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: Everyone has a ‘religious’ agenda, even the secularists

There is always an agenda.

Every person has one. Every group. Every ideology. Mostly every person. But sometimes we can cobble together around an object of common love and push a shared agenda. Usually in doing that there’s a bunch of compromise. So Catholics Anglicans, and even Muslims can come together for certain moral causes while sharing very different — fundamentally different — reasons for doing so. And the union at that point is only as good as the sharing of ‘the agenda’…

This week the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales is in the news because they appear to be worried about ‘the homosexual agenda’ (at least that’s how the story frames it, and they can frame it that way because we Presbyterians used the words “the homosexual agenda”). The lede of this story proclaims:

“Sydney’s most expensive private school has asked the Presbyterian Church for advice on what the church describes as the “homosexual agenda”, in the event that a same-sex couple wanted to enrol their child at the school.”

When I hear the words “the homosexual agenda,” I picture a secret cabal that programs the universal homosexual response to every issue with the end goal of making everybody gay; but I fear the setters of the “gay agenda” may sometimes be as at odds with members of the gay community as the Australian Christian Lobby are with some Christians; and I’d rather listen to what people are asking for and figure out why than simply label every issue someone raises as part of a bigger agenda (though I admit things almost always are part of some bigger agenda).

As an aside, before the story about Scots falls too far into the background — I find it profound that a school that charges more than $30,000 a year is more worried about homosexuality than greed, or the idolatry of education…

I’ve always found it odd when Christians speak of a ‘gay agenda’ — not because I don’t think there are groups out there who have united around a common cause — but because it seems an easy way to not listen to people, or to dismiss a ‘counter-agenda’ simply on the basis of an ad hominem style “well, we know they are simply representing their own interest” dismissal. There are groups like GLAAD and Australian Marriage Equality who are out there trying to further ‘an’ agenda, just as there’s a National LGBTI Health Alliance. These groups definitely advocate particular ‘agendas’ for the sake of their community. And probably with good reason. I’m not sure we can ever treat agendas as totally homogenous (even for individuals, because we often have agendas that compete for our time and attention, and with each other in contradictory ways).

We seem to use ‘agenda’ as a pejorative — a reason not to listen — especially if it competes with our own agenda (though because an agenda is a thing we treat as a negative we always want to pretend we are unbiased, either with no agenda or an agenda purely for the common good). That a position is put forward by people with ‘agendas’ is an odd reason to push back rather than listen. And an even worse reason to exclude their position from a place in the metaphorical ‘public table’… That we disagree with an agenda is also not a great reason to exclude it from this public table unless we can show it isn’t for the common good, or rather, that it causes harm. So. For example. We get enough people behind agendas that rule out murder or other common objects that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ — and that would rule out pro-murder agenda should it ever appear on the scene. And that’s good. It’s also why the worst thing you can do to an alternative agenda is suggest that it is actually harmful (and that’s the strategy people are adopting over and over again to silence the church).

Perhaps the ‘homosexual agenda’ is simply an attempt by a community within our civil society to provide a better life for homosexual people according to a particular vision of what it looks like for people to thrive or flourish. It’s not nefarious or secret. Even if there are people setting some sort of agenda in meetings somewhere. It’s consistent with a view of the world and the human person and what ‘good’ is. And so agendas aren’t just to be dismissed out of hand because we have a different view. We have to work out how to live at peace with one another. There’s another constructive reason I think we should listen to people that I’ll outline below that lines up with our ‘Christian agenda’… Agendas are everywhere. But to speak of ‘agendas’ as though they’re the product of some cabal somewhere rather than just a product of our humanity is odd, and an exercise in ‘othering’ rather than listening. We all have agendas. There’s a homosexual agenda to provide better health and happiness for homosexual people (including to push for marriage/social inclusion/safety for LGBTIQA people). There’s also a ‘queer’ agenda (articulated quite directly in various places by Roz Ward from Safe Schools) that would like sexual fluidity to be the norm; for us all to be queer, which rather undermines the idea that to be queer is to be different; it is possible that this agenda might say some interesting and valuable things that we should listen to in order to understand the queer community too…

We can’t be naive about agendas that are operating around us. But nor is an ‘agenda’ in and of itself a bad thing, and a secular society probably has the responsibility to accommodate as many competing and conflicting agendas as possible.

Our agendas are set by our worship

Let’s try replacing the idea of an agenda with the idea of all of us being homo liturgicus — creatures who worship.

