evil, overcome it with good.

It’s clear from the example of Jesus, from Paul, and from the early church that submitting to governments does not mean total obedience to their orders, but acknowledging their right to order certain things and willingly facing the consequences if you choose to disobey.

This Roman Emperor the church is called to submit to is a descendant of the Roman emperor whose authority was used to put Jesus to death. The emperors immediately after Jesus don’t get more godly (until a few hundred years later), they get worse. Paul even uses his arrest, and his trials described in the book of Acts to get closer and closer to Caesar in order, I think, to preach the Gospel to him. He’s prepared to be put on trial for his faith. He’s prepared to be killed for his faith. Because he hopes this will give him an opportunity to preach to those in authority – he does this with his jailers, with soldiers, with governors, with kings, and in Philippians his references to Caesar’s household suggest he gets pretty close to the heart of the empire.

On weddings

I’m not a baker of cakes. But I am a registered marriage celebrant because I’m an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

The Presbyterian Church in Australia, in its various State Assemblies, will be, in various ways, wrestling with this paper written by Campbell Markham, a Presbyterian Minister in Tasmania. Campbell’s argument, in short, is that if gay marriage becomes a legal construct in Australia, the Presbyterian Church should withdraw from its involvement with the government’s approach to marriage. This means handing in our right to conduct marriages, simultaneously acting as both civil and religious celebrants.

“And so what should our ministers do if marriage is redefined to embrace the evils of same-sex marriage? The survey showed that most intend to retain their registration and go on marrying people “as normal”, so long as they are not compelled to “marry” same-sex couples. They draw a line not at the point of redefinition, but at the point of compulsion…

Christians must not only not commit evil, we must not even associate with evil. If a redefined Marriage Act represents the legitimisation of the evils of homosexual practice, same-sex parenting, and third-party donor surrogacy, then as a Christian I will want nothing to do with it, and will separate myself by resigning my celebrant’s registration…

How then will I marry people? In many nations, such as Singapore and France, Christian couples register their union with a civil servant for legal purposes, and then get married by a minister in a worship service. This is what I intend to do if the Marriage Act is changed. I would allow the couple (Christian or not) to register at a government office, and then I would conduct a Christian wedding service. I should add that I would not require a couple register at a civil office. For they may well feel that by doing so too are endorsing the Marriage Act and the evils it will represent. I would leave this decision up to them. In any case, I am urging my brother ministers to form the same intention to resign from the Act if it is redefined. Like baptism, we can use our own rites, keep our own records, and issue our own certificates.”

Apart from the question of how we would handle divorce cases if we went down this road of running our own registry, I think this is the wrong move, and I’ll be arguing against it — in Queensland, where I’m on the committee that will interact with this issue, but further afield, in part, I guess, by publishing this counter argument. I think the call to separate ourselves from sexual immorality is within the boundaries of the church (1 Cor 5), and I think we’re called to promote what is good for our neighbours because we’re called to love them. And marriage is good. That’s why the church has traditionally performed this function for people outside the church.

As Christians, I think the Bible calls us to believe that God created marriage as a good gift, and that he didn’t limit it just to the church or Christians. Marriage is part of how all people bear God’s image. It’s not just Israel who are given life in order to represent the living God. It’s not just Israel who have the capacity to love in a way that reflects God’s love. They do have a particular calling to do these things in connection with God as a “kingdom of priests,” but all humans have the capacity to bear God’s image, and do bear it in certain ways even if our hearts are turned to idols. I think the logic of the Old Testament is that idolatry shapes us in a gradual process, from the heart out, so that eventually we become dead and dumb, like the idols we worship but every living person is a mix of bearing the image of the God who made them and the idols they pursue. Every thing we do as people —even people who don’t follow God—is a product of our mixed natures. This means we see the actions of non-Christians as actions produced by people who are simultaneously image bearers and idol worshippers, while our actions are the actions of image bearers who naturally worship idols, but who are being transformed into the image of Jesus, the true image bearer.

Marriage is one way we — humanity— continue to represent God — wherever it exists as a one-flesh relationship between different people (people of different genders) involving some sort of loving commitment its an echo of the life God made us to live. It is a good thing for Christians, and when we — Christians — add the sacrificial love modelled by Jesus to the mix it becomes a very powerful thing (ala Ephesians 5). Even if Christian marriages tell God’s story, the Gospel, better, as we live out this sacrificial love, marriage for non-Christians are also a good thing for our world, and part of God’s loving provision to all humanity. Walking away from marriage because the government no longer conforms to our ideals is a bad idea, because of the power marriage has to show people God’s good intention for his world and humanity.

As Christians, I don’t think the Bible calls us to just walk away from the mess of the world. That’s not the example we have. That’s not following the example of God’s plan to redeem this broken world through Jesus. God didn’t walk away from the mess.

If the world doesn’t like the stance we take then that’s ok, there’s an example to follow there too. Whatever happens on the legal front I believe the church needs to maintain its understanding of how marriage for Christians, conducted by churches, should take shape. It’s part of our core business as Christians to live and love differently to the world around us. The way Jesus approached the idea of the Kingdom of God, and the sort of king this would involve, was dangerously unpopular with both the Jewish and Roman empires. He was put to trial for this difference. And put to death for this difference. He didn’t withdraw from the world and set up his own weird structures, he didn’t call people to withdraw from life in Rome (or human empires), he called people to live in the world knowing we’re citizens of elsewhere. Paul, reflecting on his example, calls us to love, and submit to, our government. This doesn’t mean agreement, it means lovingly making our case, and then submitting to the consequences they decide are the consequences when we disagree with their actions. It means being prepared to be crucified by the Government while loving the government and acknowledging their God-given right to crucify us.

That’s a really big ask. It’s a really big challenge. But it’s the challenge the Gospel lays down. Anything else is a sidestep and a failure to live out our calling to live and love in radically changed, unpopular, ways.

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On Fry, Brand, and Jesus: Why two comedians have a laughable view of God

If you love articulate British comedians and God, like I do, then this has been a pretty bizarre week for you. I’ve enjoyed the challenges posed to my understanding of God by Stephen Fry, and by the equally challenging account of the divine from Russell Brand.

Fry believes nothing is true about God. Brand believes everything we can possibly imagine about God is true because we can’t possibly know him because of our finite limitations in an infinite universe. While Brand’s approach to the God question is much closer to my own, I can’t help but think that I’d rather preach to people who think like Fry. His objections are actually easier to engage with than Brand’s wholesale lack of objections.

