A political theology (outlined): Or ‘why I’m not advocating Christians say nothing about politics’

Well. I’ve certainly learned my lesson. I will not be posting short posts very much anymore. They take far more time than long ones… I’ve also learned that when you leave things unsaid people will make all sorts of assumptions about what you are saying. So let me clear this up. Because this objection is the one that irks me most. People making this accusation may not be aware that I’ve consistently written about how to participate in our democracy, and spoken out about many issues, from the framework I’m advocating, but this framework does also keep evolving so this post might serve to outline some more of what I’m actually arguing for.

Allow me to introduce you to what is a growing body of work about how Christians engage in the public sphere, as Christians, and a growing conviction that pluralism is part of the picture when it comes to life in a democracy. Then. To clear things up a bit further; in my next post I’ll demonstrate how speaking into the marriage debate (while abstaining from voting in the plebiscite) is possible by actually doing it (again), according to what I believe is a consistent application of this model.

I’ll do another numbered list; with links to posts and short summary statements.

  1. Any ‘political theology’ begins with a theological anthropology. An understanding of what it means to be human (because politics is about being human together). My anthropology is built around the idea that all people are made in the image of God to worship, glorify, and represent him; but that the distorting effect of sin is that we worship idols, represent them, and are conformed into their image. The image of God remains in us so long as we draw breath (because that we live and breathe is part of what distinguishes us from idols); but we work to eradicate it, apart from God, until death when we finally become ‘breathless’ like the things we worship. We are worshippers. This, more than any other thing, is what separates humans from animals and actually underpins all the other differences and distinctives of our humanity (that we tell stories, that we imagine, that we make things, that we love etc).
  2. I believe that being made in the image of God is not a thing we do as individuals; that when God says ‘let us make man in our image’ and then he makes us ‘male and female’ it indicates that image bearing is something we do in community. Here’s a great quote from a journal article by Brendon Benz titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’:

    “Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God…The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation”

    This is a big claim, but I think borne out by Genesis 2 and the declaration that unlike the rest of creation in its completion, ‘it is not good’ for Adam to be alone… This means that image bearing is itself essentially ‘political’ if politics is the ‘organisation of life together’.

  3. Any Christian political theology, and any ‘Christian’ engagement with the public sphere/politics, is built around an underlying conviction that Jesus is Lord, and life following him is life as a member of his kingdom. The Gospel is inherently political in that it creates a kingdom (a polis), and revolves around serving a king.
  4. The Gospel is a political message centred on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion shapes our manner such that living as a citizen of the kingdom of God requires a certain commitment to the message of the crucifixion, and a posture of cruciformity. God’s strength is not found in political clout, but in weakness; in us embodying the Gospel as a community, and this is what it looks like for us to represent God by being conformed into the image of Jesus (this is, essentially, the subject of my masters thesis, with some of point 1)
  5. When I say I’m not interested in contributing to political discussion ‘apart from the Gospel’ as I did in my plebiscite post; I do not, and never have, meant we should speak ‘just the Gospel’ in a sort of emphasis on individual salvation through the cross, or say nothing (I don’t think that’s what the Gospel is, I think salvation is an implication of the Gospel, which instead, is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king, and an invitation to join his kingdom through his victory over sin and death at the cross and in his resurrection, and then to follow his example by the Spirit… Instead, I mean we must ground our positions in the goodness of God revealed in Jesus, and in his Lordship of our lives (and our belief that he is Lord of all and the source of the good, or flourishing, life for all people). When I say ‘apart from the Gospel’ I mean I’m not interested in public Christianity that comes from an anthropology that thinks natural law arguments will be enough to reason people into righteousness, or approaches the secular democracy we live in as though we must only make ‘secular’ arguments. When I say ‘the Gospel’ I include the invitation to turn to Jesus (away from sin), and the implication of not doing that (God’s judgment now — a less good life according to his design for life — and the trajectory towards death, not life, this puts people on).
     
  6. Because the Gospel is political and shapes the way we live in public as citizens of God’s kingdom, and of the place we live as embodied image bearers, there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide; and the modern idea that faith is a private matter does not line up with our understanding of faith in Jesus. The idea that faith is private has reinforced a divide between the sacred and the secular in the minds of our politicians and media, which means that, for example, religious protections will almost certainly be offered to clergy around same sex marriage, but nobody else. One way to keep addressing this is to keep participating in public political debate as Christians not as ‘secular citizens.’ But that means point 4 and 5 are important and essential elements of our contributions.
  7. I believe, as Christians, we have legitimate insight into what the good and flourishing life looks like for our neighbours; but that this is always connected with the good and abundant life secured for us by Jesus; the call to rediscover our humanity as it was made to be through Jesus, and the renovation of our humanity that comes through the indwelling of the Spirit. I believe the goodness of God and his love for us reorders our loves of the things he has made, and it is this reordering that makes the Gospel truly good news for people who have rejected his design and worshipped created things instead. We should speak of that flourishing, but always in connection to its real source, and always as an invitation and an appeal to be recognised as participants in our shared life, as good neighbours.
  8. Our democracy is not Christian, it is secular. The constitution ensures that in a way that is protective for Christians and other religious groups. I believe that for those of us in confessionally reformed churches this presents a challenge because I don’t believe the Westmintser Confession of Faith anticipates this sort of construction when talking about the Civil magistrate (nor do I think it adequately assesses the nature of the state as Paul writes Romans 13). One of Charles Taylor’s insights in A Secular Age that is relevant here is that now all ideas on the ‘good life’ are contested and driven by a question of what place a ‘super-natural’ reality has in decisions about ‘material reality.’ We have to take on board that most of our neighbours have totally different, coherent, and wrong, visions of the good life, arrived at via a worship decision they have made (that God has confirmed in them — Romans 1), not just reason. I believe this means we should adopt a position that sees one of humanity’s chief goods being freedom to rediscover our ‘chief end’ — via freedom to worship — and we should extend that freedom to others (all human identities are constructed around worship). This means pursuing a sort of pluralism, rather than monotheism (trying to act as if everybody is Christian, or not), or polytheism (trying to act as though all views are true and able to be synthesised). This means when it comes to ‘identity politics’ or a ‘politics of recognition’ or a ‘pursuit of authenticity and finding our true selves’ we need to recognise that Jesus provides these things for us, but without Jesus people are left looking for these things elsewhere.
  9. I believe it is increasingly apparent that we Christians are exiles in the secular west, and not running the show (or even close to running the show), and to assume anything that looks like Christendom or that Australia has ‘judeo Christian values’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the Australian narrative apart from the ‘establishment’ story of the colonists/upper class; it misses the egalitarianism at the heart of the Aussie identity and that most people think the church has done more harm than good in Aussie life (especially in the light of the royal commission). I think part of a political theology involves reflecting on our position in society (to use the table metaphor ‘how far from the head we are’). We’re not at the head, we’re close to not even being invited anymore. The census data confirms this trajectory (the McCrindle Research on faith and belief in Australia even more so), and should give us a sense that we need to rethink how we be the church. This means freedom for religion is a luxury, and that our great temptation will be to take the ‘carrot’ of liberalism to avoid the stick. The answer here is perhaps to offer ‘pluralism’ generously to all.
  10. I believe that we aren’t just exiles who are faithful on many things and fighting a battle on sex, but exiles whose imaginations, narratives, practices, loves and lives have already been conscripted by ‘Babylon’ and sexuality is just the last (or only) place we’re resisting. We need to rediscover an urge to be different when it comes to money, the economy, the environment; and rediscover how our anthropology and creation story shape a way of life in the world that is different to the lives lived by those with other stories and visions of the good life. And consistency in these other areas would lend potency to our attempts to be different when it comes to sex and marriage.
  11. I believe faithful theology existed before Luther and the Reformation, and our best guides for a political theology in exile post-christendom comes from pre-christendom (and to some extent from Augustine, who’s ‘early Christendom’ — as in a little after Constantine). The apologies of Tertullian and Justyn Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, those insights from ancient texts about what it looks like to be the church in a hostile world trying to carve out space for ourselves for the good of our neighbours.
  12. One of the implications of this pluralism, and the command to love our neighbours and ‘do unto others’ is not just the idea of reciprocity (that would be ‘treat others as they treat you’) but generosity (‘treat others as you would have them treat you’). We don’t act the way we do because we expect others to respond by treating us the same way; but because we believe it is the right thing to do. I believe this means when it comes to issues like same sex marriage and religious freedom for baker and florists we might have to consider ‘third way’ options like helping Christians in those industries do imaginative things like saying yes to a request for service, especially when it feels like a trap, but refusing to profit; that hospitality of the other becomes our strategy (and a form of ‘turning the other cheek’).
  13. I believe, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby’s strategy and participation in the political process fails several of these points. They fail point 3 both in content and manner. They operate from a different theological anthropology, secondly, they operate from a different political strategy (not cruciformity but the wielding of the power of the Christian constituency) in a way that distorts democracy (I think we should advocate, rather than lobby, and that ‘lobbying’ is inherently coercive and involves attempting to take more than our fair share of the democratic pie), and I believe they’ve bought into an unhelpful understanding of a secular democracy which means they deliberately exclude religious arguments. I believe many of us Christians take our lead on political engagement from the ACL (and thus adopt their political theology), and I respect the people involved, but I believe they are wrong. I believe this model has become the strategy of the official organisations responsible for the ‘no campaign’; and this is part of what sees us forming a broad coalition with other advocates of natural law (including muslim religious leaders).
  14. I believe Christians should participate in our democracy with imagination, that we should not feel bound by the status quo or binary options tabled by people who see politics as a zero sum game of winners and losers. That this is part of pursuing Christian wisdom. I believe part of this will require Christians deciding whether or not their job is to ‘dirty their hands’ by getting into the muck of the political process (and compromise, perhaps joining a party), to keep their hands clean (standing apart from the process and speaking as an objective ‘conscience’), or being busy building ‘political institutions’ that operate apart from the government. Abstaining from the vote on the plebiscite is a form of maintaining clean hands.
  15. I believe participation in democracy extends a long way beyond just voting, or even just letter writing, that often when we call for change we should be prepared to carry the cost of that change. We shouldn’t pursue free speech but costly speech; recognising that we are embodied democractic actors not just voices. So; calling for changes to abortion laws means being willing to adopt babies into our homes and communities, and speaking out about asylum seekers means being willing to house them and support them. Participating in democracy is not about free speech or an easy vote; it’s about carrying the cost of our positions as we love our neighbours as Jesus loved us; this extends to letter writing too.
  16. I believe a generous pluralism involves seeing civic life as a ‘shared table’ where we practice hospitality when we’re the host, and recognise that we often are not. I believe both wisdom and hospitality require the hard work of empathising and listening to others we disagree with, and attempting to understand the desires, motivations, language, and categories they are using; so that we are engaging in dialogue rather than simply proclaiming our position (see Colossians 4, and Paul in Athens). I love this bit from the Benz essay cited above:

    “in 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen (see Prov 1:5, 8; 12:15; 18:15; 19:20). Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willing to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice.”

  17. I believe one of the most political things we can do is build the church as a ‘political institution’; an alternative polis, that lives and proclaims the Gospel. That we have to think of the church as more than a Sunday event, and instead see it as the community of believers who are representatives of the Kingdom of God in a particular place, living and proclaiming the Gospel — including showing how it connects to public issues of the day and is genuinely good news.
  18. I believe we should be cultivating a faithful presence where we present the truth and beauty of the Gospel as an alternative (and prophetic) voice in the public square, not one that seeks to dominate and drown out other voices, and that this means it is possible to faithfully articulate our position on things (and on the sinfulness of our culture and laws), without calling for our view to be implemented for all (and rather politely requesting that it be accommodated). I believe there are examples of this in Daniel in Babylon (an idolatrous regime), and Erastus in Rome (an idolatrous regime); and that we can simultaneously serve idolatrous and God-hating rulers who make awful laws (that order people to bend the knee, or crucify Jesus in Rome’s case), submit to their authority to punish us for rejecting their idolatry (eg not bending the knee, going to the cross), and that the Gospel works most powerfully in those moments.
  19. I believe it is possible to not ‘oppose sin’ without ‘affirming sin’ (and we manage it with most legislation around banking and the environment that seems to be predicated on greed), and even to be in ‘favour’ of legislation that enables pluralism in our secular democracy (in much the same way that I think we should support the building of mosques). If I affirm the building of a mosque I am, in Christian theology, enabling sin every bit as much as if I am ‘in favour of same sex marriage in a democracy’, but also, I believe, every bit as much as God enables sin in Romans 1, and as the father ‘enables the sin’ of the prodigal son by giving him his inheritance when the son basically wishes the father was dead (a picture of humanity’s rejection of God).
  20. I believe we can expect persecution to increase at some point; but that the best way to respond to cultural marxism or an aggressive anti-Christian agenda is to ‘treat others as we would have them treat us’ and to build strong mediating ‘pre-political’ institutions (the church, but also businesses etc) using our imagination and understanding of the human condition. Again, this is not to avoid persecution, I don’t believe the ‘golden rule’ will have us avoid persecution, but will vindicate us in the eyes of some when we are persecuted; and that doing right in the face of opposition, trusting that God will judge, will ‘heap burning coals’ on the heads of those who persecute us as we live faithfully and do what is right (Romans 12). I believe we should attempt a generous pluralism even if our opponents want to practice an aggressive and idolatrous monotheism (sexual liberation), but we should also invite our opponents to consider a generous pluralism, and community liberty (the freedom for communities to be built around common shared identities/visions of human flourishing), as a common grace, or common good. When I asked some of the most aggressive campaigners for same sex marriage if they would dial down their aggression in response to us offering pluralism rather than what they perceive as an aggressive monotheism they said yes.
  21. I believe our job is to hollow out the value of idols by showing them to be empty and the alternative to be greater; that we should, in a pluralist context, take our lead from Paul in Athens (at the Areopagus) and Ephesus (where the Gospel causes a collapse in the value of the idol market). We should be disruptors of the social order, not just ‘conservers’… and that the Gospel is unsettling. I believe that this is the way to bring people back from the distorted images they bear in the world; that the Gospel is our political strategy because it is how people and societies are transformed.

