The Persecution Complex: Why Jesus, not Andrew Bolt, is the ‘leader’ the church needs

The Church has found an unlikely ally in recent weeks; not even an ally, a champion. A strong voice prepared to lead the fight for us in the culture wars in Australia. Commentator Andrew Bolt. Sure. He’s got his own wars to fight both in terms of his politics, and his economic interests (where he’s got his sights set on the ABC), and we’re almost a convenient party to co-opt into these fights, but he’s noticing something many Christians have been noticing for some time… we’re facing a battle; a David v Goliath type scenario. There are people out there wanting to silence Christians; to stomp us out of public life. In a column today titled ‘Enemies of Christianity declaring new war on religion,‘ Bolt describes the battle lines, calls God’s people to find a champion, and outlines the problems as he sees them. Here’s a few choice quotes.

Here’s the opening salvo.

“CHRISTIANS, prepare for persecution. Open your eyes and choose stronger leaders for the dark days.

I am not a Christian, but I am amazed that your bishops and ministers are not warning you of what is already breaking over your heads.”

I’ve got to ask what bishops and ministers he’s listening to; cause we’ve been banging on about ‘dark days’ since that dark afternoon when our leader was nailed to some planks of wood by the empire… it’s just we see the solution caught up with his return, and with our faithful perseverance in the face of similar worldly interests. Goliath has always been beating at our doors.

Bolt’d know this. If he wasn’t blinded to our situation by those very key words in his admission ‘I am not a Christian’… once he says that I suspect his thoughts on leadership are deeply problematic for us, and that he’s more interested in conscripting us to fight his own battles… but then, he says such nice things about us; here’s some more:

In fact, Christianity produce better citizens in many ways.

Surveys show Christians are more inclined to volunteer, donate and keep families together.

So what do the enemies of Christianity wish to achieve by smearing, silencing and destroying this civilising faith? What would they replace it with?

With the atheism that preaches every man for himself? With Islam?

Or with the green faith that has not inspired a single hospital, hospice, school, or even soup kitchen?

Yet the persecution is starting. Are the churches ready?

How could we refuse the insights of such a generous and prescient ally?

Bolt is pretty keen to put himself at the head of the charge; on the frontline, to position himself as an exemplary David, facing the Goliath that is ‘aggressive secularism’ in Australia. Only this David doesn’t believe God has anything to do with the fight… He crafts quite the narrative, linking together a string of stories that do demonstrate a real sense that those advocating Christianity in the public sphere — particularly those fighting the culture wars with him — face an uphill battle. Then he digs the boot in to the ‘weakness’ of the church. We’re kinda to blame for the predicament we find ourselves in if we don’t step up to fight the way he wants us to (this is an odd sort of victim blaming considering Bolt fundamentally misunderstands the essence of a religion that involves a crucified king).

No wonder, when the weaker churches cower before the persecution.

Last week, some even licked the boots of the anti-Christian ABC when it launched yet another attack, smearing churches as the haven of wife-beaters.

This wannabee David wants to take on this secular Goliath for us, but has no sense that God works not through a ‘theology of glory’ but through weakness; through crucifixion. This ‘David’ is no ‘David’ at all. He’s a Saul, looking for other Sauls, not for sons of David. And certainly not the Son of David who was crucified; who tells us what leadership looks like when we’re facing our own Goliaths. The problem is, when it came to defeating Goliath, Saul was lacking. And for us Christians, there’s a force standing behind Goliath, the triumvirate of sin, death, and Satan, and we know those enemies were also defeated by weakness; by the ‘son of David’ being nailed to a cross.

You know, the thing about crucifixion is it looks and feels a lot like persecution. And we Christians should be careful not to take our marching orders from a bloke who doesn’t understand the fundamentals of our religious beliefs, but likes the fruit our enacted beliefs produce. Cause there’s a good chance he’ll miss the point. We Christians should be careful who we appoint as our champion to face Goliath; if there’s a sense he might look more like Saul, than like David. Remember that story? Let’s jump back into the Old Testament narrative; one that informs the story of Jesus, and so informs us as Christians as we think about staring down ‘enemies’… take this narrative (including Jesus) out of the picture and you get a very wonky and worldly picture of leadership (and Bolt has no place for this narrative).