Both of them have such a profoundly anaemic picture of Christianity, and thus, I think, of God, because both of them entirely miss the point of Jesus.

In Jesus we see God’s response to the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world – the promise of a better world through the absolute victory over evil and death. But in Jesus we also see the gap between our finite limitations and God’s infinite nature bridged, so that truths about life, the universe, and everything, become knowable because the God who spoke life, the universe, and everything, by his word sends his word into the world, as a man. That’s how John, the disciple, describes the arrival of Jesus on the scene. Jesus steps out of infinity, and into concrete, measurable, reality.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5

He comes to make God knowable – contrary to Brand’s understanding of God as expressed below…

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… or the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. — John 1:14, 17-18

I’m sharing these verses now because the right place to go when people ask questions about God — his character, his existence, or his nature, in order to understand nature, is always Jesus. At least in the first instance. That’s what John is claiming here. And Jesus, acting in this capacity, is largely missing from both Fry and Brand’s treatment of the God question.

There’s a fair bit of Bible in this post— because despite Fry’s very eloquent, tight, takedown of God, despite the appearance that this is a modern insight that makes belief in God completely untenable — these questions are complicated, but they’re answered incredibly thoroughly in the Bible, they aren’t questions that should be particularly confronting to Christians. Like every good Sunday School question, the answer is Jesus. If you’re reading because you think Fry has fired a shot that has fatally wounded God, or the Christian faith, can I encourage you to slog through it, and at least by the end you’ll understand why I haven’t, as a result of Fry’s video, quit my job and packed in my faith.

Jesus makes God knowable. He makes God approachable. He comes to bring light to darkness, order to chaos, comfort to the afflicted — he came to put an end to the exact problems Fry identifies with the world. The question of why a good God would allow such problems to occur is one that I’ve tried to answer in several thousand words elsewhere. But it’s a separate question.

Stephen Fry appeared on a show called “The Meaning of Life” and was asked what he, an atheist, would say to God if he were to be confronted by him after death.

Here’s his answer.

Here are some of the highlights…

“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

“Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”

“Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind,” he says. “They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”

“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

Wow. If you’re going to grapple with the Christian God — that is, God as Christians understand God to be — then you’ve got to take this God on the terms Christians take him. Fry totally fails to do this. He seems prepared to cherry pick bits of the Bible and Christian understandings of God that suit his picture of God, but he’s pretty dismissive of the bits that don’t make him a capricious monster.

The rudimentary Christian response to Fry — based on the same Bible he cherry picks from to build this picture of the God he doesn’t believe in — is that God did not make a world full of injustice and pain, he made a good world (Genesis 1), that humanity then stuffed up, when we tried to replace him and be our own gods, as a result this world was ‘cursed’ (Genesis 3)… but God sets about restoring the world through the rest of the Bible. Fry would have us be automatically obedient to God — prevented from such rebellion, but this creates the sort of “totally selfish” God he abhors. In terms of the question of other potential responses God could have taken to our rebellion, Brand is right to recognise the very finite, selfish, perspective we bring to these sorts of questions.

The slightly more complicated response would be that God made a world with flesh eating insects in it and gave humans the job of faithfully spreading the perfect and peaceful Garden of Eden over the face of the earth “subduing” the chaos, as we reflected his creation out of darkness (Genesis 1), that’s caught up in bearing his image, ruling his world as his representatives and being fruitful and multiplying… The dark, watery, formless world God works with after Genesis 1:2 is an ancient picture of a chaotic void that required subduing.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:2

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:26-28

If there wasn’t darkness to overcome, or something to fix, how then would we express this relationship? How would we be anything other than divine playthings— or servants— the kind you find in most other ancient religions.

We were given a job to do, as part of improving the world from good to perfect, and we failed to do that when we metaphorically flipped him the bird. Jesus completes this job. He defeats evil. That’s the storyline of the Bible in three sentences.

The properly human thing to do — if we’re going to be obedient image bearers, is to work to stop flesh eating insects burrowing into the eyes of children, and in plenty of cases through history, it’s Christians leading the charge against exactly this sort of brokenness in the world, because a Christian worldview equips us to think and engage well with such brokenness. Whatever motivation might Fry have to eradicate this bug as a result of his rejection of God? It will come from his humanism, not his atheism. Fry identifies a problem with the Christian God, but provides no more satisfying account of the mixed and broken nature of the world we live in than Christianity (I’m biased, but I’d say his views of the world are less coherent). This is actually a much better picture of what God hopes for from humanity than Fry’s conception of the faithful Christian life, where “we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?!” In this view of our created role, representing the creator in his good creation, we show our thankfulness to God and glorify him when we are creative, exercising our God-given imagination in line with this God-given purpose.

Let’s leave aside this dilemma for a moment, and turn, instead, to Russell Brand, and his response to Stephen Fry. This clip features a few more bits of the Stephen Fry interview, but also Brand’s own take on God. Brand says a lot of cool stuff that I agree with — but his answer, too, is completely devoid of Jesus.

There’s a bit in that video where Fry and Brand both talk about Jesus. They both talk about him as though he can be discussed apart from the nature of God — a treatment of Jesus foreign to any orthodox Christian since the very earliest days of the church (and arguably from the very earliest descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, and from the teaching of Jesus himself)

Fry says, of Jesus:

“I think he was a very good soul. An inspiration as a teacher. I do think a lot of the things he says are actually nonsense when you examine them. They seem very beautiful. But it’s a bit like the Dalai Llama. They’re actually twee, and completely impractical, and in that sense an insult to the human spirit. Like, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – at first you think that is wonderful, “yes, what hypocrites” how can you possibly have a justice system? Nobody would ever go to prison?”

So he’s hardly likely to find any answers to his big questions about God and suffering if he a priori rules out Jesus as a source of the answers to that question.

Brand has a go showing that Jesus’ teachings aren’t so ‘twee’ by applying this principal to the justice system… it’s an interesting exercise, and it certainly shows an awareness of the human heart…

“I would say that when you are condemning murderers or pedophiles is to acknowledge that within us all is the capacity for evil. As the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between nations, religions, continents or creeds, but through every human heart, so when you are judging the pedophile, when you are judging the worst kind of criminal, to acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest as negativity is also within us, and our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves, and if we can successfully negotiate with that then we can create a better society.”