 

 

Hungry Hungry Hippos: The danger of modern politics as a zero sum game, and the need for a more hospitable public square

Did you ever play the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos?

It goes a bit like this. Only with more punching and tantrums.

It’s a mildly fun competitive board game for kids; my fear is that this is pretty much what has trained today’s adults in how to participate in the public square. Nobody plays Hungry, Hungry Hippos and sets out to ensure an equal distribution of marbles to all players so that everybody wins. We play to get more than our fair share. That’s how you win; in fact, it’s what defines winners and losers. In the ultimate victory in Hungry Hungry Hippos, you’d get all the marbles and your opponents get none.

If I’ve understood the economic theory correctly, and it’s possible I haven’t because I’m not an economist… Hungry, Hungry Hippos is a ‘zero sum game’. It’s a game where my winning is directly relating to the losing of others; every marble I munch is one my opponents can’t munch. I get 1 marble, and my opponent doesn’t just get zero, they lose the opportunity for a marble, so the ‘sum’ of the interaction is zero. Or, as wikipedia puts it:

“Zero-sum games are a specific example of constant sum games where the sum of each outcome is always zero. Such games are distributive, not integrative; the pie cannot be enlarged by good negotiation.”

Modern politics; or the modern public square, feels like a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos. We play politics these days as a zero sum game; there’s a finite amount of resources available for distribution, or there’s an issue where there’s a clear binary; winners and losers, and the major parties race to pick a side to champion (and therefore one to destroy), and we all line up behind them. We’ve lost the idea of a public square and political realm that operates for the common good of all people and we play the game as though goods are to be distributed in a sort of zero sum way; that’s sensible when it comes to dollars. You can’t just print more money to pay everybody everything they want… but it’s terrible for social policy. We’re perhaps so used to competing for marbles (or resources) when it comes to dollars and projects (whether its playing off health, education, and infrastructure development, against taxation policy) and then distributing those dollars according to priorities with a sort of ‘zero sum’ outcome, that we’ve forgotten that sometimes a commons, or a public sphere, might allow everybody to win, or nobody to win, or even for us to think in terms of things other than winning and losing, and find ways to negotiate towards acceptable outcomes for everybody.

It’s not just our political parties that take the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach to public life and policy making; its lobbyists, activists and interest groups (pretty much all the same thing)… all these groups out to get their fair share of the marbles, or their interests recognised at law at the expense of all the other players. All looking to win. In fact, I’d say it’s the lobbyists/activists who keep us playing this way, they’re often the ones with particular interests, it’s not that our political parties don’t have ideologies (though often it seems our politicians have the ideology of staying in power by being populist, and that’s why there’s a growing disillusionment with the political process in Australia), but in my observation (and dealings with politicians directly or indirectly), often politicians know that their jobs involve compromise; that’s the reality in their party rooms, and it might just be a matter of different interest groups playing a different game and producing creative alternative proposals, that would see more democratic, less ‘zero sum game’ outcomes for people.

Maybe the alternative to Hungry, Hungry Hippos democracy, which is, in social issues, about making sure your views become the views favoured, protected, or enshrined, in legislation; that you not just ‘your fair share’, but a win, is Hospitable Hippos. Maybe this looks like allowing other participants in the public sphere to get their share too, perhaps even get their share first… perhaps even to get their share at our expense, or given to them by us rather than it being something we fight to take… Could this be what it looks like to move from a ‘distributive’ zero sum game to an ‘integrative’ game where the pie is enlarged, or at least we’ve got a better sense of how to eat the pie together in peace and enjoyment.

I wrote the other day about how Christians in particular should be approaching the public square; our ‘common’ life together with our neighbours as though it’s a dining table where we think in terms of hospitality; and I’ve previously written about how real secular democracy that makes space for different views, rather than just imposing ‘majority rule’ (the Hungry, Hungry Hippos approach) involves a commitment to a generous pluralism. Here’s a couple of principles, from the Bible, that should be governing Christian participation in the public square, or the life of ‘common’ community, that should cause us to rethink those times when we fall into the trap of playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos, pursuing victory at the expense of others (when there might be shared outcomes) in a ‘zero sum game’. The shortcut to thinking about why this might be good and right for all of us, not just Christians, is to imagine the other side winning a total victory and you losing, and using that imagining to come up with something a little more empathetic.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. — Matthew 7:12

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Matthew 22:36-39

(The first commandment is probably not quite so applicable to an atheist, or community of atheists, operating in a pluralistic context).

Here’s a bit where Paul fleshes out what these bits

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. — Philippians 2:4-5

To name the elephant in the room, or the hippo, this is evident in the debate around same sex marriage, which has returned to prominence in the last couple of weeks, and people have been furiously bashing buttons to make sure their little underfed hippos get as many marbles as possible; at the expense of the other players. This debate has been framed by both marriage equality advocates and Christian advocates for maintaining the definition of marriage as a zero sum game.

It scares me, as a Christian, to think what might happen if marriage equality advocates win the zero sum game, and then decide to respond by treating us Christians as they feel like they’ve been treated. There’s a palpable push from some advocates for change to not protect religious freedoms beyond a secular/sacred divide (so people conducting marriages as religious celebrants will be protected) that, as someone who rejects the idea that there’s a secular/sacred divide, or that religion is a private matter within the home or the institution of the church, is threatening… The maw of those hippos, and their deadly, terrible, teeth frighten me a little…

But we Christians are no better. We’ve set this debate up as an all or nothing thing; as though the definition of marriage provided for us from our religious convictions about God, the world, and humanity, should apply to everybody because we say he says it is good for them. No matter how you frame it this is neither hospitable, pluralistic, or generous to those who have a fundamentally different vision of human flourishing. It pushes other views, and the people who hold them, away from the table (which isn’t actually our table), and insists they eat on our terms, or not at all. It is an attempt to define what a ‘fair share’ is that leaves us holding on to more marbles than our neighbours.

By taking this zero sum game approach we’ve essentially invited our neighbours to do the same thing… in fact, we’ve given them no real alternative option, we’ve decided this how the game is going to be played, or we’ve joined in without questioning whether this is how we should be playing it. By approaching the table, the ‘board’, or the public square as a competitive environment rather than a place where we work out how to live together across difference, despite difference, in a spirit of generosity, we’ve invited other people to crush us. To me this seems to fail those two key principles Jesus says sums up the Old Testament law (which is ironic, given where we draw our arguments from), and it’s a failure to truly love the other.

There are other options that might see us keeping our marbles, rather than losing them… there’s an approach to this marriage debate that we could take that would maintain our ability to be different and distinct, but also to share a table (metaphorically and literally) with those who are also different and distinct to us, without seeking to destroy them. It’s possible we could approach this debate with less punching. We just have to change the game.

What does this look like? A hospitable, or generous, pluralism?

It looks like stepping back from fighting to define marriage for everyone, and instead asking that Christians — either in public or private — be free to understand marriage according to our convictions (and that our neighbours with other religious, political, cultural, or moral, convictions be free to do the same). It seems that lots of us think this is the thing we’ll salvage after we lose the big war, by fighting robustly on the definition front to show how much we care — but that’s not how Hungry, Hungry Hippos, or a zero sum game works.

It looks like giving up fighting for our rights to win and define things for everybody.

It looks like recognising that the government are the guardians of the commons; that we live in a democracy (not a populist country ruled by a tyranny of the majority), so that the results of a plebiscite are largely irrelevant if there are even some people in our community who feel excluded from the table by our approach. Democracy, at its best, protects minorities from the majority because it views all people as equal.

I understand that many, many, advocates for the definition of marriage are arguing on the basis of a view of human flourishing connected to the family, to the uniqueness and importance of gender difference, and ‘for the sake of the children’; these are views I share, but they are views that are contested, there are other views of human flourishing held by our neighbours and we get into dangerous territory when we, as Christians, start suggesting that our God’s views, or the views of the majority, should dictate the practices of all (again, ironically, the same people arguing most stridently against marriage definition also argue most stridently against anything that looks like sharia law).

We don’t have to lose our marbles to participate in public life and politics as Christians, but maybe we might consider giving some up? Being less hungry, and more inclined to share the table with others…

 

A tale of two tables: Public Christianity, common conversations, and our place at the table

One of the most telling things about many of the conversations I’ve participated in and watched around the ABC expose on domestic violence in churches in the last week is around the place we Christians seem to want to occupy at the common ‘table’ and the way we then operate our own ‘table’…

A tale of two tables

Bear with me. I’m going to use the table as a metaphor for where these conversations happen. Let’s assume for a moment that the public square is like a dining table; lots of people with ideas clamour for seats. For a long time, in Christendom, the institutional church had one of the prime positions (if not the prime position for a while) at this table. We set the agenda; we were the hosts; it was assumed we would look out for the common good. Over time our place at the head was contested, and we moved away from the head but remained in a position of influence. We were still heard. Now. Well. The table is both ‘secular’ in that our voice doesn’t get a particularly special place, ‘pluralistic’ in that many voices — institutional, and even religious — are welcomed, but there’s increasingly an expectation that religious beliefs are a bit out of touch and probably don’t have much of a place, and we’re tolerated so long as we’re prepared to put our money where our mouth is and act to bring change according to an agenda set by the host.

There’s a second table in this metaphor. It’s the table that we run. The one where we invite other people to be part of discussions; where we are the host, and where we should be particularly interested to invite people that the rest of society ignores. Historically this has been where the church has been an excellent force for social change; because the conversations at this second table have informed our participation at the first. But mostly because this table is where we see the power of the Gospel to generally bring people together as family; where the worldly games of status and power get put aside (incidentally, this is why Paul is so keen to rebuke the way status games are creeping in to the share meal in Corinth)… Our literal table is meant to be different as an expression of this metaphor. If the first table is the public square, and the banquet is the communication that happens there; the second is our Christian community and the conversations that happen there. How we approach the first table as leaders or the ‘institution’ shapes the tone of the second, and who feels welcome (because in fact, how we approach the first table should reflect who is speaking at the second).

The dilemma is that not only have we lost our place of honour at the first table — now it’s a place where we’re increasingly losing our dignity. We’re now viewed with the sort of suspicion reserved for the slightly delusional great-uncle at a family gathering. There’s now increasingly a belief that we’re not just delusional but harmful and unwelcome. So we protest like that same great-uncle would about being shunted down the line, replaced by new in-laws, out-laws, and Johny-come-latelys. We’ve lost a bit of status and dignity. We’re really worried about losing our seat; and so we act out a bit, yell loudly about our historic contribution, and forget that a big part of our value was what we brought to table one from table two; that those contributions were noticed and gave us legitimacy. And yet, we do still get seats at the table; our lobbyists are heard, and invited onto TV panel programs, so too are pretty exceptional representatives of the clergy and the church; who are invited to contribute to discussions.

I’m not the first to use these two tables as a metaphor; Jesus was. But more recently there was a great article in Cardus’ Comment Magazine that planted this idea for me. Here’s a bit from Luke 14, where Jesus has been invited into the house of a Pharisee; to dine at the table of a ruler of the pharisees. This is the public sphere; and Luke tells us ‘they are watching him carefully’… it’s the sabbath. And Jesus heals a man with dropsy; an outcast. A man whose illness and physical disfigurement would’ve excluded him from the sort of power and influence his host enjoyed. And at this table, there’s a competition for top spot…

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” — Luke 14:7-14

It feels to me like we Christians are getting bumped down the pecking order in that table of influence; further and further away from the place of honour. And we keep grabbing a seat that’s about where we think we should be and being dropped a peg or two; and the way back up isn’t to noisily defend our honour; but to act with honour and dignity; to present ourselves as more lowly than we actually are… and there seems to be a connection between this picture and the one that immediately follows of hosting a banquet. This is a picture of the sort of literal and metaphorical hospitality we should be offering in this world; of our priorities in terms of the sorts of people whose voices we should be concerned about at our table. 

When it comes to the Domestic Violence conversation, here’s where I think our approach to the dilemma we’re more broadly experiencing around our place at table one kicks in. We’re so keen not to be the crazy uncle, we’re so keen to keep our place at the table, that we lash out at anybody who has the temerity to suggest that there is anything at all wrong with us that should keep us from the conversation. Like the crazy uncle who keeps turning up in his underwear and thinks there’s a great conspiracy to get rid of him when all the rest of the family want is for him to wear pants and behave with common decency; and to stop trying to sit at the head and dictate the conversation for everybody else.

This is what it looks like to me when we keep going after the ABC for ‘bias’ or as though there’s an anti-Christian agenda behind this story or its use of stats (which I do believe were a very minor part of the investigation and the story, they were just the controversy used to sell the story). And News Ltd isn’t helping (nor is our ongoing desire for the institution to be vindicated by the court of public opinion). They’ve found a wedge in their ongoing stoush with the ABC and they’re using the figure of the great uncle to score points against another voice at the table. Every time we try to land a blow on the ABC we’re failing to ‘turn the other cheek’ or to respond to curse with blessing. Every time we clamour for a spot at table one by asserting our dignity and our rightful place there, we’re making table two seem less hospitable to the victims in our communities.

We may well have been misrepresented — certainly the headline and hook sentence of that first article (probably written by a sub-editor, not the reporters) was unhelpful, and Media Watch has rightfully critiqued the ABC’s coverage for that… but what we’re not considering in our attempts to maintain an honourable position at table one, is what the cost is to our ability to run our second table; to being hospitable and welcoming to those we should be hospitable and welcoming to.