Israel had settled in the promised land. They decided — against what God had commanded — that they wanted a ‘king like the other nations’ — a strong and mighty leader. They — against what God had commanded — looked for a big and strong leader who’d fight well for them. God gave them what they asked for; not because it was going to be good for them, but to show them what happens when we take our lead from people who don’t believe in the power of God to save. God had been delivering them from their enemies over and over again; but their inability to follow his lead, and to trust in him, saw them spiral into a bunch of bad decisions (read the book of Judges). Picking Saul was the culmination of these bad decisions. Samuel the prophet gets a bit upset at Israel because they keep asking for a ‘king like the nations’; and here’s what God says:

And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
— 1 Samuel 8:7-9

They end up with Saul, son of Kish. Who is described in the sort of terms we might look for in a leader.

Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else. — 1 Samuel 9:2

Things look pretty good for a while. Saul sure is mighty. But he starts to believe his own press; he reckons its his strength that Israel needs; he stops listening to God (he’s a bit of a metaphor for Israel), and God turns his back on Saul and instead picks a king after his own heart. When Samuel speaks to rebuke Saul, he says:

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” — 1 Samuel 13:13-14

He goes out and following God’s commands, picks a leader quite different to the sort the nations might choose; and the sort Israel might jump in to follow. He picks the runt of the litter. When Samuel goes to find this new king, the one God chooses to replace ‘the king like the nations’, he goes to Jesse’s farm and there’s this line up of tall strong sons to choose from… and God chooses the puny David. He has this exchange with Samuel, as Samuel looks at Jesse’s big, strong, warrior son, Eliab.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” — 1 Samuel 16:7

David turns out to be pretty mighty — as a weapon in God’s hands — he takes a sling and takes down the giant that Saul, Eliab, and all the warriors of Israel, were unable to defeat.

See, the thing about Bolt in his cultural crusade, in his desire for strong leaders; cultural crusaders from within the church; the thing is, Bolt is not well placed to pick the sort of leaders we might need. Bolt is looking at the world from outside God’s story. Bolt is going to pick an Eliab, or a Saul, not a David.

The sort of champion God requires is not a strong, worldly, leader. It’s not the Andrew Bolts of this world we should be pinning our hopes on; or the people Bolt would have us stand behind… those who respond to secular Goliaths with equally strong and robust arguments. We don’t need a baptised Goliath to take down Goliath.

We need leaders who take their lead from the ultimate king after God’s own heart… our ultimate leader. The one from the line of David.

Bolt pays lip service to some of the teachings of Jesus in his call to arms; he says, of the threat of Christianity to the Secular Goliath: “Is it that stuff about loving your neighbour? Or that instruction to respect the dignity of every human life that makes Christians the enemy of totalitarians?” It’s that stuff that makes Christianity dangerous and subversive, certainly, but there’s a bit that makes Christianity a danger to people like Bolt; a double edged sword that cuts both sides of the culture war. It’s the bit about loving our enemies. It’s the bit about taking up our cross; about praying for those who persecute you; about living at peace and seeking the good of those who seek our destruction because we know that ultimately this is how God works. It’s the bit where we follow leaders who follow the example and teaching of Jesus, the son of David, the king truly ‘after God’s own heart’

Jesus predicts persecution for his followers; in fact, it comes with the territory. Here’s a couple of things our great leader says that should shape how we face up to those who look like Goliaths, but who have actually, in the scheme of things, been defeated already by the victory of Jesus on the cross, and the security promised by his resurrection. It’s in these moments of persecution that the Gospel is truly on display; as we faithfully proclaim it. And this is what Christian leadership looks like; trusting, following, and proclaiming Jesus when our feet are in the fire.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” — Matthew 10:16-20

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “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

If, like Bolt, you don’t believe this stuff Jesus promises about what he achieves in his death and resurrection, you’re going to fundamentally miss the point of Christian leadership, and you’ll end up offering terrible and destructive advice to the church in order to co-opt us into some battle that is not our own; a battle for life in this world where we forfeit our soul.