Let’s assume that each of us worships something, and that this object of worship orients our hearts, minds, and lives. That it captures our imaginations and our desires. Let’s assume our worship supplies our agenda. Whoever we are. We’re pushed out into the world with an ‘agenda’ — a picture of human flourishing; first for ourselves, as worshippers, but then for others, as image bearers of our objects of worship who are living breathing ambassadors of our chosen deity. Let’s also assume that most of us think love for other things is ordered by our love for the thing we love ultimately. That all of us order our love, and understand love, based on this object of worship. So the thing that is first in my heart defines not just how I love other things or people in my life but what I think love looks like when I direct it to them. If I love money above all else, then that frames how I treat money, but it also means I show love for others by giving them money, or not taking money from them unfairly. If I love my sexuality above all else, if my fundamental desire is for sex and freedom to pursue sex and identity where I see fit, then the way I love others involves either sex (drawing them in to a shared act of worship) or fighting for their sexual freedom. That’s the gay agenda. Or one of them.

Here’s how James K.A Smith puts it in You Are What You Love:

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere.

To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship. And worship isn’t optional. Even a writer like David Foster Wallace, who had no theological agenda, recognized that to be human is to worship.

 

Every idol has an agenda. There is no space that contains people that is a ‘worship free’ zone. Every time we gather at a table with others, each person’s agenda, in some way, is driven by whatever they view as ‘ultimate’ — the ultimate picture of the ideal person, the ideal community, the ideal shared way of life.

Truly ‘secular’ space isn’t freed from religion and thus ‘neutral’ — it allows space for these competing agendas, and works toward a ‘common’ good. Often these agendas will have very different visions of good — but sometimes they’ll dovetail; like in the case of Roz Ward whose (self acknowledged) Marxist agenda saw her views align with others in the LGBTIQA community, and educators, who want to make schools safer for LGBTIQA students. But though Ward is a member of the LGBTIQA community her particular Marxist/Queer agenda is at odds with other members of the ‘T’ community like Catherine McGregor, who says she believes strongly that gender being a binary thing is important or she wouldn’t have transitioned… We always line our agendas up with others for convenience, but that allegience will only take us so far if we don’t share a common object of worship (not just love).

We shouldn’t ‘fear’ agendas, or try to silence them simply because our ‘agenda’ may happen to be true, or simply because we believe it leads to good things, and other view. True secularism is about figuring out how competing agendas — competing visions of human flourishing (and personal flourishing) — views including our own — might exist side by side. But we should be prepared, as a society, to discern what agendas involve harm, and that might bring many agendas together, and we should, as Christians, consider how much it is possible for us to share agendas — or platforms — with other idolatrous views in order to respond to a particular idolatrous view as though the harms can be easily ordered simply because some moral visions line up with our own.

 

Why we should listen to, and how we should live alongside, other agendas

It has always interested me that Paul, as a faithful Jew who no doubt loved Deuteronomy 7 and its call to purity from idols, didn’t walk through Athens with a sledgehammer, but with open eyes and ears. And that when he speaks, he speaks in a way that articulates the Gospel as the answer to the imagination and desire of the Athenians, and the Athenian Agenda. I think this is because he’s carrying out the Christian agenda — which is no less than the Deuteronomic agenda to topple idols. But the thing that topples idols is a toppling of stone hearts formed by the worship stone idols, that comes from the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26), who comes via Jesus. Make no mistake. Paul topples the idols of Athens in the hearts of those who turn to God. But he’s happy not to topple them for anyone else. He’s happy to be another voice in the marketplace of ideas and in the courtroom that decides which gods have legitimacy — the areopagus.

Our agenda, as Christians, is clear. It’s to worship God, and in doing so, to bear his image. To glorify him. And the result of doing that faithfully looks, I think, a lot like what we are re-created to do as Christians. Our new cultural mandate. The Great Commission. This sets the agenda for us.

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

We’re Great Commission people; sent out into a world full of worshippers who are being formed into the image of their idols. Discipled by counter-liturgies. Pursuing counter-agendas.