Table two should be our primary concern. Table two is the table where we should be making space for the victims; the vulnerable, and the oppressed. And so many of those women, on social media, are reporting that our concern to maintain face and dignity at table one — institutionally — to protect the brand — is coming at a cost of them feeling welcome at table two. Our leaders have been so quick to share criticisms of the ABC article, its methodology, its headline, its use of ‘research’ (and I use those quote marks deliberately because on the one hand we’re dismissive of the year long investigation of actual stories in Australia, and on the other hand I think research from America a decade ago is of questionable value in assessing the Australian scene anyway); and this, in my observations, has been from a desire to maintain the dignity of the church and keep us getting a place at the table. I think it’s a wrong strategy. I think it’s harmful for our table one status; and disastrous for our hosting of table two. And we need to assess our priorities. And the way to do that is to listen to the people who are at our table with us — or should be — the victims; be that in the stories Julia Baird unearthed, or the many victims who’ve come forward on social media. One of my Facebook friends, Isabella Young, is a victim and an advocate for victims in the church; she said the other day:

“This appears to be turning into the rest of the church versus the abuse victims unfortunately. I really don’t care what those stats say, what I do care about is that no one is discussing the individual points raised in the article or documentary. But we all like a fight don’t we?”

 

Our job is to be the hosts of this other table that is utterly different to the table of the Pharisees — the tables that operate in the world of power and status. Jesus returns to the idea of places of honour at banquets a bit later in Luke’s Gospel.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” — Luke 20:46-47

This is a picture of the status hungry gone rogue — people who in pursuit of their own honour also devour widows houses. People who should be hosts but are wolves and abusers of the vulnerable. That’s what we’re not to be; people who are so concerned with our own dignity and place at the public table — these ‘feasts’ — that we are destroying our ability to be hospitable to the vulnerable.

I reckon that’s a key to this role we’re meant to play as generous hosts to the vulnerable, who are then able to represent the vulnerable well as advocates in other spheres. I suspect the closer we are to the head of table one — the more proximate we are to worldly power — the harder this passionate advocacy is to achieve; much like it would have been harder for Jesus to challenge the Pharisees if he was one. Our relationship to worldly power should be the same, I suspect, as his relationship to the Pharisees; an expectation of crucifixion for calling out when that power is being abused. It’s hard to do that if we’re at the head of that table, or our relationship is too cosy, or if we want to be treated with dignity and respect; rather than seeing our mission as speaking on behalf of those at table two. Our table.

Here’s the thing. Realising that we’re not at the head of the table, or in a place of honour, any longer at table one is vital for our ability to do public Christianity; or participate in the public square; with dignity. Self-protection is a lot like aiming for a place of honour that we don’t deserve; having others protect our dignity is not an opportunity for us to say “I told you so” — if it happens it is nice, and we should be thankful, but turning the other cheek means we don’t use another person’s testimony in our favour to hit back.

Realising we’re not the host of the public conversation also guides the way we contribute to the conversation; its not our conversation to run, it’s not our job to define terms, or to be defensive; our best ‘defence’ is who we host at table two, and how we speak for and look out for their interests. That’s where we gain credibility; that and in our humility which is expressed in treating our host and conversation partners with respect even when they wrong us; even when they’re trying to trap us; even if ultimately they’ll crucify us. That’s what Jesus was doing in Luke 14, even as he implicitly rebuked the Pharisees by healing the crippled man on the sabbath; as he explicitly rebuked them by suggesting his host and guests had their approach to hospitality and honour wrong, and building a table for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” is what Jesus came to achieve; the table he builds is the table of his kingdom; these people are tangible pictures of those who know they need God and salvation in Luke’s Gospel — Jesus has previously proclaimed ‘it’s not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick’ (Luke 5:31), and these are the people Jesus explicitly said he came to liberate in Luke 4. This is the sort of table we’re to be building in our own communities; and our efforts in the last few days, in many cases, have been deconstructive rather than constructive. 

Public Christianity and bearing the image of God: some confessions and a response to the response to Q&A’s Christian episode

Confession #1. I have not watched Q&A’s “Christian” special from last night. I’m not yet sure I can stomach it, but I am reading the transcript. There’s some good stuff there, and some bad stuff.

Confession #2. I have followed the discussion about the episode in earnest because when it comes to public ‘texts’ that aim to articulate a vision for the good life in our community — conversations in the public square — the conversation about the text interests me as much, if not more, than the ‘text’ itself.

Confession #3. I have, in the past, said many, many, things about public Christianity that I stand by, but that this post addresses, specifically the idea that the way to get the Gospel into a conversation in the public sphere is to say the name Jesus lots and lots. That’s definitely partly true. But it’s not everything.

Confession #4. I suspect the outcome of what I’m going to suggest below is less Christianity in the public square and more Christianity for the public good, but doing that might get us some invitations back to the adult table (I’m pretty sure Q&A is actually the teenager’s table not the adult’s table).

I do still like the vision for our place in the public square put forward by Scott Stephens from the ABC (summarised here, quoted below). But I don’t think the ‘public square’ as represented by our new media ‘Fourth Estate‘ is actually capable of allowing us to play the role he speaks about. This version of the fourth estate — the role the media was meant to play as a sort of public guardian speaking truth to power by providing a public square — now comes in either in the form of Q&A’s national broadcast of representative debate, or the sort of public square we find on our Social Media platforms where the voices we hear are curated by algorithms and filtered based on popularity. I firmly believe that to achieve Scott Stephen’s utopian vision we may actually need to develop an alternative public square where we can play that role, and that may be less about taking our up role as the ‘First Estate’ with renewed vigour (where the other estates shut us out and don’t see us as part of the ‘estates of the realm‘), and thinking of ourselves as an entirely different realm. Where we might invite more voices to take part in conversations about the common good at our own table, and listen well to them.

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference

This is a nice sentiment, and a lofty goal, but it’s made harder because our contributions to the public square have, for some time, been at odds with the religion of our day, our secular idols. We are exiles. We don’t belong to the realm, the powers and authorities in our culture anymore, even if we might protest loudly and seek to claim our rightful, historical, place at the table.

We’re marginalised voices not in a sort of woe-is-me I’m being persecuted sense, but in the we’ve-made-a-rod-for-our-own-backs sense. We’ve used the power and influence we’ve had in the public square to silence voices that people are now listening to. Or so they tell us. What’s weird is that we probably actually belong at the margins, if we’re going to take following a crucified king seriously, and whatever power or influence we might have is probably best used on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the weak. We’re being pushed to the space we should be speaking from anyway, and now we can listen to these voices that Scott Stephens suggests we should be giving voice to. So there’s that.

It’s possible we’ve allowed too many people to speak in our name, unquestioned, equating conservative morality with God’s kingdom in much the same way that makes this picture so obviously vile and offensive, but without being amplified to cartoonish heights.

trump

So what separates any of our political engagment — our ‘public Christianity’ — from Trump’s? Whether we’re on the right or the left, what is it that protects us from co-opting Jesus for our own agenda and has us living as people tasked with being part of God’s agenda? Because the problem with paying lip service to Jesus in order to get the word cloud looking more “Christian” is that it’s actually not evidence that you’re contributing to the public good as a Christian; that you’re actually doing things for his name. Not yours. The calling of the ‘public Christian’, or the calling to be publicly Christian, is a call to bear the image of Jesus in his world. Paul describes this task succinctly in Colossians 3.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:17

I’ve, generally speaking and with a few notable exceptions who do things very well, been very vocally critical of public Christianity in Australia. Especially in the media. One of my loudest critiques, often the things I write that have the most ‘virality’ is that our public Christians need to speak about Jesus. We definitely need to get the ‘word’ part right, but ‘word or deed’ isn’t setting up two optional categories, it’s unpacking the ‘whatever you do’… they’re related. Not separate. They’re twin aspects of our image bearing vocation.

I would’ve loved the panelists on the show last night to have spoken more about Jesus, not artificially weaving him in to answers to real questions, but showing how he informs good and real answers to real political questions at every turn. If our answers to any question about life in the world as Christians isn’t built on Jesus, and the virtues that we’re called to exhibit as we live for his name, then they might be ‘wise’ or philosophical, they might even be good and sensible and human, but they’re not meaningfully Christian. There’s plenty of human wisdom that Christians can tap into as citizens as we observe the world, but that always has some connection to the divine nature and character of God, that stuff can inform the public square when it comes to decision making and the shape of our life together, but a good mathematician or health professional can do that sort of thing too (and Christians can, and should, be good mathematicians or health professionals). But when it comes to ‘public Christianity’ we’re talking about our answers to the public’s great needs coming from somewhere beyond simply good science or math. I feel like we’ve lost this central conviction, that Jesus should be at the heart of our politics — literally how we ‘citizen’ — and how we speak into the public square as his ambassadors. His image bearers. I certainly don’t see this conviction articulated in many places whether we’re talking about Christianity’s conservative or progressive arms.  The context of that Colossians verse is our new political reality. Our belonging to a new people. Our renewed function as image bearers…

“… you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:10-14

Too often our assessment of public Christianity, mine included, is about Logos.

Did they hit the right notes on my Christian shibboleth test?

Did they say “X”? 

Where X is our summary of the Gospel, for me, something like: “Jesus is Lord of a new kingdom, he proves it and invites us to take part in it, and be one with him, through his death and resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit”…

And that’s important, but it’s a potentially meaningless criteria if its simply about getting the message right… The Gospel is a message. But it’s a message about an alternative political reality. An alternative emperor; that’s caught up in the first century meaning of the word Gospel. A ‘gospel’ was political good news, delivered by ambassadors, that shaped the lives of citizens. Words matter. The word-made-flesh matters. But in Jesus being word and flesh we see the way to navigate this tension. A human image is embodied. We teach by what we do, by what we consider to be virtuous and how we embody those virtues, and how that embodied life supports and amplifies our speaking. We’ve been Logos heavy, and part of the answer is Ethos, and its relationship to the fruit of our message, to what people do if, or when, they’re persuaded. It’s in lives that match our words, and words that spring to lives from our lives, from the relationships we have in and with our community; from how we love people. It’s not seeing ‘truth’ and ‘love’ as exactly the same thing, as though we love simply by speaking, or as completely disconnected activities. More of the answer comes from properly seeing the Gospel as a challenge to the political orders of the world, not just a detached bit of news that leaves us unchanged. This stuff changes everything, and the change is demonstrated in the examples we live in our world.

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. — Philippians 3:17-20

This new “citizenship” is why we might end up excluded from ‘estates of the realm’ when the realm belongs to those opposed to Christianity and to Jesus. This is why thinking of the church as belonging to that realm as a separate estate to the media, as the ‘first estate of the realm,’ not as a realm of its own, will also lead to trouble. We are citizens of something new, but we still have obligations to love our neighbours, and part of that love must surely be in seeking their good by modelling and articulating an alternative Christ-centered vision of life whenever, and wherever, we’re invited to speak.

This typical ‘Logos-centric’ approach, an approach I’ve been guilty of, is an anemic vision of what it means to be publicly Christian. To do “Christian politics.” It puts too much weight on proclamation and not enough on the ethos that goes with it, and I think it makes the criteria a simple check box that some of us, me included, are prepared to tick off if people simply give lip service to Jesus. This is a dangerous check-box if it means we’ll pass people who say things that are totally at odds with the sort of lives of love, and vision for human flourishing, that the Gospel brings and exemplifies in the person of Jesus, or fail people who are living those lives out of Christian convictions but don’t totally land the Gospel in their delivery. There are reasons to pass or fail people at either end of the spectrum… but it’s not enough to tick-a-box for the Gospel, or to quote bits of the Bible that seem to support our position, any monkey, even Trump, can do that.

A certain subset of people reading this, the type who have jumped on the same bandwagon as me with a bit of vigour (and often not much sympathy for the way public Christianity via the media takes place) might switch off here, especially if it sounds like I’m saying “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” — I’m absolutely not saying that. Words are always necessary, and as Christians, our words about life in the commonwealth as Christians with a view to the common good, should always be fundamentally informed by the Word-made-flesh, and point to him as the model of the good life, and the solution to our bad and damaging ways of life.

Successful public Christianity, whether its on the TV or on your street, is about genuinely grappling with who Jesus is and what he is remaking us to be as we share in his death and resurrection, living out the fruits of this new life, and this grappling, and inviting others to do the same. It’s about adopting a posture of other-loving humility that informs our words and our manner. Trump clearly hasn’t done that, if you listen to what he says about Christianity, but if you listen carefully to many of our Christian voices, voices coming from people I believe are often genuinely Christians, we don’t get much of a sense of this deep-seated conviction that the Gospel creates a political reality. We need Christian images, not simply disembodied Christian voices. Which means the adversarial Q&A format is an interesting challenge… We need to rest in our new citizenship, and develop a new vision for what life together with other kingdoms, following other gods, looks like. Because that’s what Christian politics is about. Citizenship. That’s what shapes our ethos, or image, and feeds into our words. A belief that Jesus is Lord is something that should lead us to proclaim that truth, and build a community around it. A community of Christians though; its loony cultural-colonialism to expect people to live as Christians without the Gospel. The Lordship of Jesus, and his example of love and the ultimate picture of what human life should look like, should help us form coherent opinions on all sorts of social issues so that words on our lips aren’t window dressing, but are substantiated by our lives, and show why we do things differently.

In an age where the public square is contested, and the Christian voice is losing a position of power it held too vigorously and too long to the point that the power corrupted us, we need something more sophisticated than bumper sticker Christianity. Conservative or progressive secular politics with a bit of Jesus chucked in on top. We need to be able to articulate a radically different vision of humanity and ‘kingdom’ that comes from our new citizenship, and our new way of seeing the world, which begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus and seeks to make his name great in the world. We need to recapture the sense that public Christianity is a fundamentally human activity caught up in our created vocation of carrying God’s image throughout his world, as his image bearers, especially as this image — that is broken by our decision to bear the image of false gods — is being restored by God’s Spirit so we are transformed into the image of Jesus. Our persuasive efforts in the public sphere are about being people of this new kingdom, ambassadors from a different sort of kingdom, pointing to the conquering king. His name should be on our lips not as a token ‘get the Gospel in to the Public Square’ box to tick, but because our foundational belief is that a public square founded on anything else is deadly and destructive.