If, though, you believe the words of Jesus, and follow his lead, then persecution is opportunity; it is where God speaks and the nature of his life-giving kingdom is on display. It’s where the character built by loving our enemies is forged and displayed. It’s where the fruits of the Gospel that bolt so admires comes from.

That’s the leadership the church needs; it’s the leadership the world needs too. Not Bolt’s leadership. Not the culture wars. We need Davids. Not Sauls. Leaders who trust that God is king; not those who want kings like the nations.

Don’t Panic: The sky is not falling in in Victoria; it already fell and Jesus is both Lord and king

The last thing we Christians need right now is ‘think pieces’ making us afraid of our world.

Big Splash Rubber Duckie

Sometimes when my kids are playing in the bath I get their rubber ducks, hold them high above their heads, and pelt them down into the bathtub. It’s like the sky is falling in. It creates massive shock waves in the tiny bath.

The kids laugh. They rejoice. They know a falling rubber duck presents no real danger, and the splashes, which might cause temporary pain if the soap gets in their eyes, aren’t permanent and are part of the game.

Smarter people than I are deeply concerned about what’s happening in Victoria, especially those who live there like Murray Campbell and Michael Bird.

Writing for the Gospel Coalition (in a piece originally from his blog) titled Victoria Prepares to Pull the Plug on Religious Freedom, Murray Campbell says:

Schools, Churches, Synagogues, Temples, and hundreds of organisations, will be required to pass a test, demonstrating to the Government that advertised positions inherently require an employee to affirm the beliefs and practices of that institution. The tribunal will then have authority to decide what is religious and what is not, and which roles require a person to hold to the beliefs of the organisation and not; a pontifex maximus for Victoria!

Soon there will be all manner of religious organisations lining up outside a brick Government building, waiting to prove that their employees ought to be on the same page as their school or charity.

Yes, I know, all this sounds like one crazy dream built on an evening of Roquefort and Sauternes, or perhaps the plot line for a whacky comedy. But no, this is real and it is serious.

Michael Bird wrote a piece whose heading I barely comprehend, but which sounds bad, titled The Secularized Erastianism of the Daniel Andrews Government in Victoria (I do like it a lot, and think he’s right in his reading of the culture and the implications, and the systemic problems with a decision like this). I think these guys are reading what is going on well; and pointing out some troubling implications that go way beyond Christianity; but there’s potential that a whole lot of us are going to read about how bad the world is getting for Christians and respond in a totally natural and understandable way: panic.

I read these, and my first response is to want to head for the hills; to start some sort of monastic order till it all blows over or collapses, as it inevitably will, under the weight of its own over-reach.

My second response, one that I believe has better perspective to it; is not to worry, but to steel myself (and perhaps  others) to endure what’s coming…

I’m just not that concerned about Daniel Andrews, not because I don’t live in Victoria (I think they’ll permeate), but because Jesus is king and God is sovereign.

Look, I’m sure there’s an insidious anti-religion, even anti-Christian, agenda playing out in Victoria, I don’t want to downplay that. I think we should take some advice from the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy though. Always take a towel and then, more importantly: Don’t Panic!

If I was going to target religious freedom, this isn’t really the way I’d do it. It will be incredibly hard for anyone accusing the church of discrimination to prove it. This is a blunt instrument if it is setting out to damage the church. Blunt instruments hurt. Sure. And it appears we can choose to let ’em hit us, or we can choose to help ’em sharpen their swords. Which sounds like cause to sound the alert and head to panic stations.

But I’m not so sure. I’m sticking with the “Don’t Panic” option.

Firstly because the laws are dumb.

It’s so bland and will ultimately be ineffective unless employers commit themselves to a purely objective process of hiring staff; which has not been the case for any job I’ve applied for… In the same way that marriage celebrants who choose to marry only heterosexual couples will be able to say something like “I chose not to use my time for that” or “I did not think the marriage would last so exercised my discretion” or any number of things in the real world that are capable of being true and legal (I mean, I’d just say “this person didn’t seem a good fit for our organisational culture”). Plus, the employment market at the moment is more competitive than ever. People advertising employment positions are inundated with applications they never look at, let alone interview. Is it really going to be that hard just to maintain the status quo? I don’t think so.