One way we fulfil the great commission is, I think, by listening well to the world we live in and seeing the universal human desires at the heart of people’s agendas — seeing where God’s design is being distorted by idolatry so that we can invite people to rediscover the telos — the purpose and fulfilment — of that desire in having their loves and desires ordered around Jesus. Listening and understanding is also, in itself, an act of love. Its a way that we can show people we care; that we want to understand their wants and needs, and that we want to live at piece not conscript their desires and imaginations in order to force a conversion. Attempting to make people live as though they worship God isn’t our job — and trying to do that is bound to be frustrated anyway given that Romans 1 says people love and worship what they love and worship because God has given their thoughts and desires over to their idolatry.

Instead of dismissing the ‘homosexual agenda’ perhaps we should listen to what objects of common good those pushing that agenda are pushing for — like more safety for kids who don’t fit the norm — but we should also listen for the desire for love, intimacy, and a sense of satisfying identity that people are craving so that we can connect those desires with where God designed them to be ultimately fulfilled. Not in sex. But in an intimate relationship with our creator.

And listening informs our speech. We aren’t called to speak to caricatures, but to people. People who worship. And our message must be one that replaces a false god with the real one; or rather; God does away with these idols via our preaching with what Thomas Chalmers calls The Expulsive Power of a New Affection; a sermon in which he points out our task is not simply to fill an empty space in a person’s heart with a new God, but to replace an old object of worship with a new, better, more complete, God.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…”

This act of ‘encountering the charm’ and the ‘pleasure’ in order to dissipate them means listening well to what is driving other agendas, and observing what they do and don’t deliver; not simply dismissing them. In a secular world it means (so long as we have a place at the table) finding a place at the table for agendas we disagree with even when we believe all such idolatry leads to eternal harm; because we have no tool to fight idolatry but the Gospel. Silencing or dismissing other agendas rather than generously engaging with the people behind them isn’t love. Everyone has an agenda. Maybe we should start being more open about our own, and more worried about who we’re worshipping and what we’re seen to be worshipping if we make morality or natural law our tool for taking down idols — not the Gospel of Jesus.

The persecution complex: Ware the carrot more than the stick

carrot_stick2
Image Credit: Mark Stivers

There’s always an easy way out.

Just bend the knee and the beatings will stop… not only will they stop. You’ll be forgiven.

Not only will you be forgiven, you’ll become a champion for the cause able to help people just like you used to be see the way out.

This is the carrot. This has always been the way. Perhaps because people taking the carrot is the Devil’s ultimate weapon — because it is really people reaching out and grasping the forbidden fruit…

Ware the carrot. Fear the carrot. It is more dangerous than the stick.

There’s always a carrot.

There’s always a way out. Even in extremely sticky situations.

This was true in Daniel.

“Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” — Daniel 3:14-17

It was true in Rome, under Emperor Trajan, who wrote these instructions to Pliny, the governor of one of his provinces who wanted to know how to treat Christians, and people who’d once claimed to be Christian, but walked away.

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

And you know, for Polycarp, a bloke who the empire killed because he wouldn’t renounce Jesus, whose death is described in the aptly named The Martyrdom Of Polycarp.

Some tried to persuade him to walk away from his death at the hands of the empire saying:

“What harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?”

He refused. Over and over again.

“And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as],” Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.”

But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.”

Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;”

Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

This is the goal. Our goal and the worlds. Ours is to believe that Jesus is true, and true to us. Theirs is to persuade us to blaspheme our king and Saviour. Because that is what the serpent has been after since the beginning. And the best way to do that is to offer the carrot.

And, of course, this is exactly what is at play when Satan offers Jesus a carrot, and Jesus ultimately chooses the sticks — the wooden planks of the cross — instead. 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” — Matthew 4:8-10

The world lures us away by offering carrots. The sticks are a distraction to make the carrot more appealing. So that we’ll wander off and join everybody else in their boundless enjoyment of the carrot.

There’s a rabbit warren in Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Cowslip’s Warren, where the rabbits appear to be living in bliss. They’re well fed. By humans. All you can eat carrots. The rabbits don’t realise that they’re being farmed by the people. That they’re food. That’s the people in our world. They’re being kept well fed, they think they’re indulging in the good things they worship, but they are ensnared.

The rabbits in Cowslip’s Warren have no stories to connect them to the past, to explain why people should or shouldn’t enjoy boundless carrots. Just poetry, just revelry in the moment. They need to keep disconnected from history, and from other stories, and from other warrens, in order to believe that what goes on in their warren — where rabbits are snared by their human overlords and disappear from time to time — that this is normal. That it’s just what happens.