Too much of our ‘public Christianity’ — some of which is on display in the transcript from last night that I’ve read so far — is just us picking a political side that we’ve been indoctrinated into by our culture, our parents, or what appeals to us. The default human institutions — left or right — with a bit of Jesus. Sometimes it’s not so simple. Sometimes we’re informed by some part of our Christianity that is not ‘central’ — like a moral framework that we pull from the Old Testament, without Jesus, so we’re constructing our own man-made religious framework, sometimes our actions are shaped by a particular vision of the new creation, an eschatology, where we’re seeking to construct something good without recognising the gap that exists between us and our neighbours is infinite – that we have the mind of Christ, via the Spirit, and they don’t. Sometimes it seems we expect people to take these positions on board in their life, to change their deeds, without being transformed into the image of the one whose name we now live for, the one who stands at the centre of the cosmos and models the way of love for us, and so rightly stands at the centre of any true picture of how we should do life together as people. Too much of it assumes we have a right to have a voice at the table in an estate that is not ours. Too much assumes that we’re to hold on to, or wield, power (in the form of lobbying) for the sake of ‘Christians’, not use whatever power or influence we have for the sake of others (in the form of advocacy). Too much of us leaves Jesus acting as the ambassador of whatever worldly cause has co-opted us, even if it’s morally good and naturally worthwhile, so that we, and he, are ambassadors for morality and nature, and not for the one who is truly moral and created all things.

If you’re going to be a public Christian, which we should all be every time we cross the threshold of our homes and walk into public space, and any time we invite the public into our space, we’d do well to meditate on Colossians 3 and 2 Corinthians 3-5, perhaps especially this bit…

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:14-20

This should ultimately be what separates us from Trump, and keeps us both wanting to speak about Jesus and doing it coherently. It’s who we now are, not just a box we tick to appease the Christians talking about our performance on social media or in 3,000 word rants on their blogs.

Q&A, the other Hitch, and some dangerous ideas…

Did you catch Q&A last night? I’ve largely given up watching Q&A, unless Malcolm Turnbull or Tanya Plibersek are on. They seem to be able to humanise the political catch phrases better than most. Tony Jones irks me. I’m turned off by the turnstile approach to pumping politicians through the panel who simply foist us with whatever party line there is to be foisted upon us, with minimal humanity, minimal engagement, and maximum robotechnics. Nobody seems to change their minds as a result of an hour of twitter interrupted grandstanding, and the show is so pitched towards the self-proclaimed intelligentsia that I actually feel a little bit dirty watching it. A case in point is the sycophantic applause bandied round on Twitter following K-Rudd’s Q&A performance, followed by the panning the general public gave him for nastily and arrogantly going for the jugular when he answered a Christian who held the position on gay marriage that K-Rudd himself had signed up for until a couple of months prior.

Q&A barely has mojo.

But I do tune in when there’s likely to be a discussion about Christianity – as was the case last night, in the Festival of Dangerous Ideas special edition, featuring gayctivist Dan Savage, feminist provocateur Hanna Rosin, feminist elder stateswoman Germaine Greer, and Peter “brother of Christopher” Hitchens.

Peter Hitchens is a Christian. Some time in his history a switch in his head flicked and he went from Trotskyist to Tory, from atheist to Christian. He’s an interesting character in part because he’s elegant and eloquent, but he’s also supercilious and appears curmudgeonly, and in part because he’s got interesting street cred as someone who significantly shifted his position on issues of politics, philosophy, and religion while in the public eye. He changed his mind. There are so few public intellectuals who do that. That alone makes him worth listening to. Even if listening to him is a pain. At times. Because he sounds like such a toff.

Last night on Q&A it was Hitch 2.0 verse the world. The champions of the world were Savage, Greer, and Rosin, with Jones offering a little support every now and then. Hitch held his own – he doesn’t back down from his opinions, he seemingly seems to see no reason to do so – he also refused to make eye contact with his fellow panelists, and was often guilty of dehumanising them or using personal pronouns in a less-than-vaguely dismissive way when referring to his fellow panelists. It was uncomfortable television.

Usually on Q&A there’s someone you can get behind and cheer on, or at least agree with. My ability to empathise with the panelists was pretty lacking last night. I came close to identifying with Germaine Greer, who was at least prepared to admit that the sexual revolution doesn’t come for free. When you read the transcript of the evening, Hitch 2.0 is much more reasonable than his manner suggested, and he was certainly shouted down whenever he spoke – by the other panellists if not the audience.

Hitch 2.0 opened with a defence of Christian morality, and something of a requiem to Christendom.

PETER HITCHENS: Well, Christianity more or less collapsed in Europe after 1914 and the First World War and when it ceased to exist, all kinds of other things rushed in to take its place. But mostly what’s rushed in to take its place is what I call ‘selfism’: the idea that we are all sovereign in our own bodies, that no-one can tell us what to do with our own bodies and that everything that we do is okay, provided we think we aren’t harming anybody else. Quite often the truth is that we are harming other people but hiding it from ourselves.

HANNA ROSIN: But who gets to decide what’s corrupt? So, you know, drinking, drugs, gay sex. I mean sort of where do you draw the line at what seems totally arbitrary?

PETER HITCHENS: Where do you draw the line? You draw the line fundamentally, as far as I’m concerned, around about the Sermon on the Mount and those instructions given to us and I have absolutely no shame in saying that I believe that the Christian religion was the greatest possession which the human race had, which it’s now, in large parts of the world, rather busily throwing away.

His big dangerous idea seemed to be that we’ve got to take responsibility for our actions, and admit that we’re inherently selfish. Which is beautifully orthodox Christian anthropology. He was, by word if not by tone, self-effacing and humble.

“DAN SAVAGE: Consent matters and harm matters. Consent matters and harm matters. If there’s consent and no one is being harmed it’s no one’s business what an individual chooses to do with his or her body.

PETER HITCHENS: Yes, but the question…

TONY JONES: No, I’m going to…

PETER HITCHENS: No. No. No. It’s so essential to answer this. The people who say that they’re not doing harm are invariably deceiving themselves. The people who divorce and say the children are happier as a result, they’re not.

DAN SAVAGE: And the government should rush in to prevent people from being self-deceptive if that’s indeed what they’re doing?

PETER HITCHENS: The teenager who takes drugs and becomes mentally ill and ruins his own life and that of his parents is doing harm to other people, but at the time they do these things they say “No, my body is sovereign. I am a completely autonomous person. I don’t harm anybody else. ” We lie to ourselves about this all the time. I lie to myself about it. You all lie to yourselves about it. You lie to yourself about. We know that we harm other people.”

Hitch’s criticisms of the Savage world view were coherent and are worth hearing. But this quote below is one of the examples of his refusal to engage person to person, as it were.

TONY JONES: Peter Hitchens, I’ll just bring you in here. You listened to that. I mean do you see anything sort of wrong with this concept of hook-up apps?

HANNA ROSIN: You’re setting him up. You’re setting him up. Say no. Just say no. Just for the surprise of it, just say no.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m going to get on grinder and see who’s on right now in this room.

PETER HITCHENS: Do you want me to say anything, or not? It seems to me that when intimacy is something which is profoundly private and often, if people are mistreated when they’re intimate with other people, they are severely damaged and the idea that sexual relations can be conducted in this casual and mechanical fashion is extremely cruel and crude and dismisses the concept of human love from a very important part of our relations and I think that’s a pity. He doesn’t think it’s a pity. He wants a crude and, as far as I’m concerned, individualistic, unrestrained and a totally selfish world.

DAN SAVAGE: And the transcendent can emerge from the crude.

PETER HITCHENS: There is a definite difference between me and him. I’d just like to emphasise it. I think a society in which his ideas rule will be one you will very much regret having created.

Here’s a nice little example of Tony Jones participating in the discussion…

PETER HITCHENS: (Indistinct) No, don’t stop me. The ceaseless (indistinct)…

TONY JONES: Excuse me, we have a question. We have a question on this subject.

MULTIPLE SPEAKERS TALK AT ONCE

HANNA ROSIN: Wait a minute. Wait. Wait. Wait. Can I…

PETER HITCHENS: …(Indistinct)…

TONY JONES: You’ll get a chance.

HANNA ROSIN: No. No. No. Just one thing…

PETER HITCHENS: You haven’t stopped anybody else.

HANNA ROSIN: One thing.

PETER HITCHENS: You haven’t stopped anybody else.

TONY JONES: I’m stopping you to allow a questioner to make a point…

PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, I know you’re stopping me. I noticed that, yes.

TONY JONES: …you can respond to.

PETER HITCHENS: Right.

Great hosting Mr Jones.

Here’s how Hitchen’s thesis for the evening plays out in his own brand of condescension come self-deprecation. It’s an odd mix for an Australian audience.

PETER HITCHENS: All revolutionaries…

DAN SAVAGE: …it will identify itself to you.

PETER HITCHENS: All revolutionaries claim to be fighting against the oppression of other people when, in fact, they’re fighting for their own personal advantage.

TONY JONES: On that one-liner we’ll move on.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m fighting for everybody.

TONY JONES: Sorry, go on.

DAN SAVAGE: Well, the gay rights movement is fighting for the advantage of being treated equally and being full members of society. We are not fighting to take anything from anyone else.

PETER HITCHENS: Says you.

DAN SAVAGE: That is not some selfish goal that we had in mind. Oh, it would be really fun to be equal under the law.

PETER HITCHENS: No selfishness involved in it at all. Not a bit. No.

DAN SAVAGE: No. I’m not trying to prevent you from living your life.

PETER HITCHENS: Well, of course I’m selfish but I don’t pretend not to be.

He does present quite a nice warning – he’s not fighting the cultural wars, he’s fighting a desperate rear guard action. This exchange was also a little heated.

DAN SAVAGE: How do you hope to bring about the world – to return the world to the state you would like to see it in without authoritarian (indistinct) …

PETER HITCHENS: Oh, I gave that…

DAN SAVAGE: You’re not going to get the pot out of my hands any other way.

PETER HITCHENS: I gave that up long ago. It would only make me miserable. I know that you people have won. All that I seek to do…

DAN SAVAGE: Which is why you have to be gay married now and do drugs now with the rest of us.

PETER HITCHENS: No, all I seek to do is to tell the truth about you and what you want while it’s still allowed to do so because you are so fantastically intolerant.

TONY JONES: Now, Peter, I’ve got to interrupt. What do you mean when you say “you people”?

PETER HITCHENS: I mean the cultural revolution. I mean the cultural and moral revolution which has swept the western world since the collapse of Christianity.

DAN SAVAGE: I’m not intolerant.

PETER HITCHENS: It changed our societies, as anybody who has lived through it knows, out of all recognition in the course of 50 years and in my view for the worst. He’s part of it. She’s part of it. For all I know you are part of it but I’m not.

DAN SAVAGE: You’re paranoid and you’re projecting by saying we are intolerant. You have…

PETER HITCHENS: See, this is the intolerance. Because I hold an opinion different from his, he has become suddenly a qualified psychoanalyst who can tell me – who can tell me that my opinions which I am entitled to hold.

DAN SAVAGE: You’re entitled to your opinions. You’re not entitled to your smears.

PETER HITCHENS: But are a pathology. And this is the absolute seed bed of totalitarianism. When you start believing that the opinions of other people are a pathology, then you are in the beginning…

DAN SAVAGE: You’re the one standing there pathologising other people’s choices.

PETER HITCHENS: …in the beginning of the stage that leads to the secret police and the Gulags.

DAN SAVAGE: You are the one sitting there saying that society is sick and damaged because other people are now free as white men used to be.

PETER HITCHENS: You’ll have the whole world to yourself soon. You can’t imagine anybody else is entitled to hold a view different from yours without having some kind of personal defect. That’s what’s wrong with you.

And this bit…

“DAN SAVAGE: You sit there pathologising other people’s choices. You sit there saying that other people being free to live their lives by their own light in some way oppresses you, when it oppresses you in no way whatsoever. You are free not to get gay married. You are free not to use drugs. You are free not to drink. You are free to stay married to one person for the rest of your life. You are free to stay home and raise your wife’s children so they always have a parent by their side. You are not free to sit there and say that other people being just as free as you are to live their lives and make their own choices in some way is damaging you personally, in some way is destroying society. People are freer now, happier now. It’s a less intolerant world than it used to be because people like me are now empowered to look at people like you and say you are full of shit.

PETER HITCHENS: This is so personal. Can I respond to it before the…

(AUDIENCE APPLAUDE AND CHEER)

PETER HITCHENS: It’s a rally.

TONY JONES: Okay.

PETER HITCHENS: It’s a rally.

TONY JONES: Hold on. We actually do need to hear (indistinct)…

PETER HITCHENS: While you do this – while you do this I can’t talk. While you do that – while you do that I can’t talk and you know it and that’s to your – and that’s to your shame because silencing opponents is a very wicked thing to want to do.

DAN SAVAGE: You’ve been a lot of things tonight, but you’ve not been silenced.

PETER HITCHENS: You said this is very personal. This is very personal. I’ll reply to it. I am a very rich and fortunate person. I can – and I’m coming towards the end of my life anyway. I can personally escape many of the consequences of this but most people can’t. They can’t afford to and leave aside some of the things you’ve mentioned but a society in which the use of illegal drugs is widespread and unrestrained is one in which everybody is affected by the consequences, whatever they themselves do. It’s like that ridiculous bumper sticker “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one,” to which my reply has always been: “Don’t like murder? Don’t commit one”. The fact is if a society permits – if a society permits things to happen which damage the lives of many people, who, as I’ve said earlier as a result of the selfish unwillingness of those who do those things to recognise that they have consequences, it affects everybody.”