Secondly, because we’d probably be dumb not to abide by them. Firstly, why would you do anything but hire the right person for the job anyway? Which in a Christian organisation probably will mean sharing the ethos and goals of the organisation? But there’s also a good case for hiring non-Christians some times. I’m not sure I’d bother with any of these ‘technically true’ workarounds. If your Christian culture within your organisation is strong; why wouldn’t you hire non-Christians? We use non-Christian contractors all the time to do our electrical work, and manage our printing, and all sorts of day to day operational issues.

Creek Road South Bank, where I’m the pastor, meets in a theatre at the Queensland Theatre Company. As part of our hire arrangement we’re provided two (rotating and rostered, but regular) QTC staff every week. We’ve built great relationships with these staff, one of whom interacts with all our newcomers in the course of serving them at the bar after the service, and I’ve not doubt they’ve heard the Gospel as a result.

This whole thing seems a pretty convoluted way to take down the church (but is definitely part of a broader secularist agenda, don’t hear me denying that). Honestly, we’re complaining publicly at being marginalised by some sort of worldly power. We seem so afraid; in part, we seem afraid of losing our privileged position in society.

Where is our confidence? And when we wring our hands and complain what does that say about where we put our confidence?

Are we really afraid of Daniel Andrews? Are we really, in a broader sense, afraid of gay marriage or Australian society or any worldly agenda? Is your confidence so caught up in the things of this world?

Don’t panic!

No doubt this decision in Victoria will inflict bad stuff on some people, like all kingdoms other than the kingdom of God ultimately will. It’s also terribly undemocratic in a profound sense. But what do we communicate when we’re wringing our hands, running around thinking the sky is falling. What account of the world and our place in it are we believing?

The sky has already fallen — it’s been ripped open, but that happened in our favour. It happens when Jesus is baptised, and the sky is violently torn apart.

“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” — Mark 1:9-11

This is a big tearing of the sky. The world as we humans know it falls apart here. THE WORD OF GOD THAT SPOKE THE UNIVERSE INTO EXISTENCE BECAME A MAN. THE SON OF GOD, A PERSON OF THE TRIUNE GOD, STEPPED INTO THE STORY OF HUMAN HISTORY AND RE-WROTE IT.

I capitalise this because we’re worried about a piddling little thing like the Premier of the State of Victoria; not exactly a global superpower. Who might, if he feels particularly capricious, be responsible for some financial pain or imprisonment. This little story doesn’t even pale in comparison with the Christian story, he’s not even an impressive villain. Murray Campbell draws comparisons between Vladimir Putin, then Julius Caesar’s campaign into Gaul, and Henry VIII proclaiming himself head of the church, with this new legislation. But Andrews is so far off the radar when it comes to real, significant, villainy that he’s almost a pantomime villain; but he doesn’t even fit that bill. He’s a democratically elected leader in a small state, in a small country, serving up piddling consequences for disobeying stupid laws. Christians were killed, and are still killed, for much smaller ‘crimes’ than failing to employ non-Christians in their state-subsidised institutions.

We’re worried the sky is falling on us when the one who is ultimately opposed to us, the real villain, has already fallen and we’re just riding out the shock waves on a boat we should know will hold us. The cross beat’s Noah’s ark as a vessel for salvation, and the judgment we’re facing is not a divine flood, but a man made wave, the sort you make when you throw your rubber duck into the bathtub for your kids. It’ll only hurt us if we think we’re puny ants or something, not people caught up in the hands of THE GOD WHO HOLDS THE ENTIRE COSMOS TOGETHER. Sorry. Getting shouty again.

See, there is a real villain. And Jesus beat him.

When Jesus sent out 70 people into the world in Luke’s Gospel and they returned amazed by what they’d done in service to him, he said:

“He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” — Luke 10:18-20

This victory is secured at the Cross. John records Jesus pointing forward to the events of the cross. The prince of this world is the real villain. And he dies.

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. — John 12:31-33

This moment is the second time Mark records the sky tears open. Mark records God reaching down to rip the temple curtain in half from top to bottom; God won’t be containing his presence to a little room in the Temple anymore.