The problem with this picture — so far as the Bible’s description of Jesus is concerned — is that it seems to me one of the necessary implications of the ‘he who is without sin’ passage is that it is Jesus, the one who is without sin, the one with the undivided heart, who, rightfully can throw stones (or judge) sinners, and who rightfully, can judge not just the worst kind of criminal but every one of us who has our heart split between good and evil. He’s also the one who creates the better society…

But I digress. Not so far, because what is clear here is that neither Brand nor Fry are operating, or engaging, with an understanding of Jesus that looks remotely like the understanding that Christians have of Jesus when it comes to questions of evil, suffering (Fry’s big thing), infinity, or our ability to know God in our limited human way (Brand’s big thing).

Brand’s God is what in theological terms is called transcendent —wholly other, unable to be properly described or contained using human words or senses. But he is not what, similarly, in theological terms, is called immanent — present and observable in this world (beyond some nebulous spiritual connection between all things that exist or are conscious).

His picture of God as the infinite, indescribable, ground of being and existence meshes up with the Christian God — except that the Christian God reveals things about himself through revelation, this is how Christians understand God, especially in the light of the life of Jesus — who claimed to be one with the father. And thus is the lynchpin between God’s immanence and his transcendence. Because Jesus lived, breathed, spoke, and died — and in living affirmed God’s previous revelation concerning himself in the Old Testament — we know that the God we believe in is not just the transcendent creator and sustainer of life and ‘being’ in this universe, but that he is also knowable, and describable (so long as we acknowledge out limits and recognise Jesus as they way in to such descriptions). In Jesus, God entered the finite world in a way that was accessible to our finite senses. In Jesus, God becomes accessible.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” — John 14:6-11

An interesting implication of Jesus’ description here, where his life perfectly represents the Father, is that this is what people were created to do. This is Jesus living out the good human life. The next thing he says is an invitation back to this type of function — which I think is a fair way removed from the picture of the ‘Christian’ life Fry paints.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” — John 14:12

In John 17, just before he’s arrested, he sums up his work in an interesting way in the light of the sort of work we were created for…

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” — John 17:3-4

A bit later Jesus describes what this sort of life looks like — it’s not rocket science to figure out how this might help us think about a human role in the face of suffering… it also puts paid, I think, to the idea that we need to be on our knees because God is some sort of self-seeking maniac.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. ” — John 15:9-15

Here are some highlights from Brand. These aren’t things I completely agree with — but they’re things that people who want to dismiss God holus-bolus, like Fry, have to grapple with, or at least, I think, they need to provide an alternatively coherent account of the world if they want to subject the idea of God to ridicule.

Brand acknowledges the limitations of our humanity — something Fry, as an atheist-humanist is not so keen to do, because it doesn’t really mesh with his narrative that all you need for human flourishing is humanity, and human endeavour.

“Now Joseph Campbell, the cultural mythologist, said all religions are true in that the metaphor is true. So what Campbell is saying is that religion is an attempt to explain the unknowable in the same way that science is an attempt to explain the unknowable. Science can explain the mechanics of the universe, it can explain the mechanics of anatomy and biology, but can it ever explain the why? The answer is no. It can never explain the why. What we all want to know is is there a reason for us being here,and what is the nature of the universe, what is the nature of our consciousness.”

Brand trots out the argument from an incredibly fine tuned universe as support for his believe in God. Which is interesting. He is also trying to grapple with the question of infinity — either the infinite nature of God, or of the universe against the very finite nature of our existence.

“I suppose what Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, and Hinduism, and Jaianism, and Buddhism are trying to do is make sense of our position, our perspective as awake, conscious, sentient beings within the infinite.”

He gets plenty wacky in his exploration of consciousness — but again, for those of us who accept that God is the ground of being for every life in this universe, there’s something quite close to what Christians might affirm here.

“For me, as a person who believes in God, my understanding is this, that my consciousness emanates from a perspective and it passes through endless filters, the filters of the senses, the subjective filters of the senses and of my own biography. This is good. This is bad. This is wrong. I want this. I don’t want this. But behind all of that there’s an awakeness. An awareness that sees it all. And it’s in you too. And it’s in Stephen Fry. And it’s in the man who interviewed him. It’s in all of us. An awakeness. An interconnectivity. None of us can ever know if there is a God. But we do know there is an us. None of us can ever know if there’s wrong or right. But we do know there is an us.”

Our finitude does, Brand suggests, come with certain limitations when it comes to making absolute moral judgments. Especially judgments of an infinite being. It’s a weird category jump to assess God in human terms, and that Fry wants to hold God up to human standards, or against some sort of definition of morality apart from God, suggests that he hasn’t quite grasped the nature of the God Christians believe in. God is not subject to universal moral principles deduced from our human experience — he is wholly other, he authored the universe, it exists within him, he is not a part of the universe from within.

“Now, we can argue that when a lion eats the gazelle it can’t be very nice for the gazelle, but what we can argue is that in infinite space, that doesn’t matter. That in the tiny fragment of reality that we experience through our material senses – our eyes that only see a limited range of light, our ears that only hear a limited range of vibration. The things that we experience here, we can’t make any absolute conclusions from them. No one knows if there is a God, or if there isn’t a God. No one knows which interpretation is closest.”

Unlike Fry who simply holds up the question of suffering as though it’s a complete rebuttal to the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving, God, Brand sees that humans are partly culpable for whatever suffering happens in this world, and also partly the God-ordained solution (this is especially true if what’s suggested about Genesis, above, is correct). For Brand, suffering, too, is a reminder of our limitations, and a motivator for good. He’s able to see something like a divine purpose in the suffering, with this idea that it pushes us towards the divine. Even if, for him, the ‘divine’ is the consciousness that holds us all together.

“Yes there is suffering. What can we do about suffering? We can help one another. We can love one another. And if you can do that through atheism – then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary, that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater. Something complete and whole. Something timeless and spaceless and absolute. And every dogma in the world has been trying to tackle and understand that. Art has been trying to represent it, science has been trying to explain it and no one can. We’re up against the parameters, and I believe without embracing something spiritual, something whole, something beyond human thought we have no chance of saving ourselves, and saving the planet, we are all connected to consciousness, we are all connected to one another, and to me that sounds a bit like God.”

If God is purely a transcendent being who doesn’t really interact with the world, and who leaves us waving our arms around blindly in the throes of our suffering, hoping that we’ll somehow accidentally bump into him, or each other, for the better — which is sort of Brand’s version of God — then I think Fry is actually closer to the money. This sort of God is a bit of a monster, human existence becomes something like a reality TV show that God watches, or controls, from the sidelines. God becomes this sort of Big Brother, muttering the occasional instruction, keeping the housemates in the dark about the reality of the universe.