Peter Hitchens also channeled Russell Brand, or more the anti-Brand, with his thinking on the modern political scene.

“TONY JONES: Peter, you did do whatever you could to hasten the demise of the Cameron Government. In fact you…

PETER HITCHENS: Yeah, not very effective with that.

TONY JONES: Well, in fact, you actually advised people, or your readers, to vote for UKIP, which is a populist party – a populist party primarily anti-immigration in its basis?

PETER HITCHENS: Well, I advised them to do that because I kept saying that they shouldn’t vote at all but they all seemed to think that voting was some tremendous important process, which actually it isn’t. If you go to a shop and you’re offered a load of goods which you don’t want to buy, you don’t buy any of them. So why, in an election, do you vote for people you don’t like?”

Interestingly, Hitchens and Brand had this clash last year.

And then this one as a follow up…

But back to Q&A.

Rosin and Savage kind of became one person by the end of the show, or some sort of comedy double act where you couldn’t tell who was playing the straight man. Greer was, at times, incoherently nostalgic, once the show hit its halfway mark she stopped answering questions and started wafting into stories from the good old days. As I said above, Hitch 2.0 wasn’t particularly loving to the other panelists, and for me, that damaged the credibility of what he had to say. It’s an ethos thing. You can’t just carry ethos with the words you say. But boy did he nail the finish.

Where Tony Jones invited the panel to share what they think is the most dangerous idea going around… Here’s the video of the answers, the transcript is below.

I’ll present the answers out of order – so that Hitch gets the last word, which he was so keen on all night. These were a little character revealing.

DAN SAVAGE: Population control. There’s too many goddamn people on the planet. And I don’t know if that’s a – you know, I’m pro-choice. I believe that women should have the right to control their bodies. Sometimes in my darker moments I am anti-choice. I think abortion should be mandatory for about 30 years. That’s a dangerous idea. She wanted a dangerous idea. So throw a chair at me.

 

GERMAINE GREER: Well, I’m always in the same place. The most dangerous idea, the one that terrifies us the most, is freedom – to actually be free – is, to most human beings, disorientating, terrifying but it’s the essential bottom line. If you want to be a moral individual you must be free to make choices and that includes making mistakes.

 

HANNA ROSIN: I’m tempted to say something about the Jesus Christ but being the Jewish one on the panel I’ll let that one go. Given our conversation today, I think I’m going to go with we should watch our children less. We live in a culture which follows our children around, is obsessed with safety, decides everything for our children, doesn’t let them have any freedom. Doesn’t let them wander. Doesn’t let them go anywhere or do anything by themselves and we should, in fact, do less with our children, not more.

 

PETER HITCHENS: The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.

DAN SAVAGE: I’d have to agree with that.

TONY JONES: Just quickly, because I think you can’t really leave it there, why dangerous?

PETER HITCHENS: I can’t really leave it there? Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject It, it alters us all was well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.

What an ending. There wasn’t a whole lot to love about Q&A last night. But I loved that.

Transcript from Rory Shiner’s great debate with Lawrence Krauss

I’m thrilled this approach to defending Christianity is getting good air time. Rory Shiner’s self-deprecating Christ-focused winsomeness is now available in text form, thanks to Eternity (and Rory for sharing it). This would’ve been handy before I tried to type out the Shakespeare stuff.

I love that both Eternity and I settled on the word “winsome” to describe this approach. Seeing Krauss disarmed like this was pretty special, especially in contrast to the Brisbane debate. In a post-Christian world – where people aren’t just not into Christianity, but are also potentially angry about how we’ve wielded our power and influence during Christendom – subverting caricatures in a winsome way is going to be one of the keys to being heard.

Winsome.

Manner is, I think, as important as content in these contexts – because it is part of demonstrating your ethos – and a huge part of pathos.

Being on about Jesus is incredibly important – that was my main criticism of William Lane Craig’s approach – but being Christlike in the face of a hostile court is a huge part of communicating the gospel.

Being winsome will still win a hearing.

That is evident in the difference between how Krauss treats his two interlocutors during his Australian tour.

I love how Rory opens with self-deprecation. I love how he remains epistemically humble and acknowledges the parts of the Christian case that are likely to be unsatisfactory to those who don’t share our starting assumptions. I love that he doesn’t overreach. I love that he was a charming advocate who stuck to the main game – the resurrection, and did it with a bit of artistry.

“The potential of tonight’s event being something of a mismatch has given me two recurring nightmares over the past month. First, that my efforts would end up featuring on a Atheist YouTube comedy channel, and secondly, the abiding fear that the word “Shiner” will become a neologism in the atheist community—a newly minted verb to describe a wild mismatch resulting in hilarity. To Shiner, or to be Shinered.”

This next quote overlaps with the one from my last post. But it is so good.

This act of revelation centres of the man Jesus Christ, who was born in Palestine at the time of Herod the Great and Tiberius, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and who, Christians believe, was raised to new life by God somewhere in the wee small hours of a Sunday morning in a graveyard on the edge of Jerusalem.

At the point of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity puts its head on the chopping block of history. It is not like the stories of dying and rising gods of antiquity. Such stories come from outside of Judaism, in which Jesus was firmly embedded. And those dying and rising gods were indexed against the seasons, and fertility. They were about how things are. And they were precisely gods, not men. Their dying and rising happened in the dream-time, in pre-history.

If you asked a pagan, “On what date did Osiris rise and at what time?” you would get you a puzzled face, saying: “You don’t really get myth, do you?” Jesus by contrast was crucified under Pontius Pilate, within the time of our history, and, it is alleged, rose to life in April, early in the morning, on a Sunday.

It is a claim of history. It is not scientific in the limited sense of observation, hypothesis, testing, repeating and so on.

No Christians claim that, under the right conditions, a 33 year old dead Jewish body will, in a sufficiently cold and dark tomb, come back to life within 72 hours. It is not a claim for something that happens, but for something that happened.

Whether on historical grounds it is reasonable to believe that that is what happened requires the kind of reasoning domestic to the discipline of history: written evidence, conjecture, probability, testimony and historical hypothesis.

 

Next year…

For those who came in late (I’ve always wanted to start something that way), this year is my last year at Queensland Theological College.

My last year of being a “Candidate for Ordination” for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland. And it’s almost September.

It is traditional, at these times, if one is a college student, to be thinking about one’s future. To be thinking about next year – and the years after, and where one might end up serving the body of Christ, his church, and in what capacity.

Today I stood up in front of all four services at Creek Road, with my friend Joe, and we spoke about next year – and where we’re headed. For a bit more on what Joe is doing see this post on the Creek Road blog.

Long long time readers might remember some things I wrote in my pre-college years about ministry in regional parts of Australia. And might remember some of my passionate pleas for people to take the gospel to regional Queensland.

You may also remember some of my cynicism about missional theology centered on “the city” – as if inner city ministry is hugely transformative and thus, of more value.

You may remember some of the things I said about “church planting” and the types of people who are attracted to the glamour and excitement of not having to deal with “traditions” and stuff.

It’s all here in the archives.

You may know that Robyn and I have continued to champion the cause of Queensland’s regional areas in our time at college.

You’ll be happy to know – on the basis of these well documented commitments – that our immediate, and probably short to medium to long term future has been sorted.

God, it seems, has a sense of humour.

Next year, and beyond (subject to me passing college, my trials for license, and a congregational meeting) Robyn and I will be continuing to serve with the saints at Creek Road in a new campus. Creek Road is going multisite (don’t worry – all the stuff I said about video preaching and the need for a preacher to have a flesh and blood presence with his congregation still stands).

This campus is in South Bank. Brisbane’s cultural hub. Brisbane’s inner city.

We’re very excited about serving with Creek Road – it is a church that is serious about the gospel, and is serious about reaching the lost. It is a church that has a clearly articulated theology of ministry, and philosophy of ministry, and approach to ministry that I’m more than on board with. It is a church that makes sure Jesus is at the heart of each sermon, each song, each Growth Group study.

If you come to Creek Road on a Sunday – you’ll hear about Jesus.

Which is great.

South Bank is a really exciting part of Brisbane. It’s where a lot of the good cafes are. It’s where culture happens. We’re even meeting at the Queensland Theatre Company.

We’re going to be opening a campus, a church, in the heart of Brisbane – where stories are told – and we’ll be sharing the best story in the world – the gospel of Jesus.

Which is exciting.

This may all seem something like a slap in the face to regional Queensland – but it’s not. At least not in my head.

I still love regional Queensland. Especially North Queensland. I’m still keen to see great ministry happening outside of the south east corner, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to be a part of that in a more effective way than I would be were I to head somewhere else (and there aren’t a huge number of competing offers out there this year).

I’m particularly excited about Creek Road’s commitment to partnering with, and resourcing, churches all around the state, and even all around the country. There are concrete examples of this happening already – in regional Queensland and beyond. That is one of the things that really excites me about joining the team at Creek Road.

There are a heap of synergies in terms of things I’m passionate about seeing our denomination do to share the gospel and this role at Creek Road.

One of the things I’ve become really passionate about since I wrote all that stuff about regional ministry is the sort of public Christianity sphere this blog has started to occupy, that represents a significant aspect of my thinking about ministry, and there have been a few conversations I’ve had with people around the country in recent weeks on that front that make me think this is an area I should continue exploring and developing.

There’s huge scope for developing this stuff further in this role – producing things like this, and working with our team on things like this smart phone app, and helping think about how we share and distribute these videos.

The Bible on Prime Time

I enjoyed this and thought it was a largely helpful rendition of the narrative of Genesis-Exodus. I really appreciated the way the show used and presented some of the behind the scenes aspects of the narrative with sensitivity. And then there were the ninja angels…

In the absence of more substantive thoughts. Here are my tweets, and those I retweeted, from tonight…

Did you watch? Do you have thoughts?

Hillsong – “Tax Free”: A Current Affair, truth, taxes, transparency, and talking about Jesus

I feel dumber for writing anything about this 15 minute journalistic monstrosity from A Current Affair last night. But on the same night John Dickson was presenting Christianity in a positive light on Q&A, the knives were out for Christians, and churches, but mostly Hillsong, on Australia’s least reputable tabloid television show.

The Chaser team has done a pretty good job at showing why A Current Affair isn’t really worth watching or engaging with over the years. But I’m a sucker for things that make me angry. So I’ll bite.

There was not one redeeming feature about this feature. The reporting was bad. The production was bad. The story was bad. The subject was bad. The Hillsong they presented in the story through a montage of sermon footage, interview footage, and interviews with parishioners was bad, the overt campaigning for a particular political objective without really featuring any view to the contrary was bad, and the logic behind that campaign was bad, and the Jesus presented in the story was bad.

It was bad. The worst bit of the bad bunch, I reckon, was the complete lack of anybody from the church – congregation members or staff – talking about the significance of Jesus beyond the (presumably material) “blessing” being a follower of Jesus brings, and the “Jesus said feed my sheep” stuff from the soup kitchen minister was almost equally bad.

That a story on national television can feature the line:

“There’s money to be made from Jesus. Lots of it.”

Makes me a bit sick.

Lets break this story and its problems down three ways – the problem with the story, the problem with Hillsong, and the problem with the alternative vision offered by Bill Crews and his Loaves and Fishes restaurant.

The problems with the story

I’m further and further away from being able to call myself a journalist every day – it’s a long time since I finished my degree, and a long time since I did anything that looked like journalism – if you can count the hours of unpaid work I did in newsrooms as journalism. It’s not so long since I last did paid PR work, which I guess is a bit like journalism. That was Friday. Of last week. I guess I’m saying you should take what I say here with a grain of salt – because I have a professional interest in journalists not being objective. When I do PR, I want them telling my story, and not focusing too hard on alternative views.

Or do I?

Not really. I want journalists to be telling truth. So I want to be telling them the truth. And telling the “other side” the truth. And letting people decide what the truth is.

Fundamentally, and this gets me in trouble all the time because I’m rubbish at keeping secrets – I believe that there’s a certain type of information that wants to be free. It’s not always my job to tell information – and I’ll largely respect that – but I‘ll almost always encourage the person who shares an unknown truth with me that the best way to either rob that truth of its negative power, or maximise its positive impact, is to get it out there.

I had a theory, back when I was writing about things that people were a bit more interested in, or things that were a bit more controversial, that it actually served my case to let my “opponents” see my hand, but to play it relatively forcefully. There was a group that formed in opposition to something my organisation was lobbying for, and for one reason or another, I gave them a bunch of stats from a report we had been basing our work on that hadn’t been publicly released – because if the numbers didn’t add up, we wanted to know about it. We didn’t want to be pushing for something that wasn’t really a good idea. We had nothing to hide.

Anyway… this is a pretty long preamble to suggest that the people driving the agenda driving this story – be it the journalist, his sources, his interviewees, or whatever lobby groups are pushing this legislation that’ll remove the tax protection from religious organisations, aren’t doing their cause any favours by being so sloppy with the truth. Be it by picking Hillsong as representative of the church in Australia (it’s an outlier when it comes to church size, operating budget, and reach), or by picking sources who obviously have an axe to grind but aren’t really all that qualified to be making the statements they’re making, or by not presenting valid alternative views, or by so obviously editorialising when it comes to the pejorative adjectives used and the cliched graphics and sinister music employed to make a point.

We’d be better off, I think, sitting down with the numbers, hearing from Hillsong about how they use the money, hearing from sociologists or legislators, about the contribution, or lack of contribution that churches make to public life and what justification they might have for providing financial benefits and protection for churches…

Objectivity isn’t necessarily about balancing two competing accounts of truth, you’ve got to give the right amount of weight to the right perspectives – a vox pop interview with a few joe averages off the street isn’t a more credible voice than someone who has devoted their life to studying something, that’s Australian egalitarianism/tall-poppy syndrome gone mad… objectivity is created by collecting data, then asking, and answering, the big questions about the data fairly, carefully and professionally.

This story was not objective. It was a pretty awful piece of propaganda.