“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” — Mark 15:37-39

The fate of villains in this story is secure; because the sky fell. The fabric of the world as we know it was ripped as Jesus entered the world, and the ripping open of that order was completed and this recognised symbolically as the curtain tore. In Narnian terms, Aslan is on the move. Everything has changed. And we’re worried about a Premier and his minions?

Have you ever stopped to think about how much of what we read in the New Testament is written from prison? And how much of the Old Testament is written or compiled by a nation in exile, essentially a form or prison and slavery? And we’re meant to be afraid? We read think pieces online written from the comfort of the cafe or the couch. In a democratic west. Where our ministers are paid in a system, built by the government, to be generous to them, and our churches receive beneficial tax arrangements as well…

Consistently, in the Gospels and then throughout the New Testament (eg Colossians 2:13-15, 1 Peter 4, the entire book of Revelation), we’re told about what’s coming from the ‘rulers of our age’ while being pointed to this ultimate victory. The Cross.  Where the ruler of this age, Satan, via the rulers of this age (the government), thought he’d managed to kill off God; but where he actually his own death warrant.

Christians don’t need more think pieces telling us to be afraid. It’s not us who should be afraid, ultimately it’s Daniel Andrews and others who want to side with the loser of the cosmic battle and have the sky land on them. See, Jesus himself says the government will put us on trial…

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. — Matthew 10:16-20

But really, ultimately, just like at the trial of Jesus it’s not Jesus who is really on trial IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER. Even at that moment. It’s the people putting him on trial. And that should give us pause; and confidence, whether we’re writing think-pieces or just living in the world.

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. — Matthew 10:24-28

Jesus has already won the greater battle. This sort of suffering at the hands of the authorities or worldly powers lashing out cause they’ve lost isn’t a sort of optional extra for those of us who want to follow a crucified king. It’s mandated. You’re in the bathtub. You’re not an ant. Ride out the waves. The sky has fallen. Jesus has won.

Don’t panic (unless you’re on team Daniel Andrews, or team Satan).

Rejoice and be glad.

The persecution complex: for ‘exiled’ Christians freedom from persecution is a want, not a need

There’s a chorus of voices — Christian voices — standing at the margins of the public square, and sometimes even getting into it — clamouring for one thing. The one thing we can agree on as Christians, and that we can agree on even with our Islamic, Jewish, or Buddhist neighbours… what do we want? Freedom of religion. When do we want it? Always.

But is this really something we need? Is it self-evidently a good thing, because it makes our lives better, because it unfetters the Gospel message, and allows us to love our neighbours well? Is religious freedom — freedom from persecution — an ultimate good, or is it just a good thing that we want? And how much of that ‘wanting’ is self-interest? How much of it is genuinely motivated by love for others — be they Christian brothers and sisters, or our Islamic neighbours?

Religious persecution sucks. And there’s certainly no place for Christians to be persecutors — though we have been, historically, and continue to be in certain pockets of the world — even persecuting each other. But should we be fighting for religious freedom, or is religious freedom (historically) a good bi-product of a thing that we actually fight for — the Lordship of Jesus.

A bigger question I think is how coherent it is to actually push for religious freedom in a culture where the dominant religious position — a sort of idolatrous secularism that enshrines a bunch of new gods — practices its religion by opposing and dismembering all the others. Sure, you can be religious, it says, so long as your religion conforms to our new easy-going, inoffensive, set of beliefs and so long as you don’t call into question the central tenets of individual freedom and identity construction — around like sexuality, gender, and the pursuit of happiness by whatever means possible. You can be religious so long as you chuck your core beliefs in and replace them with ours. Keep the trappings, the pomp, the ceremony, the rituals… but empty them of meaning and make them signify some other thing…

This is the religion of our culture. And if we’re to be consistent, affording its adherents and priestly caste the right to practice will ultimately destroy us, or them.

A recent post from elsewhere confronted people like me who might argue for the ‘romantic view of persecution’ — that persecution is actually good for us, posed these questions:

But I wonder if this view is in danger of so magnifying God’s sovereignty over history (and of persecution), that it ignores our responsibility to love our neighbour: wouldn’t such love include protecting our neighbour from harms such as persecution? … Now we Christians might feel ok about our basic freedoms gradually being reduced (at least in theory!): but what about our non-Christian neighbour: how might they fare in an environment where their basic freedoms of conscience, association, and speech, are rolled back?