But God doesn’t do this. He doesn’t stand apart from our pain. He enters it. First by becoming human – Jesus, God the Son, enters the world as a baby, a lowly baby, a part of a despised and persecuted people group, in an imperial backwater. Then by being executed. Painfully. Horribly. Unjustly. The injustice is magnified when you consider just who it is that is being executed and what he has given up in order to become human, let alone to suffer and die. John puts it like this:

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”—John 19:16-18

Jesus is nailed to two planks of wood. On a hill. In public display — for the purpose of seeing him utterly humiliated. The lowest of the low. Killed in the most painful way imaginable. For the sake of those who kill him, and those who given the chance, and given his claim to be ruler of our lives, would also want to kill him.

John describes the life of Jesus, and rejection of Jesus, in his opening:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”— John 1:9-11 

This is not a God who is distant and unknowable, who leaves us flailing around blindly in our pain. Who uses pain as some sort of subliminal way of getting our attention (though it might point us to the truth that something is very wrong with the world). Nor is it a maniacal self-serving God who demands we approach him on our knees and sends flesh-eating worms with no solutions. This is a God who is so committed to doing something about the pain and suffering in the world — pain and suffering that, if God is the God of the Bible, is a result of us rejecting him, that he came into the world to be rejected all over again, to take on pain and suffering, out of love.

What’s interesting, too, is that the kind of connection-via-consciousness that Brand so desperately wants as a link to the divine is something Jesus says is the result of his life, and death, for those who reconnect to the transcendent God, the source of life, through him.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one —  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:20-24

I like the version of God revealed in Jesus much better than Fry’s version of God, and more, even, than Brand’s version of God. I think Jesus gives us not just hope in suffering, or hope beyond suffering, but also a pattern for responding to the suffering of others that is much more satisfying the Fry’s directionless indignation (because, let’s face it, he’s angry at a God he doesn’t believe in who looks nothing like the God who reveals himself in Jesus), and much more focused than Brand’s unknowable God-beyond-our-senses.

If only I had a British accent.

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#keepthefaith: bet on Jesus

Here’s a thing I wrote about SportsBet’s inflatable Jesus ad.

I’m no fan of the insidious relationship between betting agencies and sports coverage, and I know this stunt was designed to get people talking about the company, but I think there’s an opportunity here for Christians to take part in a conversation without our feathers getting all puffed up and ruffled. Amongst other things I say:

“If there’s one thing that is beautiful about SportsBet’s campaign – it’s that our confidence in Jesus, our king, is based on his ascension through the clouds. Christians believe Jesus died, that he was raised, and he ascended into heaven as King. And he’s coming back – bringing eternal life to those who keep the faith. That’s why we think he’s worth betting our lives on. Here’s how Luke puts it in Acts 1.

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

There’s been plenty of hot air about this campaign floating around (boom boom tish). Our knee jerk reaction, as Christians, to this sort of insult is often to be defensive or to lash out indignantly as though we’re entitled to some sort of privileged position (or even respect). I think in all our contributions to public discussions (like the #keepthefaith chatter) we should be reflecting on both Jesus’ example – he voluntarily went to the Cross deliberately being insulted and humiliated along the way, and his words, particularly these ones from Luke 6…

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

For another nice non hand-wringing post see CafeDave’s piece.

Why you can be reasonably sure that Christianity was not a Roman conspiracy

There’s another Bible conspiracy theory doing the rounds. Each of these is more inane than the last. And each gets media attention from the tabloids. First there was the claim, from a guy named Reza Aslan, that Jesus was a zealot. A political revolutionary. A rebel. Now we have the apparently completely antithetical claim – that Jesus was a pawn of the Roman empire. An invention. Designed to bring the Jews into line and have them adopt pacifism.

Here is this new theory in a nutshell.

‘Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century.

‘When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare.

‘They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system.

‘That’s when the “peaceful” Messiah story was invented.

‘Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to “give onto Caesar” and pay their taxes to Rome.’

Both claims are odd.

Stupid in fact.

Both claims seem to miss some pretty key elements of the very counter-culture, extremely non-populist, basis of the Christian message, while also relying on the New Testament texts as valid historical documents from which to draw evidence to support their crazy hypothese.

Here’s the thing. According to the New Testament – Jesus died. At the hands of both the Roman Empire, and the Jewish establishment.

He can’t be a pawn for the Roman Empire because the movement claimed another king existed – a king who shared all the titles Caesar had bestowed upon himself. A king who called himself the saviour of the world. A king proclaimed through a gospel – a word used to described the announcement of new emperors. What self-seeking Roman emperor would hatch a plan like this? None. It’s stupid. They were about centralising power, as much as possible, in the hands of the Caesar. Having other kings running around wasn’t good for business.

Jesus saying “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” isn’t even pro-imperial. It’s ambivalent to the empire. He’s making a much bigger claim. Coins might have Caesar’s image on them. People are made in God’s image. Jesus is laying claims to something much bigger than one’s money – he wants their fealty. Their loyalty. Their lives.

In some sense Jesus was a revolutionary – he did come to change the social order – but not in the “rebel without a cause” way Reza Aslan suggests he did. He came to change people’s priorities – Away from Self. Away from success. Away from family. Away from empire. Four pillars of Roman society… So in Matthew 10…

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

He equally can’t be a tool to unite the Jews in a pacifistic movement – because his first spokespeople condemned the Jewish establishment for killing him, and Jesus spent significant time attacking the Jewish establishment as an expert in the Old Testament – the chances of Rome having the sort of sophisticated understanding of the Old Testament required to construct a significantly complex Messianic claim are fairly slim. And the prospect of the masters of propaganda – and that’s what Imperial Rome was, and needed to be for this new thesis to survive – failing to put forward a compelling messianic figure, and coming up with a messiah that most Jews rejected – is risible.

It’s stupid.

But the stupidest bit is the idea that one would select a crucified king as remotely compelling – either that a Roman would come up with the idea, or that a Jew would buy it.

“Lets crucify this king. That’ll work”

Martyrdom wasn’t a particularly effective tool in Rome – so, for example, Cicero was martyred for his opposition to the Empire. And the Empire moved on. Unworried. Execution was meant to kill seditious claims. It usually did. The chances of it starting them are incredibly remote.