Here, I think, is the central thesis of the story, as a direct quote… from the journalist, Ben McCormack.

“Hillsong takes advantage of an antiquated piece of legislation which says that if you’re a religion it’s the same thing as a charity so you don’t have to pay any tax.”

The bolded bits indicate where the lack of objectivity hits. The italicised bit is where I think the whole exercise falls down a bit – the real question he should be asking is whether all the aspects of Hillsong’s business model meet the religious element of that law.

Now. He’s in a bit of trouble here, I think, when it comes to trying to overturn this “antiquated piece of legislation” in the ordinary business of a Christian church – which one might define as preaching the gospel, and encouraging Christian living by pointing people to the example Jesus sets on the cross.

From what I can gather, there’s actually not yet any definition of charity legislated in Australia (it seems there’ll be one from July 2013), there’s some case law though, this a bit of a court judgment cited in an appropriately titled Commonwealth Charities Definition Inquiry:

“There is no intrinsic legal definition of a charity. As a matter of technique, Courts can only describe the attributes of charities. And the essential attribute required is that a charitable activity must seek the public weal; or, to put it another way, a charity is not concerned with the conferment of private advantage.”

Say what you want about Hillsong – and we’ll get there – but Christianity, in its essential form, is not interested in conferring private advantage, it’s about encouraging people to give up material advantage to take up a cross, and follow Jesus. Sure – like Brian Houston says in a clip from the sermon – we hope for heaven in the future, and that’s an advantage… but it’s hard to argue that it’s a private advantage.

He’s in more trouble because that’s not entirely the truth – religions aren’t protected because they’re charities, religions are protected because they’re religious groups. Here’s some more from the Charities Definition Inquiry (chapter 30) about what the present, and future situation here looks like:

“Since the Commonwealth enacted the first comprehensive income tax statute in 1915, an income tax exemption has been available to a distinct grouping of entities known collectively as `religious, scientific, charitable or public educational institutions’…

Its [a religious institution’s] objects and activities need to reflect its character as a body instituted for the promotion of some religious object, and the beliefs and practices of the members must constitute a religion.

Charities falling under the head of `the advancement of religion’ would also meet the requirements for a religious institution. (In Chapter 16 the Committee recommends that the `advancement of religion’ should continue to be a charitable purpose.)”

Whoops. Seems the facts aren’t quite what the story suggested. It took me a couple of minutes with google to find that out.

You could ask if Hillsong’s music and publishing arms are promotions of a religious object, and you’d probably find that since, well, the Bible, and perhaps the book of Psalms, that music and publishing are pretty essential to promoting Christian beliefs.

Adam Shand their “expert” (as in, that’s what they called him, I’m not passing judgment on his expertise) on this tax exemption front, had this to say:

“Every year more than $30 billion leaks out of the tax system to these not for profits, at this time when we’re in these deficit budgets and we’re seeing hospitals, roads, schools, their budgets being cut, this is money that could go towards that, and I don’t think it would harm Hillsong or any of these other churches to pay their fare whack, like anybody else does.”

This quote annoys me on a bunch of levels. It draws a bunch of disparate and largely unrelated strands together, and assumes the church is a drain on, rather than a contributor, to society in terms of the services it provides.

Hillsong makes a huge percentage of its revenue from after tax donations that don’t benefit the people making them in any way. They’re not tax deductible. People are directing the money they’ve already paid tax on to a cause they care about, and it’d be just as easy to support that cause “off the books” – they could give Hillsong $28 million worth of tinned soup if they thought that was the best way to see their religious cause – the mission of Jesus – advanced.

Huge sums aside, if Hillsong is a not-for-profit, and it is legitimately engaged in a Government approved activity, where presumably they see some benefit flowing through to society, the tax revenue isn’t “leaking out” – it’s not even tax revenue.

I had some other issues with the story.

The “tax free” refrain, coupled with a red rubber stamp, was, frankly, cheap and pointless.

The “why are these guys tax free if they’re not doing charitable work?” question wasn’t answered, or even asked, presumably the government has access to the same stats as some ridiculously bad television tabloid journalist.

Tax Free

 

My other issue was that for large chunks of the story it wasn’t clear why the people being interviewed were being interviewed.

I’d hope that most people can’t be bothered watching this sort of trash for more than 5 minutes, but investigative journalist Adam Shand, who time and time again was the man the not-very-investigative journalist Ben McCormack turned to for expert opinion wasn’t actually introduced or given a title until 7 minutes and 40 seconds in. The other source, Anti-Hillsong campaigner Tanya Levin was briefly introduced about four minutes in. These two appeared on the screen time and time again, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to provide a superscript with their names and titles on it – but this wasn’t done. We really had no idea how credible they were as sources. Bill Crews from the Exodus Foundation wasn’t introduced until almost the end of the story, he was clearly clerical, and critical, and wholesome, charitable, and good – but this was, in my opinion, a poorly produced and presented story based on shoddy reporting and horrible research.

Which is why it was on A Current Affair. I guess.

What’s the Problem with Hillsong

I’m fairly convinced that the legal processes that are in place are appropriate, and that Hillsong, as a big and wealthy church is well and truly on their radar, and I don’t think Brian Houston had any reason to lie when he wrote this response to similar media interest in 2010, and I think this media release is a largely helpful response to the story.

“It is a fundamental right of every person to support organisations of their choice and many who are a part of our church community – just like other Christians – freely choose to give of their time, resources and finances to ensure that the church is able to fulfil its mission of bringing hope to the world through Jesus Christ.”…

We have always recognised the need to be accountable and transparent and produce an annual report that is available publicly. The figures given by ACA were taken from publicly available ASIC records which we lodge annually and were presented in isolation simply to suit the program’s agenda; however the facts are very different. We operate an open book policy whereby congregation members are welcome to make an appointment to inspect the audited financial results of the church.

It wouldn’t surprise me if ACA didn’t contacted Brian Houston for comment, this is the sort of story you react to immediately, rather than waiting to respond on your website…

My problem with Hillsong is that despite making moves away from the prosperity doctrine being their core thing in recent songs and stuff – I’m willing to cede that to them – when members of their congregation are interviewed about life as part of the church you get stuff like:

“I’ve seen much much more blessing than I could ever have if I didn’t give that 10% of my income to God.”

And it’s unfortunate that there seems (and again, it’s quite possible that the picture of the service you get in the story isn’t accurate) to be such an emphasis on money in their services – there certainly wasn’t a shortage of money material for the story to draw on.

It’s a massively unhelpful thing for the rest of us that the biggest church in Australia seems to be on about money, prosperity, and blessing, as much as they’re on about Jesus. Even if that perception isn’t reality – some deliberate work on overturning that perception is required.

I’m not really interested in questioning this stuff though, I am interested, like Hillsong, in the “bringing hope to the world in Jesus” thing (as a non-pentecostal, I think they, like most pentecostals ‘over-realise their eschatology’ which means they bring to many promises about the future for Christians into the present, and ‘under-realise the place of suffering’).

What irks me is that the alternative proffered to Hillsong’s flashing lights and rock show is the ascetic “give everything to the poor” approach to ministry advocated by Bill Crews.

It’s true that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor – but the next bit of that instruction, the “follow me” was really where it was at for that guy. The problem with Crews, and it taps into the problem with the story itself, is the idea that the gospel itself doesn’t help people. My guess is that the parishioners interviewed in the story understood that this is how their money helps people.

Knowing Jesus helps people. So when Bill Crews sets up a dichotomy between “helping the poor” and other activities of the church, he’s ignoring the huge imperative for the Australian church to work with the spiritually bankrupt.

“If it doesn’t go to help the poor the amount of money that goes in should be taxed… it’s a business just like anything else.”

I’m with Bill that we’re meant to be like Jesus. I’m with Bill that what Jesus says about money should frame how we think about money. I’m with Bill that the way Jesus thought of his responsibility to the poor should influence how we help the poor (I think Hillsong is with me, and Bill, at this point)… I just don’t want to limit the way Jesus wanted the poor to be cared for to literally feeding them – that has to be part of the mix, but it can’t possibly be all of the mix.

Here’s how Jesus talks about his ministry to the poor in Luke 4.

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The good news was that he had arrived as king. That he died, was buried, and was raised – and that this confirmed that he was king, and gives us victory over death… and the promise of life with him, in the new creation, where there is no poverty, sadness, or oppression – nobody taking advantage of people, imprisoning them, or being generally nasty. And sure. We’ve got to let that future reality shape how we live in the present… but we’re ultimately going to be shaped by the cross. Sacrificial love for others, at any cost, so that they might be set free to.

Bill is loving people in a radical way. A necessary way – but so are those who preach the gospel (especially when they also love people in a radical way). The “feed my sheep” line that Bill uses  in the interview is what Jesus says to Peter when he’s reinstating him after he denied him before he was killed in John 21, I’m struggling to figure out how it applies to a soup kitchen without first applying to teaching people the good news.

Ben McCormack was unhelpful again when he said “Brian Houston does a lot of talking, while Bill Crews does a lot of doing” – they’re equally essential parts of being a religious organisation, especially a Christian church, and doing what the government expects us to do when they give us tax free status.

A way forward

Briefly, now, because this post is already too long. If transparency isn’t the answer – and it doesn’t appear to have protected Hillsong from stupid journalism, and if stupid journalism undermines our ability to be on about the gospel clearly… then at some point it’s going to be easier for us to talk about Jesus unhindered if we don’t just pay tax, but campaign for the laws to be changed, not in our favour, but against our financial interests.

That might be the price we have to pay so that we can be seen to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.

John Dickson on #qanda

I’m thankful Australian Christianity has spokespeople who don’t play the stupid combative game that Q&A seems to thrive on. John Dickson continued in Peter Jensen’s fine tradition (not Pell’s so much, thankfully).

science plus Jesus

Image Credit: Australian Christian News

I really appreciated his willingness to charitably cede points, and agree with others on the panel in order to make the most important point, and to push on despite being interrupted to get his key message across. This is a paraphrase, I only started typing what he was saying about halfway through… but I thought this bit was the highlight. The transcript is now available, and I’ve included some other highlights below.

“you’ve got to ask yourself the question: is there any evidence on the world stage that this God we think is maybe just a mind has touched the earth in a tangible way? And for me, if you are asking me why do I think there’s a God, it’s this philosophy of science, plus the life of Jesus.”

There were some great #qanda tweets on screen tonight too that indicated Dickson’s approach, and the substance of his answers, was appreciated by the non-Christians in the audience.

I’m sure others are going to be more or less excited about his treatment of science – but historically, there’s little doubt that science arose on the back of a Christian desire to know more about God’s creation, so there is something nice about not tossing science under the bus while acknowledging that it is a movable feast – a point Krauss made very strongly over and over again – science isn’t set in stone, it’s an ongoing discussion of the evidence, and what Dickson demonstrated is that a robust Christian faith has nothing to fear from science – because it’s all about Jesus, and understanding how the Bible relates to the God who created the world reaching out to touch it in the person, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s worth pointing out that while Dickson accepted a truckload of science that some Christians might be unhappy with – including stuff about the age of the earth and evolution – he wasn’t asked about the historicity of Adam, which is where a lot of the theological weight in the debate rests – he also didn’t say anything disputable about the content of Genesis 1-2, what might be in dispute is what to do with his genre observations… and being honest about the history, intentions, usefulness, and limitations of science while being clear about who Jesus is, in a program that was trending worldwide on Twitter, is, I think, a win. The program format limits the panelists’ ability to come back and clarify or expand on the points they make – so while I’ve read a bunch of people throwing rocks at Dickson, on Twitter, in the comments here, etc – I think you’ve got to take the format into account.

Here were some bits from Dickson that I thought were just stellar…

“I agree with almost everything Lawrence just said actually except I would beg to differ about whether science can actually produce an ethic. I think human beings produce an ethic and we decide whether to use science positively or negatively according to our world view and history is littered with examples of science being used brilliantly, ethically so, and times when it’s used badly. I disagree that science has any ethical import. It’s a neutral discipline and it’s a wonderful discipline. The little quips that I heard throughout about science is all about humility and so on I love. In fact Peter Harrison of Oxford University, who is one of the world’s leading historians of science, thinks that it was a revolution in this doctrine of humility that flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries that got science going in Europe in part. It’s not a total explanation but that as Augustine philosophy developed, which basically said human beings are flawed so we need better techniques. We can’t trust our brains. We need to observe, and this Augustinian philosophy grew out of Christianity, as you know, and so Christianity probably is, in part, responsible for science in the first place. I agree that it shouldn’t stick its head in now and tell the scientists what to do. My view is let the scientists do the science. My view is let the scientists do the science and let religious believers do what they do.”

This bit (Family First can learn from this one)…

“The only thing I want to pick up Lawrence with is to say to call it child abuse, to me there are two problems with this. One, it so inflames the conversation and I think the new atheism breeds of this kind of inflamed kind of conversation. The second thing I find very uncomfortable about it is that anyone in the audience who has actually been abused finds that a very odd use of that very loaded term. I know you don’t mean it like that but it’s like someone saying “Oh, that’s a holocaust”. There is one holocaust.”

This was the absolute gold.

JOHN DICKSON: “We live in a universe that operates according to these elegant, beautiful laws and when I read your book this week I was more convinced that that’s the case. And this universe, operating according to these elegant laws, has produced minds that now understand the laws, especially this mind next to us. And so this, to me, all looks and this is not a proof for God but I’m just saying why a lot of people think the God thing has a lot going for it, the whole thing looks rational. The whole thing looks set up to be known. Now, only known in a rational, like the God of Einstein, so then you’ve got to ask yourself the question: is there any evidence on the world stage that this God we think is maybe just a mind has touched the earth in a tangible way? And for me, if you are asking me why do I think there’s a God, it’s this philosophy of science, plus the life of Jesus.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, yeah, but hold on. There was a bait and switch there that I object to and that was that…

JOHN DICKSON: Can I get to the end of the bait?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, you said Jesus and then you started going off and we were no longer – okay.