But what if persecution is actually fundamental to our religious practice — our view of the world? What if the lens we’re to look through to assess the world and our experiences in it is the Cross, not some sort of worldly form of culture building or moral framework? What if the Cross is our moral framework? What if loving our non-Christian neighbour — especially potential victims of persecution — means standing with them and bearing the cost, not fighting to occupy a position of power and influence in worldly ways? What if the cross is actually where we start when defining neighbour-love? It was for John. It so defined his understanding of love, and of God’s love, that it became the paradigm for all acts of love in God’s name…

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

A quick reminder of the Gospel

The heart of the Gospel is the persecuted, crucified, king. Jesus. We’re called to take up our cross and follow him. 

The power of God triumphs over worldly power and authority in the most unlikely way — through weakness, through persecution, through the sacrificial death of the king. Loving our neighbours — Christian, Australian, or global — will always look like us being like Jesus to them, and for them. This is how we know what love is. This, too, is how they know that we are Jesus’ disciples, that we have love for one another (John 13:35), and we’re not just sent to love our brothers and sisters the way Jesus does, but sent into the world to be like Jesus (John 20:21)… There’s a deeper richness in what John says in his first letter in these verses, but just note the links here between Jesus, the testimony of Jesus, the love of God, our knowledge of that love, and its implications…

And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love… In this world we are like Jesus…We love because he first loved us…” — 1 John 4:15-16, 17, 19

Every time John talks about love he has the character of God in view — “God is love” — and not in an abstract way, but the character and love of God we see on display at the cross. This is what love is. This is what loving our neighbour looks like. If you want to love your neighbour — and want them to know that your love is an echo of God’s love — then this love is always connected to the example of Jesus, not simply a figuring out what people think is good for them… what they think they need.

God is love. He’s also power. And the path to true freedom. And love, power, and the path to freedom are all on display at the Cross. Anything else is counterfeit, or some sort of shadow reality pointing to the ultimate. If you want to see freedom, power, and love as God does — look at the world through the lens of the cross. If you want to be powerful. If you want real freedom. It’s found in the Gospel, not some other picture.

The Gospel is the power of God that brings salvation (Romans 1:16), the world thinks the Cross, and the view it provides of God, is weakness and folly but it is the power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-25), and it is the pattern of life and witness we’re to adopt. Weakness. Being crushed, afflicted, destroyed. This is the picture of Christian life and love; of power and victory. Our victory procession looks like being the ‘scum of the earth, the garbage of the world’ (1 Corinthians 4:11-13). But we don’t really believe that any more. We’ve been conditioned by too many years of Christendom, or the comfortable idolatrous worship of morality that looked very Christian. The same man-made religion the Pharisees were condemned for… and now we fight for that idol in the face of our cultures new gods — sexual liberation and the freedom and safety to completely construct one’s identity without being offended. 

It’s like we no longer believe this to be true:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 1 Corinthians 12:9-10

“My power is made perfect in weakness”? Do we believe this?

Tell me again how religious freedom is a fundamental need if we’re really going to love people? This is one of those things that Paul says, that John says, that Jesus says, and that the blood of Christian martyrs through time and space cry out, but we don’t believe it. We live as though real success looks like worldly victory and freedom in this world.

The Christian life is one of meakness and weakness. Sure, we offer temporary freedom from suffering and pain to people — but we do that by taking it on ourselves, or wearing the cost of fighting for it, and these are good things. But they’re wants. Not needs. We’re called to a life of persecution and suffering as we bear the cost of following a crucified king in the world that killed him, and the cost of loving those who are afflicted. Suffering with those who suffer, mourning with those who mourn. The beatitudes are not a funny parody that God made up. They’re no Babylon Bee article. They’re a real pattern; they’re the pattern that Jesus followed. 

Salvation that comes through death and resurrection is the picture of freedom we’re to adopt. Real freedom. And this example is the picture of love we’re to adopt. Anything else offers false hope.  