And there’s textual evidence from the time to support just how dumb this idea is… Cicero himself said, of crucifixion:

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

Paul, one of the Christian story’s first storytellers – who’d have to be bought in on the conspiracy (and would have the requisite knowledge of Judaism, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s part of the theory… the old “Paul invented Christianity” trick) – was aware that crucifixion was an impossible sell to a first century audience – Jew or Greek. If you wanted a messiah claim to stick, this isn’t how you do it…

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

The problem with seeing Paul as the source of this myth is that he completely distanced himself from the Jewish establishment, and Judaism. Read Acts. The Jews are consistently trying to kill him – and he runs from them, into the Roman court system. As a prisoner. He is beaten. He suffers. He eventually dies. Like Cicero. Like Jesus. He’d have to have been pretty bought in to this mission to subjugate his own people, and he doesn’t leave his Judaism behind easily. He was on a skyrocketing career trajectory before he joined team Jesus.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

Anyway. A crucified messiah just didn’t wash with the Old Testament expectations. It ran counter to them. To be crucified was to be cursed. Which is part of the whole “Jesus taking our curse upon himself” thing that completely defied messianic categories in the first century. Here’s Deuteronomy 21…

“If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole,you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

That’s precisely what Paul says in Galatians 3…

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”

This wasn’t especially convincing to the Jews of his day. They tried to kill Paul too.

And if Crucifixion was stupid and laughable – the claim of a resurrection after that was even further beyond the pale. And yet that is the central claim of Christianity – taught long before Paul came on the scene – such that he can cite it as a creed when he’s writing one of his earlier letters…

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James,then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

He also seems to keep relying on witnesses. People who aren’t him. If you’re going to use parts of his letters to support your theory, you need to consider the whole. These 500 witnesses who his first readers can speak to – that’s an incredibly large conspiracy theory.

Look. It’s a nice modern sociology theory – because it will sell well. But it doesn’t work in practice. It misses the point of the texts it uses as evidence. It requires on completely deconstructing them – using post-modern literary theory on pre-modern texts. The author was very much alive in these texts – and the idea of writing with a clear communicative purpose was also very much alive.

These claims should be dead. They are woeful scholarship. And covering them with so much attention – even if half the story debunks them – is woeful journalism. This isn’t “objective” reporting of a serious story. This is a stupid story.

Dealing with genocide in the Bible

I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.

I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.


Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30

So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?

I think he did. And I think it does.

But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.

This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…

The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.

The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?

What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”

But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.

I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.

And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.

Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.

Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.

Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.

And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.

Bigger than we can grasp.

We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?

Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.

Anyway. If you want to read on…

Continue reading

KRudd’s treatment of the Bible and the gap between knowledge and understanding

Kevin Rudd’s assault on the New Testament and “biblicism” continues.

“In my response to ahh that fella last night, when people start hurling Biblical quotes at me, I know a bit about my New Testament as well. And as I said last night if you’re going to be serious Biblicist about these questions, we’d still be supporting slavery in the New Testament, and by the way, to all of you who are women, it says in the New Testament, according to St Paul, that wives should be submissive to their husbands, so just bear that in mind because it’s in the Bible. If we in fact, took that seriously, then do you know what? We may as well repeal also the Sex Discrimination act, because that creates a different set of circumstances. Let’s get real about this. The core principles are those I outlined last night, and what happens with any civilised country over time is that they apply those to different sets of circumstances.”

He just doesn’t get it.

We aren’t called to change the Bible to meet our times to love people better. The Bible changes us to meet our times so that we love people better.

He misses the point – the social structures in the Bible aren’t for every person – they are for every person who would follow Jesus in a path of voluntary sacrifice. Those who would follow Jesus and die to self. Those who are serious about taking up their cross.

The Bible calls those who would follow Jesus to submit their sexuality to his Lordship.

The Bible calls those who would follow Jesus to demonstrate submission, as a picture of the incarnation, within their marriages. This isn’t about womens’ rights.

The Bible calls those who were slaves to model the gospel in their situation, again, as a picture of the sacrifice involved in the gospel.

It doesn’t affirm slavery. It doesn’t trump the rights of women. It doesn’t restrict the sexual expression of those outside the church. It holds out an ideal for Christians to adopt.

That’s why the Bible doesn’t work as a legislative text book in Australia. But if Rudd wants to seriously tackle the question of gay marriage as a theologian, his answer is better grounded in providing individual freedoms – especially in the long term for churches – to form their own opinions and act in good conscience on these questions.

His answer is not found in adapting the meaning of the Bible to meet his own political agenda.

In 2006 the shadow minister for Foreign Affairs, who would soon become opposition leader suggested the following relationship between God and politics:

God is not partisan: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan.”

This was Kevin Rudd. Sadly, his shambolic coercion of the New Testament in the last couple of days is one of the worst examples of co-opting God for an agenda that I think I have seen from an Australian politician in a major party.

Rudd claims to “know his New Testament pretty well”… but he disagrees with the vast majority of church going people in Australia and sits with the liberal interpretive fringes, significantly undermining any divine voice that may be present in the text.

But ultimately it’s not his confusion about the function of the New Testament that bothers me – it’s his vision of what the Bible does for the individual that continues to blow me away. If all the Bible does is liberate us from present oppression – if it does nothing but establish a trajectory from which we tackle the injustice of our time – then where is the cost of the Gospel for those who would take up their cross and follow a crucified king?

Rudd loves Bonhoeffer. Or so he claims. Bonhoeffer was great on political ethics – and through his writing, he still is. But he’s only great on political ethics because he understood the Gospel.

Here’s a quote from The Cost of Discipleship.

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

So long as Rudd emphasises abstract love and a trajectory of social change while ignoring the heart of the Gospel, his claims to “know his New Testament” demonstrate a clear lack of understanding of what the New Testament is about.

His approach, through his own interpretive lens, without sensitivity to the meaning or purpose of a text, is essentially the same as the fundamentalists he is shouting down.

How KRudd’s selfie-centred flip-flopping alienates the Christian right, left, and centre and shows he doesn’t get the Gospel

Did you catch last night’s Q&A? The Fairfax press is hailing KRudd’s exchange with New Hope Brisbane pastor Matt Prater as the “answer of the century.”

Kevin Rudd has lurched right on Asylum Seekers, and lurched left on marriage, and in the process has alienated those Christians – and I’d put myself in this category – who want to take the words of Jesus seriously when it comes to issues of justice for the oppressed, and the nature of the church/state relationship. Personally, I believe that marriage as God created it, is a lifelong union between one man and one woman, but I don’t believe my views should be enshrined in the legislation of a secular state where all minorities need to be protected and catered for equally.

While this election is something like a battle of the evil of two lessers – Rudd’s constant movements of his moral compass with the political ebb and flow on moral issues has me despairing for the nature of leadership in opinion poll driven politics – and despairing for the impact his soap box theologising has on how people understand what the Bible is about and what Christianity is. This is the big concern for me coming out of last night. Rudd just doesn’t seem to get the gospel.