JOHN DICKSON: So what I’m saying is you ask yourself the question: is there any tangible thing in the history of the world that looks like contact from the God we suspect might be there? The overwhelming – I think overwhelming evidence points in the direction of Jesus, his life, his teaching and his healings, his death and resurrection. And when I come to believe that, this opens up the world to me. It is like CS Lewis saying “I believe in Christianity for the same reason I believe in the sun, not because I can look at it but because by it I see everything”. And, for me, Christianity explains the world I live in in such a spooky and deep way that I find I feel I have met the God I had a hunch was there based only on the beautiful elegant (indistinct)…

TONY JONES: Okay. All right. So now we’ve moved into the – I was going to say I would like Lawrence to respond to that. We have moved into the area of intuition now and perhaps…

JOHN DICKSON: And history.”

I barely watch Q&A anymore – five panelists is far too many. Tonight would have been sensational had it just been Krauss and Dickson, the others (as much as I like Tanya Plibersek) added nothing to the discussion, and there were too many times where misunderstandings were glossed over and not resolved in order for the pollies to get their bits about climate change in.

Did you catch it? What’d you think?

A useful reminder for how not to respond to tragedy and sin

Dear Christian with a microphone,

I know. It’s tempting. Very tempting.

Everybody is looking for someone who has something to say. An expert. And it’s tempting to get on your soapbox when bad stuff happens and talk about how it’s judgment for sin, not an example of the cost of sin.

But the two are different.

Even if there’s a correlation between sin and judgment, where the negative consequences of sin (given that sin falls outside of the design for human flourishing so naturally has bad results) are an immediate form of judgment for sin, I’m not sure you can jump from the individual to the corporate – from the judgment the individual experiences after their sin to bad things happening, where people are hurt and some sort of nefarious or malicious intent on God’s part. There’s something very Old Testament about the idea that a nation’s fortunes are tied to their obedience to God’s law – but America isn’t Israel. Nor is Australia.

This is the God who hates sin and injustice so much that he sent his son to experience injustice and start the process of dealing with sin. At the cross. This was still evil, though good happened as a result.

You might want to link sin and judgment and death. And where better than when they’re all happening at once. You might want to point out that the world is broken. But I’m not sure that putting forward a solution, or a proposed cause, other than that all people everywhere have turned away from God and do bad things to each other as a result, is particularly sensitive.

Now is not the time to push your particular special interest. Especially if it looks like point scoring. Even if it’s right. Now is not the time to point score. But to comfort. To love. To empathise. To condemn. To support. To offer hope.

I know there’s a robust theology of God’s sovereignty behind your statements. I know people would be better off if they followed Jesus (that’s pretty much how I responded yesterday).

Sometimes it’s not obvious who to blame – so you might be thinking that a tragedy presents an opportunity to further your only tangentially related cause (or, more cynically, sometimes the people who give you lots of money might be looking for alternative scapegoats). But the blame game is the wrong game.

This is a horrible political road to travel – and it’s worse if you’re trying to play the political game as a Christian.

If that’s you, you’re not going to get people to follow Jesus by cashing in on events like this for your political cause – it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to ban video games (as the ACL did with the Norway shootings), or, as is the case with Mike Huckabee, trying to (re)introduce school prayer. Or, more charitably, to restore or salvage some sort of public role for Christianity in a post-Christian world.

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools… Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?

“Maybe we ought to let [God] in on the front end and we wouldn’t have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.” – Mike Huckabee

You may have a point. The world might be a better place if people were more like Jesus. That’s pretty much what I said yesterday. But that’s not going to happen if you systematise Christianity. If you legislate it. If you make it compulsory. And it’s certainly not going to happen if you try to make some political mileage towards that goal off the back of a tragedy.

Changes of action follow changes of the head, and the heart.

The head and the heart are only followed by the hands if you’re some sort of totalitarian control freak dictator looking to the kind of emotional response that produces Stockholm Syndrome, or Pavlovian responses to bad experiences.

That is not how the Holy Spirit works, which is essential to the process of making people more like Jesus.

Your theology is wandering off into dangerous territory if you think the answer to bad stuff is to set about systemically introducing Christianity, not having Christianity, through the church, systemically working to making things better by loving and protecting people through the political process. The two are different.

It doesn’t matter if you think that there’s a particularly heinous amount of immorality going down in the world right now (see this 2009 example from Danny Naliah, and just about anything Westboro Baptist say) – that’s a judgment call that requires you to ignore 2,000+ years of post-Jesus human history, and focus on a particularly narrow definition, or manifestation, of sin…

The correct response is not “we” or “they” deserved this, or in any way earned this, as a result of God’s judgment. You might make that theological case in general – the Bible is pretty clear that sin and death aren’t part of how God made the world, and one leads to the other, for all people. But you can’t take that to the specific – and link particular, disconnected, sins, to particular deaths, and you probably shouldn’t be making that case at this time. It looks cheap and unloving. Even if you’re trying to be loving.

It’s not particularly loving to victims of sin and tragedy, and their families, to be trying to score from their misfortune – no matter how well intentioned you are. Or how right your cause may be.

If you do. If you give in to that temptation and jump on that soapbox, you are an idiot who is damaging the gospel and making people think less of Jesus.

UPDATE – Huckabee has clarified his statement a little.

“A specific act of violence is rarely the result of a specific single act of a culture that prompts it. In other words, I would never say that simply taking prayer and Bible reading from our institutions or silencing Christmas carols is the direct cause of a mass murder. That would be ludicrous and simplistic. But the cause and effect we see in the dramatic changes of what our children are capable of is a part of a cultural shift from a God-centered culture to a self-centered culture.”

Christ and Pop Culture has a great post offering a balanced critique of Huckabee’s statement, which links to this Rachel Held Evans post that I liked.

How should Christians respond to the Royal Commission into the abuse of Children?

Child abuse is bad. In any form. But the sexual abuse of children is especially heinous. It is, I think, the worst form, and example, of sexual brokenness in humanity. And the idea that any Christian institution could not just be complicit in covering this sort thing up, but actively and systematically prevent wrongdoers facing justice for crimes they commit, siding with the perpetrator at the expense of the victim – whether explicitly, or implicitly – makes me sick. It makes me angry.

The obvious answer then – when it comes to the question in the heading – is that we should not just welcome the Royal Commission. We should champion it. We should celebrate it. It’s fantastic. It’s the state doing what the state should do. Pursuing justice. For victims.

But for some reason it doesn’t seem that simple. For some reason the Catholic Church appears, if reports are accurate, to be hedging their bets on this front.

It’s an area of public opinion – and justice and morality – where there’s no room for covering up what’s happening.

Getting caught in a cover up, in a sensitive area like this, is a PR disaster. It doesn’t even do that which it attempts to do – protect your brand. It trashes it. And anybody loosely associated with you, because, say, they have “church” in their name.

It’s not just a PR disaster. It’s a moral disaster. It’s wrong. It’s the wrong way to approach wrongdoing. It compounds it, not just by enabling future abuse, but especially if/when you get caught. The tragedy for Christians is that while the Reformation was a pretty major historical event around 500 years ago, there’s still a little bit of confusion around the traps when it comes to the church – and the difference between Catholics and Protestants. It’d be really easy, and its very tempting, to distance ourselves from the Catholics theologically – to throw them under the bus on this one – but some of those nuances get lost on the public, and you’ve got to figure out what your denomination does when you end up hiring a sinner who sins…

It’s better to deal with the underlying issues as openly and honestly as you can. Partly so that you can be consistent when things go pear shaped at your end, but mostly so that the gospel of Jesus is pretty clear.

And that means saying: “people do wrong. All the time. We all need forgiveness. We all crave justice. And real justice and forgiveness are found in Jesus.”

This isn’t trite. It’s the profoundly uncomfortable truth of the gospel.

It’d be pretty easy to turn child sex offenders into some special category of unforgivable person – and in many ways I wish this were true. I actually think if we’re honest about the Gospel, this is almost a harder sell than Hell. I reckon some of the people who don’t like the idea of Hell would be for it – if it was somewhere reserved for Hitler and child abusers.

The shocking bad news of the Gospel

The bad news of the gospel is that all people – child abusers, and me, and nicer people like you, are broken, and need help. At times it feels like the worst part of the bad news is that help is available to people we wish it wasn’t. The other part of the bad news is you’re just like the child abuser. Naturally. You’re just lucky that you probably aren’t as messed up as them by the life you’ve lived, or the crossed wires in your head. Psychologists are great at making excuses for criminals – and they’re kind of right – most people who do terrible stuff do it because they’ve experienced terrible stuff. But the excuse shouldn’t actually function to stop consequences following actions. It should give us, especially if you’re a Christian, a bit of sympathy for the perpetrator of a crime (though you should have a lot more sympathy for the victim – and we should especially want to protect vulnerable victims).

But we’re all in the same boat – or perhaps in a better metaphor – we’re all lost in the same sea, needing to be rescued.

We’re all pretty messed up, we all hurt people, we’re all wired to be selfish, it’s in our genes, because we’re human – some of us just have different opportunities to express our brokenness, or different generational baggage, different circumstances that make us angry, or deviant, in different ways – because we’ve felt the residual effects of sin from the people who’ve shaped us, and the people who’ve shaped them… We’re all broken, we all inflict our brokenness on others. Some people inflict their brokenness on people whose brokenness hasn’t really had time to develop – children – and that’s abhorrent.

It’s not just abhorrent. It’s criminal. And that’s where this Royal Commission is important, and where the Catholic Church is smashing the Christian brand when it covers up crimes and seems to care more for the people committing them, than for the victims. When people commit crimes – the state should rightly be free to punish those people. Even if they’ve been forgiven by God. That’s why we have governments, and again, if the church is getting in the way of the government because it thinks it operates on a higher plane – then I’d argue its missed that the Biblical truth that Governments are appointed by God to do a job. That the material costs of sin need to be paid (in the absence of forgiveness of the victim), as well as the spiritual.

God judges people, and does so justly, but he also appoints governments (Romans 13:1):

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

And he appoints them to do a job.

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The authorities, rightly, say that the sexual abuse of children is criminal, and deserving of punishment. It blows my mind that anybody thinks it’s a helpful thing for the gospel to be seen helping people avoid that punishment. No matter what the theological agenda you’re running is – if you’re preventing people meeting Jesus because you, or your theology, is getting in the way of the gospel, you probably need to rethink your theology.

Helping people avoid that punishment by suggesting that the confession of a sin, which may (though I believe it doesn’t), solve the spiritual aspect of a crime, so they shouldn’t be punished by the state (which is what I think is the perception of what’s going on) is bad. It’s no better if we grasp the nuances of the Catholic position – they’re saying that if Confession is not kept sacrosanct, such that what is said in the confession booth no longer stays in the confession booth, criminals won’t confess, and they’ll have no Spiritual way out, so they’ll get Hell for their crimes, not just the justice of the state. This kind of misses the point. The justice of the state is something God institutes.

There’s an easy theological solution here – realise that confession only really counts when it’s done to God, begging for mercy on the basis of the blood of Jesus – the whole confession to a priest thing is a theological non-starter…

Anyway. The bad news of the gospel is that when it comes to the judgment we deserve for our brokenness, from God, who requires perfection, nobody meets the standards. Not you. Not me. Not a child abuser. There’s no special category of sinner, though we don’t all deserve jail for our sins.

The shocking good news of the gospel

But the good news of the gospel (which is kind of a tautology when you know that gospel means good news) is perhaps more shocking – Jesus forgives child abusers. Like he forgives me. Like he can, or has, forgiven you – depending on what you think of him, and his good news. This is shocking, and horribly unfair.

Mercy is not justice. It’s not fair. It’s something better.

Jesus tells a couple of parables to explain how God’s approach to mercy, rewarding all those who follow Jesus equally no matter what they’ve done, and even forgiving people who have been more sinful than others, isn’t fair, but that in its unfairness it’s kind of wonderful – especially when you realise that you’ve been dealt a pretty good hand, that’s not what you deserve either.

That’s why Jesus says the lost being found should be something joyful. That’s why mercy shown to us should lead us not just to forgive people when they wrong us, but to extend the offer of mercy to others.

Paul says something about the sort of confession that counts for something in Romans 10.

9 …because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved… 

13 …For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Everyone is pretty universal – it doesn’t say “everyone except those nasty sorts of sinners we don’t like.

It’s interesting that this is just a little bit before Paul talks about the role of government in bringing justice to wrongdoers  – he doesn’t feel the need to qualify this by saying “everybody except those people the state will punish will be saved.”

The response to knowing that everyone who turns to Jesus will be saved isn’t “don’t tell some people” – it’s tell people. The “they” in this verse are part of the “everyone” in the one before:

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

It’s a tough balance. Here are some of the factors I think need to be in the mix for our response to things like this Royal Commission.

  • As Christians we want to make children welcome, and better than that – safe from harm – when they come to know Jesus, or come to our church stuff to find out about him. That’s got to be our top priority.
  • We want to allow the state to be the state. Crimes should be punished. Justice should be served. Church and state are separate and we want to affirm the state’s ability to do its job. And comply with it. Fully. Transparently. Accountably. As we do good for people.
  • We also want to be accountable and transparent with how we deal with children, and who we let into situations where children are present.
  • We also want to distance ourselves from other people who call themselves Christians but, at times, don’t seem to do the first two of these things in a satisfactory way, but not in a way that damages the gospel – or prevents us from treating those people who, if they call on the name of Jesus, will be saved, and are part of the family of God, as something less than brothers.
  • We want to create that distance so that the gospel is protected from the damage that people who claim the name of Jesus can do to it when their actions don’t match their words.
  • We want to make sure that the good news of the gospel is available to people who do bad and horrible things.