Until we start believing that God is the source of real power, real freedom, and real love, all we’re offering to our world are shadows and counterfeits. Until we start believing it then every time the world beats us down it’ll feel like a loss, not a victory. We’ll think we’re loving people if we’re offering up some analogy of the world’s view of power, or flourishing, or love… but let’s start with our first principles, about who God is, and who we are, and then with God’s view of the world…

A quick ancient history lesson

John and Paul wrote their gear about the Christian life in a secular-religious world. A world where people were free to have their own god or gods, so long as they first bowed the knee to the real ‘god’ — Caesar. The personification of the ultimate human empire. The image of human might and power. At least the Caesars didn’t pretend to be ‘secular’, they just declared themselves divine. As Rome conquered they absorbed the gods of other cultures into their pantheon, but all under the ‘secular’/state agenda. Until they got to Israel… The Jews kicked up such a stink about the idea of bowing to Caesar they were given a special dispensation so long as they prayed for Caesar, rather than too Caesar. Judaism was a ‘religio licita’ (a legal religion) so long as the Jews acknowledged Caesar as the real king, the real power. A dynamic on display in the trial and execution of Jesus.

John and Paul wrote all this stuff about weakness and power, about what we need to flourish, not just nice things we want, about what love for our neighbour really looks like amidst persecution. Not just soft persecution. The persecution that involved the execution of Jesus, and others, for claiming that Caesar was not really powerful; that the emperor had no clothes. This is what we’re called to testify to — not to win religious freedom, but to call out idolatry and its destruction, even in its secular form. At our cost. This is what neighbour love looks like. Not just laying down our possessions for those who are oppressed and marginalised, but being prepared to lay down our lives in defiance of other religious agendas.

The secular landscape — the public square — is not neutral. It is not a platform where natural law arguments win out. It’s a landscape controlled by beastly powers who want to keep overcoming the lamb. Because they’re ruled by fear. They’re also not really in control. Their destinies are assured by the one who is — so are ours.

John writes another book, or letter, into this political reality. Revelation. Oft-misunderstood. His apocalyptic vision presents the slain and resurrected lamb as the one who is really in control — even as he dies — and the beastly powers as what they are; losers with a godless, crossless, view of the world, of power, and of love. Real witness, real love, well, it looks like the same testimony he calls Jesus’ followers to in his Gospel, and his letters, being faithful witnesses who live like Jesus, at cost. The letter starts with seven churches who he calls to be faithful witnesses, he calls them not to get sucked into beastly, worldly, visions of power — the same temptation that lured Adam and Eve, and that Jesus rejected in the wilderness — he calls them to hold on to Jesus… and by chapter 11, only two are standing. Two lampstands. Two faithful witnesses, who ultimately share their king’s fate. First death. Then resurrection.

“Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city — which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” — Revelation 11:7-12

This is what faces us when we faithfully walk into the secular public square. It’s not secular and neutral; its hostile and idolatrous. Its beastly. The world is hostile, as John puts it in 1 John (and Jesus puts it in the Gospel), it’ll hate us because it hates Jesus, it’ll hate us because its full of people ‘secular’ types who, though they seem nice seem to want good things, and seem to be rational, are children of the Devil (1 John 3); people who’ve grabbed onto the temptation of worldly power, not to the Cross. This seems harsh, and perhaps it is, but John says there’s no middle ground. No neutral ground. The public square is hostile; the gatekeepers are against us. Without the lens of the cross — God’s way of seeing the world — we have the distorted lens handed to us in the first chapters of the Bible, by the serpent, so we get love, power, and ‘good’ wrong. The world doesn’t just reject Jesus, but his messengers.

A quick theological ‘positioning’ primer

We keep making the mistake of not seeing love the way God sees it, or ourselves the way the world sees us (and the way God calls us). This is not a ‘romantic’ notion; but the gritty reality. We are exiles. Strangers. Followers of a king the world rejected. Destined for the same scummy procession, rubbish in the world’s eyes but faithful and beloved by God.

Everybody worships. There is no real ‘secular’ we’re not just facing flesh and blood when we put forward a position but people and cultures who have been shaped by generations of rejection of God. In John’s apocalyptic, vivid, technicolour view of the world the beastly world, that views power the way the Caesars did, wants us dead. They don’t like the threat we pose to unfettered freedom to pursue your own identity. They don’t like a view of victory that involves an ugly cross. It’s a religion that can’t tolerate the freedom of other religions unless it dismembers them and leaves converts with a carcass to pick over or stitch on, Frankenstein-like, to their new religious identity.