He tried to explain his asylum seeker backflip in the earlier minutes of Q&A last night – but I missed that. I tuned in about 15 minutes after the show started. But it was when a pastor from Brisbane stood up and asked him a question about his flip-flopping on marriage equality that Rudd problematically made the shift from politician to theologian.

Slamming the pastor in the process.

It’s odd that you can get so much mileage from lambasting a position you held publicly until just three months ago – when KRudd made his move on marriage equality based on his theology (I’d say illegitimately) – rather than his political philosophy (which I’d say would be legitimate).

Here’s the video of the exchange.

Here’s the question Rudd faced. From the Q&A transcript.

“MATT PRATER: Hi, Prime Minister. I’m a pastor of a local church and work for a national Christian radio network. Most of the listeners and callers we have had in our radio station have been saying they won’t be voting for you because they’re disillusioned because you seem to keep chopping and changing your beliefs just to get a popular vote with regards to things like marriage. Why should we vote for you?”

I’m sad he didn’t say “like marriage and asylum seekers”… but the question is what it is.

The video makes for awkward viewing – and I’m not particularly interested in the marriage debate. As outlined above. So lets focus on the claims Rudd makes about the Bible. Because that, ultimately, is where he’s winning praise outside of the church.

The ‘abnormality’ of homosexuality

“Number one, I do not believe people, when they are born, choose their sexuality. They are gay if they are born gay. You don’t decide at some later stage in life to be one thing or the other. It is – it is how people are built and, therefore, the idea that this is somehow an abnormal condition is just wrong. I don’t get that. I think that is just a completely ill-founded view. Secondly, if you accept that it is natural and normal for someone to be gay because that’s the way they are, then it follows from that that I don’t think it is right to say that if these two folk here, who are in love with each other and are of the same gender, should be denied the opportunity for legal recognition of the duration of their relationship by having marriage equality. If you accept that – if your starting point is that homosexuality is abnormal – I don’t know if that’s your view.”

Choosing the terminology one employs in a debate and forcing the person you’re talking to to adopt that terminology and all its baggage is a really horrible way to conduct a civil conversation. By framing the question the way he did, Kevin Rudd skewed the theological playing field. The normality or otherwise of a sexual orientation is irrelevant. We are all sexually broken because our sinful natures – which mean we sin naturally – taint every aspect of our being. That’s a pretty foundational tenant of the Protestant stream of Christianity. The relationship between being made in God’s image and being sinful is something Paul grapples with in Romans. It’s properly basic Christianity.

Here’s what Paul says in Romans 7, from verse 18.

“For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

This is the first point at which KRudd’s position poses a significant threat to the Gospel. If there is no dilemma – if what is natural is good, if what is natural is created and “what ought to be” – then there is no human dilemma. If sin is not natural then there is no need for humans to be rescued by God. There is no need for God to send Jesus into the world. There is no need for Jesus to go to the cross to deliver us and to redeem our nature. There is no need for the Holy Spirit to work in us, as Paul says it does in Romans 8:29, to conform us into the image of God’s son. Which leads neatly into the next problem with KRudd’s understanding of the Gospel.

Slavery, Born this way, and transformation

Here’s the follow up from Matt Prater.

“Jesus said a man shall leave his father and mother and be married and that’s the Biblical definition. I just believe in what the Bible says and I’m just curious for you, Kevin, if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?”

Here’s the next significant issue from Rudd’s answer.

“Well, mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition. Because St Paul said in the New Testament, “Slaves be obedient to your masters.”

Ignoring the false link Rudd then draws with Slavery in America – let’s have a look at what else St Paul actually says about slavery. In 1 Corinthians 7. From verse 21

“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.”

Rudd doesn’t seem to grasp his hero Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Christian life…

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

If slavery is a “natural condition” as Rudd says the Bible says it is – then there should be no escape. And yet, here Paul calls those who are slaves to take their freedom if available.

The ability to change your state from bondage – your natural state or in this case literally being a slave – is a huge part of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel. Why should our sexuality be removed from this equation?

Here’s what Paul says about the outworking of our broken nature and the pursuit of freedom just a little bit earlier in that same letter to the Corinthians.

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.

This seems, from Paul’s logic earlier in Corinthians, and elsewhere (like in Romans), to involve a natural state – especially because of how he describes the transformation happening…

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

This is the problem with the born this way argument. It makes people slaves to their nature – unable to exercise freedom to self-determine one’s identity – sexual or otherwise. It’s a horrible position to take. It pigeon holes people based on factors they can’t choose. The question often asked here is “what sort of God would create people who do the wrong thing by nature?” – but a question on the flip side that is rarely asked is “What sort of God would make people a slave to their biology or environment with no potential for growth or transformation?”

The answer, from Paul, is that the sort of God who does exist is a God who not only makes transformation possible – he equips broken people with the capacity to be transformed through his intervention in the world in the person of Jesus. Who offers transformation. That’s a pretty key idea in the New Testament – in fact I would say it is the BIG IDEA of the New Testament (and the whole Bible). This is the third problem with Rudd’s answer last night. The biggest problem.

The big idea of the New Testament is not about our love for others, it is about God’s love for us in Jesus.

“What is the fundamental principle of the New Testament? It is one of universal love. Loving your fellow man. And if we get obsessed with a particular definition of that through a form of sexuality, then I think we are missing the centrality of what the gospel, whether you call it a social gospel, a personal gospel or a spiritual gospel, is all about.”

The centrality of the Gospel – the word means “good news” and in the Graeco-Roman setting meant the good news about the arrival of a king – is the arrival of God’s promised king. Jesus. Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel – not “universal love” or “loving your fellow man” – these are outworkings of the character of God who reveals himself in Christ. These are the way we respond to being loved by God so much that he became human and died our death to offer us new life. This is how we respond once our nature is transformed. It is not something we are naturally capable of. It is not something that makes people “Christian.” It is not the Gospel. There is no social Gospel without the person of Jesus. There is no personal Gospel without the person of Jesus. There is no Spiritual Gospel without the person of Jesus.

The gospel is about Jesus.

It is clear Rudd doesn’t get this.

He should stop talking as a theologian and work at speaking as a politician.

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Cicero (and Paul) on the cross

I’ve been trying not to go nuts posting stuff from my project. But here’s a cool contrast between Paul and Cicero that I think explains their differences when it comes to oratory.