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy’s warren and paying his price?” — Watership Down

And the thing the carrot-addled rabbits had forgotten? The words of the ‘Rabbit God’ El-ahrairah.

“All the world will be your enemy prince of a thousand enemies. And when they catch you they will kill you. But first they must catch you. Digger. Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.”

Rabbits were meant to remember the story of El-ahrairah, and his teaching, and run and hide. Made for it. Not to sit and get fat on carrots. Not become story-less.

Watership Down is prophetic really. The lure of the carrot is powerful. Especially when we disconnect ourselves from our past, from history, from stories, from eternity, and start living as though this moment is all there is. Which is exactly what our dominant culture has done. Who needs history? Who needs ‘transcendence’ or anything beyond the here and now? Why wouldn’t we want more carrots?

This is how our culture is destroying the church. Yet we keep worrying about the stick. Stop worrying about the stick.

The stick of persecution might be looming large for Christians in Australia as we read about new laws and new campaigns to silence Christian voices (or sometimes just to stop us being jerks). But there’s always a way out. A carrot, dangling just out of reach. Luring us. Leading us.

The thing is. We aren’t actually rabbits. Jesus is our El-Ahrairah. And our own survival isn’t necessarily our goal. We’re to be nimble  — shrewd and innocent — in the face of persecution, sure. But we’re going to be caught. And offered carrots, and beaten with sticks.  But we’re to endure it, to know that persecution of the body is not a great reason to grab hold of some carrots. And we only ever read these words of Jesus from Matthew 10 in the light of the climax of the story, the cross and resurrection. He tells us (starting with his disciples) this is going to happen, and then he lives it himself. He endures persecution. This is the story that we’re meant to remember that’ll keep us from the offer of carrots.

“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… You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

“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 10:16-18, 22-28

As an aside, lets make sure we’re getting beaten for the right stuff. I’m all for persecution but we don’t have to bring it on ourselves by being idiots — pretending we’re still the ones holding a stick, or grabbing for us, is sure to see us belted harder. Let’s get hit for what Jesus told us to get hit for. The very unpopular Gospel message we preach. Not for having it in for particular subsets of our culture, or the ‘enemies’ we choose to target in a circle of stick wielders that is closing in on us. You know. When we get stories published in newspapers about how we’ve had to officially decide whether to let the kids of gay parents come to our schools… That’s a paddlin’ — but for entirely the wrong reason.

There’s always going to be a stick. The world is always going to come after us because the ‘prince of this world’ is coming after us, and the world.

There’s always a carrot though. An easy way out. And that’s where the insidious part of the trap lies.

If you want to stop the beating you could walk away. And the lure is strong. I’d say the lure is stronger than the stick, and yet, for those of us who won’t walk, we seem more worried about what the stick will do to us than we are about the lure of the culture around us and what it promises those who walk away.

The turkish delight is delicious and our society is always looking for Edmunds.

The world is always so beautiful, in part because it glories and indulges in the good things God has made, using the senses God has given us. It wants to hold all of those things. To grasp. To worship. While ignoring that God who made them.

Maybe it’s time we spent less time worrying about the stick wielders. Maybe we should remember what happened to the White Witch in Narnia is the fate awaiting those wielding the stick, and start worrying about the damage being done by the lure of the carrot. The stick will fall. The blow will land… But even if it hurts, the pain will be temporary for us, and the joy eternal.

 

We don’t just have to grit our teeth and bear the pain. God is good. And we can know his goodness and joy now too. One of our answers here should be to realise that we already have the carrot the world offers, just as Adam and Eve were already ‘like God’ in Genesis 3. We live in the same world, the same pleasures are ours in the good contexts God made for them to be enjoyed in, and while this pleasure will be fleeting and frustrated and won’t deliver everything we want, it should point us to where we are going. If we trust that his plans and designs are good, and build communities where that goodness is evident in the love of his people, then we’ll be less likely to be lured by what the world has to offer. This is part of being the ‘eschatological Christian’ Stephen McAlpine is urging us to be — we know God is good, and we know the carrot he offers is more complete than anything our world can dangle in front of us, even as the world beats us with its paddles. We know that joy now is possible, but it reminds us, as CS Lewis says, of our pilgrim status. That we’re not home yet.

Be like Jesus. Pursue the real carrot.

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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3

Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking that we keep people from the carrot by crying “Don’t hit me” and start crying “hit harder” because the carrot is real. And we want people to believe it.

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.