This apocalyptic vision has to change the way we engage with the world. It has to change what we think love looks like, or needs, or freedom, look like. Love looks like Jesus. People need real freedom from seeing the world wrong. People need freedom from death and judgment. People need Jesus, not freedom to find their identity in some cobbled together god who doesn’t challenge the secular ‘reality’…

Not only do we seem not to believe weakness is real power, we seem to believe the world is our friend. A friend who can be cajoled and persuaded with good natural arguments or as we play the power game, lobbying for such goods as ‘religious freedom’ for everybody but the secular overlords. Rome had something like that… the religio licita. It’s not enough for us simply to want the secular world not to hurt us. To buy our freedom simply by seeking the welfare of the city or empire on its terms alone… We really do want a revolution, the revolution of hearts and minds as they find real freedom and power in the Gospel. In the blood of Jesus.

A quick look at implications

Religious freedom is a luxury. A luxury won, in part, through the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices of Christians throughout the ages, I’m not suggesting we throw it away cheaply; I’m suggesting we rediscover the truths that underpin it. That we rediscover the radical sort of love for our neighbours that goes far beyond simply winning them the right to freedom of speech, but that comes from speaking freely to them, whatever false picture of god or power they have. I’m suggesting we stop throwing our lot in behind counterfeit gods like ‘freedom’ and start exercising the freedom that comes from knowing God really does love us, and he really is powerful, and real love and power is on display in the crushing victory of the cross — which looks like a crushing defeat. If we stick with this message rather than playing worldly games using worldly tools (like lobbying, using natural law arguments, or using force) then we avoid a bunch of issues, the sort of issues that arise when we’re inconsistent, the sort of issues that have seen Christians turn the sword against one another, or against others, the sort of issues that undermine our witness. We also make sure we’re being rejected for the right thing, for our core business — we’re not called to be hated because we’re different, Jesus says the world will hate us because of him.

We can’t actually call for ‘religious freedom’ and expect that it won’t lead to persecution because aggressive secularism is a religion, a beastly religion that co-opts power to destroy all other gods and assimilate people from all other faiths. I’m suggesting that we should work harder at believing the world isn’t going to love us when we proclaim Jesus, that the secular world is not neutral but opposed to us because it has a different view of power and freedom, and that weakness and apparent defeat is the norm — and what God works through our humble sacrifice offered in love for others.

This also gives us clarity when it comes to how we relate to governments. This is tricky, they’re a means of God’s grace to us, a means by which law and order happens, we’re told to pray for them, to live at peace with them, and to obey them. But the government these instructions specifically, originally, refer to is the government that executed Jesus. Rome. Paul’s approach to the representatives of this government in Acts presumably line up with what he tells us to do in Romans 13. And what does he do in Romans? He appeals to Caesar, he wants to get to Rome to make some sort of case for his approach to life (and we get a hint that the Gospel makes it into Caesar’s household in Philippians), and en route to Rome he preaches the Gospel to its representatives… hoping to convert them. Ultimately this is what happens to the empire… the Gospel is lived and preached and becomes too compelling to ignore (or genuinely converts the emperor, depending on your take on history). It’s ultimately this change, via the testimony of the Gospel — God’s power through weakness — and the love for those who are oppressed and marginalised by the beastly powers of the world that brings freedom of religion for people in the west. According to history, and the development of good things we like, like religious freedom and freedom from persecution, the lived and spoken demonstration of God’s love — the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed — is the best way to oppose oppression and horrible, harmful, uses of power, the best way to love our neighbours, and the best way to secure religious freedom for those who disagree with us. Tolerance of alternative religious beliefs is not widely practiced outside the west (nor is it something Christians were/are all that good at). It’s how God works.

This puts our expectations more in line with the Gospel, history, our theology and the experience of persecuted Christians in the minority world. Christians who face physical persecution along with limitations in what they can say or do… It leaves us resting in our weakness, and relying on God’s ultimate victory being on display in death and resurrection.