Cicero on execution using a cross, Pro C. Rabirio Perduellionis Reo:

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

Paul on the message of the cross, First Letter to the Corinthians:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

One of Cicero’s modern biographers, James May, said Cicero – who was martyred for his love for Republican, rather than Imperial, Rome – presented himself as.

“the patriot, true and unfailing, ready and willing to put his life on the line for the survival of the state—in fact, he is in a way the symbol, even the literal embodiment of the Republic.”

Here’s an example from on of his famous final speeches, the Orationes Philippicae:

“I defended the republic as a young man; I will not desert it as an old one. I despised the swords of Catiline; I will not fear yours. Indeed I would gladly offer my body, if by my death the liberty of the state can be immediately recovered, so that finally the suffering of the Roman People may bring to birth what it has long since labored to produce. For if twenty years ago in this very temple I said that death could not be too early for a consular, how much more truly will I now say, for an old man!”

I reckon 2 Corinthians 4 is Paul’s handbook to Christian persuasion…

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

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from Godand not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

Bono on Jesus

Somewhere in my archives you’ll find my (negative) opinion on any music U2 has released in the last, say, 20 years. But while there is some theological nitpicking I might do when it comes to this interview in this new biography as conversation of the U2 frontman, Bono, there’s a lot to love about his understanding of Jesus and the Christian faith. So kudos to him.

Michka: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Michka: I haven’t heard you talk about that.

Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

Michka: Well, that doesn’t make it clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff.

Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

Michka: I’d be interested to hear that.

Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Michka: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you?

There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death.

That’s the point. It should keep us humbled . It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.

Michka: That’s a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it’s close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that farfetched?

Bono: No, it’s not farfetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: “I’m the Messiah.” I’m saying: “I am God incarnate.”

And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You’re a bit eccentric. We’ve had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don’t mention the “M” word! Because, you know, we’re gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you’re expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah.

At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he’s gonna keep saying this. So what you’re left with is: either Christ was who He said He was the Messiah or a complete nutcase. I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson.

This man was like some of the people we’ve been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had “King of the Jews” on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I’m not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that’s farfetched…

An Open Letter to Brisbane after my visit to Hillsong

I’m not sure who to address this open letter to. Open letters, as a medium, allow opinions to be voiced from an individual for the people addressed, but the point of the genre is that it provides some sort of benefit for the “public” – the reader, as well as the addressee.

I thought about making this an open letter to Hillsong. But who am I to tell another church how to do their business. I’m barely out of nappies as far as this ministry caper is concerned. So I decided I’d try addressing the people we have in common – the people who live around us.

There will be people who say I should’ve sent this straight to Hillsong, without making it open. And I would’ve, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to contact the relevant people at Hillsong. They’re not exactly transparent on that front. I will tweet them. It is also hard to provide criticism on the basis of “thought” when the well on that front has been poisoned in the sermon. More than once. Apparently trusting God’s word means not really grappling with it all that hard, unless you’re one of the few who can “rightly divide” it (2 Tim 2:15). So much for the priesthood of all believers. I’m also pretty sure that the people who watched our little group at Hillsong assumed we weren’t being moved by the Spirit, because we weren’t moving with the crowd. We weren’t responding to the talk the way we were called to. So I felt uncomfortable talking about the talk with anybody there tonight.

But I want to assure you, if you’re from Hillsong, that I, with meagre powers, love Jesus. He has captured my heart, and my head. And I offer this humbly as a suggestion that something was missing from Hillsong tonight. Something pretty big. Essential even.

Dear Brisbane,

I’m not an expert on Hillsong, or what goes on there. I’ve been once. Once was enough.

I’m not the emotional type. I’m, I hope, a relatively typical Aussie bloke. But I do go to church. Lots. I work for a church as a student, I’m training to be a minister. A few weeks back, when I was going through a pre-delivery critique of one of my sermons, someone suggested it lacked a little passion. I wondered a bit about whether or not I’m passionate enough about the gospel. I wondered whether I really do get excited about the cross. I wondered if I should be more like my brothers and sisters at Hillsong. None of this really matters. Except that I’m a typical person and I want to make where I’m coming from pretty clear. I’m no more or less special than the average church goer, but I am in a position to have some idea what should happen in church.

I try to give people a fair hearing. I try not to judge others. I’m not very good at this. We’re all a package of our prejudice,  our personalities, and our inherent self importance. So I fail. But I do try to be not just objective in how I assess things, but charitable. Using a standard that I hope is objective, and a standard that I’d want applied to me in return.

Let me declare my “bias” – I’m not a pentecostal, in part because I’m not an emotional type, in part because I’ve been raised in a non-pentecostal setting so I have a natural inclination towards non-pentecostal expressions of Christianity, and in part because I’m a more rational type and I have problems with some pentecostal accounts of theology and the human experience. I love my pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ – and I think we have much to learn from them about loving people, serving people, seeking justice, and many many lessons in terms of connecting with society and not avoiding “cool” as though the gospel is purer if we’re not working hard to connect it to people. In fact, we were there tonight to learn from Hillsong. We wanted to learn about how to look after new people (hint – it’s not taking pot shots at people who aren’t physically expressive, who sit with their arms crossed, or are “intellectual” about their faith – three of the points from tonight’s sermon). Their production values are excellent. Their music is excellent. Their people are passionate, and warm, and care about changing the world – and they do something about it. Starting local, but thinking interstate and global too.

My problem is not with Pentecostal theology. My problem is not with the music, or the production values, or the social justice, or the passion of the people. My problem with tonight’s service is not with pentecostal theology – it’s with what I think is a failure to do what church is meant to be on about. Something that in no way undermines any of the great stuff that happened at Hillsong tonight.

So here’s what I think the church gathering should be about, because I think the church gathering should reflect what unites the church who are gathered, and the church that has gathered and will gather since Jesus, and until he returns.

Jesus.

Jesus, the God who created the world made flesh. Made human. So that we can know God.

Jesus, the son of man, the son of God, who went to the cross and was executed like the scummiest of criminals. Because when it comes to God’s standards we – humans who aren’t Jesus – are the scummiest of criminals. He died our death so we could live his life.

Jesus. God’s “word” to humanity. God’s communication to us. The one life that sums up what the whole Bible is about.

Church is about Jesus. Church is a gathering of people brought together by Jesus, for Jesus. Broken and imperfect people. Like me.

Any time someone gets up in a church and doesn’t talk about Jesus it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s worse, in my opinion, than getting up in the political sphere as a Christian and not talking about Jesus. If you’ve read my criticisms of the ACL  you’ll understand something of my feelings on this front.

The reason I’m writing this is that I went to one of Brisbane’s biggest churches tonight. A church that is part of one of the biggest networks of churches in the world. A mover and shaker in the church business. And apart from a few cursory references, and a couple of verses in a couple of songs, Jesus wasn’t spoken about. Jesus was there in name. And he was there as guarantor of our happiness and victory (effect), but he was absent as cause. He wasn’t there in the sermon underpinning the promises the Bible makes about humanity. And he should have been. And I’m sorry. Brisbane. Because people need to hear about Jesus.

Hillsong promises all sorts of good stuff for people who get on board with God. And God is powerful, like they say. But God demonstrates his power at the cross of Jesus. Power in humility. Strength in suffering. Honour in shame. Victory in sacrifice. The cross isn’t a message of triumph like we might understand it in human terms. It’s a message of triumph in subversion. It turns the world upside down. Victory, for the Christian, is cross shaped. It’s not shaped like the life we want to have. It’s shaped like the life Jesus had. Sacrifice for others. Discomfort for others. Voluntarily.

Tonight I went to Hillsong. The talk was about Psalm 149. Verse 6 of Psalm 149 that is. A verse that in the words of preacher Steve Dixon, is where the Psalm pivots from being about praise, to being about God’s word.

God’s word is important. We can’t know God without it. I’m not sure you can jump straight from one use of the word “sword” into every mention of the word “sword” in the Bible.

“May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,”

But we went from here to Hebrews 4. Via a long description of the functions of swords through the ages. Why the function of swords in the Middle Ages and Scotland and in knighting people today was worth a significant chunk of time was a bit beyond me.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

A great verse. A powerful verse. God’s word is alive and active. It is powerful. It can upend lives because it upended the world. It created the world. It holds the world together. That’s what Hebrews 1 says anyway. And it equates God’s word with Jesus.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

The talk didn’t go there.

At one point, in a bit of ironic demonstration of why some actual Bible study is a good thing, Steve Dixon talked about the difference between the two Greek words for word. λογος (logos) and ῥῆμα (rhema). Logos, he said, rightly, is the notion of the whole counsel on an issue, the final word, the comprehensive word, the wisdom on a subject… But apparently that’s too much for our little human brains to comprehend. We can only deal with rhemas. Small parts of the logos given to us by the Spirit in particular moments. That sounds great. But it’s not really true. Because we have access to the full wisdom of God in Jesus. Here’s how John puts it. In chapter 1, verses 1 and 14.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

We can know the Logos. It’s mind blowing. But it’s true. We need to know God’s logos. The words or utterances spoken by God aren’t enough. The whole counsel is. We may not ever grasp it fully. We are finite, God is infinite. We may only grasp it from utterances (rhema). But God’s word is Jesus.

The worst part of the rhema v logos logic is that Hebrews 4, when it talks about the word of God it says “the logos of God.” Probably worse still, in terms of setting up some magical interpretive distinction between the two is that the Hebrews 1 passage above uses rhema. For something much bigger and grander than a small word applied to an individual. The logic just doesn’t stand up.

And if you’re going to talk about the power of God’s word to transform lives – any transformation of lives begins with Jesus. And it begins at the cross. The word (logos) of God that is living and active is Jesus, who speaks words that are powerful (rhema). There is no word of God without Jesus. There is no point talking about the word of God’s impact in our life without talking about Jesus – and that’s where tonight failed. It was all about the power of God’s word spoken into the lives of people, but it wasn’t about Jesus.

The transformation God works in human lives is through Jesus… not just through the words of moral wisdom found in the Bible. Which is, as much as I could tell, and I was listening pretty hard, the message of tonight’s talk. If we live by the words we find in the Bible it’ll change our life for the better. We’ll suddenly become passionate worshippers of God and the world will change through our actions.

It sounds nice. And the Bible is full of wisdom. Living the words of the Bible will make you a healthier, wealthier, and wiser, person. Probably. Until something goes wrong in your life – like your selfishness or the selfishness of someone else gets in the way. Or until you get the gospel and realise you’re called to sacrifice for others and to be prepared to suffer as you take up your cross and follow Jesus. As you give up your life. As you suffer well. As you die well.

It felt a lot like the talk had 1 Corinthians in the background – especially in the anti-intellectual bits.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

That’s a powerful account of the usefulness of intellectual endeavour without God. But the next bit is more important.

21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

There wasn’t any of that preaching tonight. If there was it was so implied that I didn’t get it. I was listening out for it. I was waiting for it. I could feel every fibre in my body tensing as it became clearer and clearer that a long sermon was going to go by without God’s word being linked to Jesus. I was collapsing in on myself hoping against hope that we’d get to John 1, or Hebrews 1, or any presentation of the gospel.

Here’s a challenge I have for Steve and for any other Hillsong people who find this post via their google alerts, or Twitter… listen back to tonight’s sermon. Listen for anything that might point someone to the gospel. To the foot of the cross. To Jesus, the word made flesh, not simply to Scripture as a handbook for life. Scripture is Scripture because Jesus said it testified about him, and he showed he was God by coming back from the dead. Without him it’s just some old text. It is living and powerful because it centres on the cross. The pivot point in human history.

Steve used the example of two hypothetical people in the congregation who might respond to his talk in different ways – by fully physically engaging in worship, as he suggested the Psalm called us to, getting out of their comfort zone and giving themselves over to God, or by sitting back, arms folded, unchallenged and unmoved.

Jesus doesn’t care about how high you lift your arms, or how uncomfortable the self-aware bit of your psyche is when you are praising him. He cares about the condition of your heart – and sure, responding to Jesus with your whole being is part of responding to your changed heart. And the passion and social justice stuff Hillsong and churches of its ilk get into is fruit of a changed heart. I have no doubt about that.

I’m not a hypothetical listener. I’m not a sermon illustration. I was there. In the flesh. In the second row. I could’ve walked out at the end of that sermon insulted (I was sitting with my arms crossed apparently a sign that God’s word wasn’t engaging me), and that would’ve been sad, I could’ve walked out of that talk no clearer on who Jesus is, and that’s a tragedy. But I walked out angry. So at least Hillsong promoted a passionate response from me. I’m thankful for that. But mostly for Jesus.

So dear Brisbane, if you go to Hillsong and it isn’t clear what they’re on about in the sermon, or why they’re singing with such passion. Please ask someone. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you. Then ask them, given how amazing the gospel is, why it isn’t front and centre every week in everything they do. It might be other weeks, it wasn’t this week.

Regards,

Nathan