What this looks like in practice – A Media Release/Public Statement Template

This is a pretty long post already, but here’s a sample media release I wrote that tries to bring this stuff together. This is an issue that I think requires a long release, that should be published quite publicly on your website, along with relevant links to any child safety information you can provide.

Church/Denomination X welcomes Royal Commission, offers hope of Jesus to victims and perpetrators

CHURCH NAME unequivocally welcomes the announcement of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse within Australian institutions, including church run institutions.

CHURCH NAME takes child protection seriously. Children must feel safe, and especially have no reason to fear abuse, when participating in activities sanctioned by the church, including its Sunday services, kids programs, and camps.

CHURCH NAME complies with relevant child protection legislation, and recognised best practice for the provision of services to children, in its operations. All CHURCH NAME representatives and volunteers who work with children are blue card accredited (A QUEENSLAND THING?), and we ensure adequate training is provided to our team through NAME OF TRAINING PROGRAM.

While much of the emphasis of this Royal Commission will rightly focus on the inappropriate treatment of children within church run institutions, CHURCH NAME welcomes the shining of light into this darkness, and the genuine chance this represents to bring justice to victims, closure to families, and punishment for wrongdoers, because the name of Jesus is tarnished when crimes go unpunished, or are hidden behind a curtain of religiosity and secrecy.

CHURCH NAME spokesperson X, says church and state are separate, and the state has a responsibility to carry out justice and punish wrongdoers, which the church must prayerfully support, without getting in the way.

“We believe in the separation of church and state,  that this rightly follows the teaching of Jesus when he said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and that governments are elected by the people, but appointed by God to carry out justice and protect the vulnerable. People who break the law of the land should bear the cost of breaking the law.”

“Our job is to focus on the spiritual cost of breaking God’s law. His judgment. And the free and shocking mercy and forgiveness he offers to all people in Jesus.”

“God takes loving and protecting children, and any poor, weak, or vulnerable members of our society very seriously. He will punish wrongdoers – both via the government, and in judgment. But his mercy triumphs over his judgment when a wrongdoer confesses, truly repents, and throws themselves at his feet.”

“The mercy and forgiveness of God must never prevent the government carrying out its role in society. The separation of church and state means there’s a bit of a spiritual double jeopardy happening – those forgiven by God, through the shocking truth of the gospel of Jesus, must still face punishment for their crimes.”

“The shocking news of the gospel is that while Jesus loves and values children, and the kingdom he began with his death on the cross and his resurrection, is a kingdom that loves, values, and includes, children. The shocking news of the gospel is that the love and forgiveness found in Jesus offers hope for those broken by sexual abuse, both the victims, and truly repentant perpetrators.”

“The church can be quick to demonise sinners, and while we crave justice, and long for a day when no child will be endangered by the brokenness of human nature, we must continue to offer this shocking hope to the lowest of the low, recognising that we too were low in God’s sight before he offered his mercy to us.”

CHURCH NAME will fully comply with any aspects of the Royal Commission that involves its services or ministries, and continue submit to the authority of the government, and adopting best practice methods for protecting children within its care. Our pastoral team are also available for pastoral care and counselling for any victims of sexual abuse, or parties affected by the long term consequences of such abuse in our community.

For more information on CHURCH NAME and our child protection policies, visit WEBSITE.

ENDS

So. Over to you. What would you put in/leave out in a statement like this?

An Open Letter to Guy Sebastian about Jesus

Dear Guy,

I like you. Despite myself. I even kind of like your music. I can’t really admit that in public though, but you’ve essentially forced my hand here. Generally, I don’t really like the reality TV music career pathway, but you’ve proven yourself, your music has grown, and you’ve grown on me. I probably said or thought unkind things about your success in the past – and though you’ve never met me, I’m sorry about that…

I’m also sorry to hear that you’re “reconsidering your religion” as this article puts it – that’s a shame. But it’s not like people didn’t see it coming for a while – so it shows real integrity for you to acknowledge your struggles publicly. Thanks for doing that. It must be tough to disappoint the people who have invested lots in you on the basis of your “Christian” brand, but your honesty is refreshing.

Plenty of people will try to point out that not only would you be nothing without the God who gave you the musical talent that you rely on, but that you’d be nothing without the votes you won from Christians who like to vote for Team God, given the opportunity. I’m not going to go there – though I think God gave you your voice, he gives everybody life, breath, and being – and I think, all issues with the reality TV process aside, you’ve earned your musical career. So well done. You used to think this too. Remember when you told the ABC:

“I remember when I was young and um, and at Solid Rock and um, it was when I, I think I’d been to a few meetings already and slowly getting the point, slowly getting to this point where um, where kind of God sort of almost kicked me in the butt and said, you know, this is, this is what I’ve got for you and this is the future I have for you and you can take it or leave it.”

I’m sad to hear you’ve moved away from the spot you occupied during Idol, and the post Idol touring – you were so open about what your faith meant to you, and I always appreciated that. It has to be tough sticking with Jesus when fame, fortune, and opportunity comes knocking – especially in an industry where being a faithful ambassador for Christ, as Paul calls Christians, probably comes not just at a cost in terms of the things you have to say no to, but in the opportunities you might have to turn down, and the career sacrifices you might have to make – not to mention the pressure of consistently needing to turn the glory for your hard earned success back to God… The whole premise of “Idol” makes that difficult. But you were so humble, for so long, and I was really encouraged by that.

I’m sad to hear that you feel like you were lied to. It sucks when people lie to you, or manipulate you, especially when they do it while claiming to speak for God. The God card is no fun. I’m sorry if that happened, if you feel like your popular Christian personality was built on a lie.

You said:

“My views are more based on life and discovery and research than just what I’m told,”

“Because what I was told in regards to so many things was so wrong. I’ve gone from a place where I was told there was one way and only one way, to being more in a place where I don’t think anyone has the right to say what they believe is more important or more significant.”

I found that a pretty interesting take on things. For a couple of reasons… I also wonder why you’ve misrepresented people who oppose gay marriage like you have (you said: “I don’t think anyone has the right to tell someone who they can and can’t be in love with”), typically people who oppose gay marriage are saying something a little more sophisticated than that – they’re saying that being in love with someone isn’t actually the basis for deciding who can marry who… but lets get back to the lies you were told.

I’m really glad you’re interested in a journey of discovery based on research, especially when you say you still believe in God – that’s really the best kind of life – Augustine called it “faith seeking understanding” – I’d really encourage you to make sure you look at who Jesus was, and what he said, and whether the gospels are reliable – read the guys who don’t think that’s true, like Bart Ehrman, and then read the rebuttals… weigh up the evidence. Make a decision. The truth of Christianity hangs on whether Jesus was who he says he was, and did what people said he did – especially the resurrection. If you’re not going to buy that, then eat, drink, and be merry – because not only is Christianity not the way to God, there’s probably no way to God.

The person you’re really questioning when you were told there’s only one way to God is Jesus (well, you could question John’s account of what Jesus said too, but hopefully you’ve done that in your research above)… he says, in John 14:6:

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

That’s a big claim. An arrogant claim. But it’s the claim Jesus makes about himself, not one that people thousands of years later have made up to make some extra dollars out of their church by twisting arms out of joints, or manipulating people with any sort of intolerance building fear mongering.

Jesus claims Christianity is the only way. I think you’re right that we mere mortals can’t claim that. We don’t have that sort of authority – we should probably approach any truth claims with a degree of humility and uncertainty, especially those based on a faith that other people don’t share (that’s probably got some bearing on the gay marriage debate)… if anybody has a right to say that sort of thing though – to make an exclusive claim – it’s the guy who claims to be the son of God. A couple of verses before that quote, Jesus calls God “my father,” and in the next verse he says if people have seen him, they’ve seen God – it’s that sort of position that means, if you take his claims seriously, we have to speak about him as being the exclusive way to God.

You know all this – you’ve believed in God for a long time, you’ve been part of a church for a long time, you’ve called yourself a Christian for a long time (I’m partly writing for other people here – who are wanting to figure out what Christianity means in the context of your statements). I hope you can separate the need for Christians to be tolerant of other beliefs, and the people who hold them, while politely and graciously disagreeing, from the idea that all beliefs are equally valid. Because they can’t be – some contradict each other. It’s a shame that disagreeing with somebody is so often construed as not loving the person these days, don’t you think?

It seems you’ve struggled with the relationship between individual views, and Christianity’s exclusive claims for a while. I read some things you said when you were a Christian, stuff like:

“I think at teenagers at Paradise, they get a real sort of fresh way of looking at God, there’s so many different views on what God should be or what He is and I think it’s a real personal thing, so, so people come to a youth group and they sort of find this freedom and find this um, almost like a, “Ah, man, this is not what I thought it would be like,” and they meet some great people and, and have some great worship and stuff like that and so, yeah.”

That sounds a lot like what you’ve said today.

But then I found this video. Where you said:

“I can search for the rest of my life, but I know I’ve found, in Christ, everything that matters to me. And he is the reason why I do everything I do. He has saved me from a time when I called out his name, and he came and he gave me purpose and he gave me direction. And you know because he lives, and because I know that… we celebrate today that he rose from the dead. And out of that grave he didn’t only become a man, but became a man that took all my sins, took all my worries, and I know I can face any day, no matter what comes, because he lives.”

That’s such a clear articulation of the gospel… you even sound certain there – based on your experience of God’s faithfulness to you when you called out to him. It’s sad that you’ve lost that. It’s sad for the rest of us – we haven’t just potentially lost a brother, but a guy who was prepared to publicly champion Jesus, and what being a follower of Jesus involves…

I just want you know that I prayed for you tonight. That God would give you wisdom as you seek truth, and that you’d find truth at the heart of Christianity – in Jesus – rather than in what other people have told you is necessary. I’m sure others are too. But again, thanks for your honesty – if people were more open about what they believed, and more prepared to have conversations about faith, conversation in our country would be richer for it.

In him,

Nathan

What Alan Jones and Mitt Romney can teach us about Public Christianity

It’s hard to believe that two almost identical situations have occurred so close to each other on the conservative side of politics. Alan Jones can’t have been ignorant of what happened to Mitt Romney when some graceless comments he made at function for party faithful found their way into the media. Which makes Jones’ simply awful comments about John Gillard even less excusable. If that’s even possible…


Image Credit: The Australian

Jones has apologised today, calling the remarks a “black parody” – and that’s the problem with “parody” – it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between “black parody” and the twisted things a shock jock thinks and chooses to express. Romney’s put down of almost half the people he’s hoping will vote for him will probably cost him any chance he had at the presidency.

But there are a couple of lessons here for anybody who speaks into a microphone, or in public, or even in semi-private, or private… first – there’s no such thing as off the record. Ubiquitous recording makes it likely that anything stupid you say in front of people will see the light of day. It’s not enough to not put dumb and damaging things in writing – you can’t even speak them if you don’t want people hearing them.

There is no private. No closed room. No off the record. And people will be quick to throw light on misdeeds. Even when you think you’re only talking to the in crowd.

The rule for company spokespeople used to be never say anything you don’t want people to hear in front of a mic or camera even if you think it’s off… the better principle is probably “never say anything you haven’t thought about that you don’t want being heard by everyone.”

It’s very easy to say that you were misquoted, taken out of context, speaking in parody – but at that point the damage is already done. It’s easy to make clumsy statements – to offensively compare people to the Nazis when they disagree with you, to make slippery slope arguments that disgust your opponents, or to draw unfortunate comparisons by linking different topics deliberately or otherwise… it pays to be careful with what you say, in any context. To “tame your tongue”  because it can be pretty dangerous – as Jones and Romney are learning the hard way, or as James puts it in his letter in the New Testament…

“5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James prefaces that statement with a particular warning for people who are going to teach others – which I think doesn’t just apply to what ministers of the gospel say from the pulpit, but what Christians say when they speak as Christians in public.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”

This, on one level, is a pretty superficial solution – but it would’ve helped both Romney and Jones. A better solution goes to the heart of the matter. Verse 2 is also a great reminder that we’re all going to stuff up at some point – which is why it pays to apologise early, and often, and to be clear any time you speak that you’re speaking as a broken person only made clean by an external agent – Jesus.

The problem that Jones and Romney have exemplified, and the reason its so hard to swallow an apology after the fact – is that these guys haven’t been just pinged for wrong speaking, but for wrong thinking… the tongue, whether the brain is properly engaged or otherwise, reveals the heart. Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 15:

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them….

17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person.”

This works in both ways – both Jesus and James are keen for words to be matched by deeds, and hearts… it’s no good speaking good words from an unclean heart, as a later interaction with the Pharisees (who approached Jesus to question what his disciples do in Matthew 15)… from Matthew 23 demonstrates.

First, Jesus instructs the people about the Pharisees…

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…

Then he turns to the Pharisees to proclaim a series of woes… here’s two of them…

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

A better solution than “don’t say dumb or harmful stuff where people can hear you” is “don’t think dumb and harmful stuff” – get your internals right, and the externals will follow.

Like James said – we’re always going to stuff up. It’s hard to tame the tongue. The real solution for people in ministry or doing public Christianity is to base everything on the work of Jesus, and God’s grace, in the light of our brokenness – so that we’re known for the gospel, and can point to our own stuff ups as evidence of the need for Jesus’ help, and his words as the basis of our words. If we’re known for that, rather than known for banging on about moral codes that we’ll all inevitably break without a generous act of God and the Spirit, it gives us something consistent to point to when we apologise.

An apology is more believable, and easier to accept, if what is being apologised for is not consistent with everything we’ve said before – and this is where Jones and Romney are going to struggle – Romney has a reputation for being out of touch with the lower class, his wealth, tax records, the aloof and out of touch things he says about life for the everyman, are going to make it hard for him to move past his 47% line, and Jones has a reputation for saying crass and shocking things to make a political point, especially when it comes to Julia Gillard.

This too is why it’s going to be harder and harder for Christians in Australia if we’re not known as people who love God, love our neighbours, and want to follow Jesus – but as people who want to protect “Christian values”… especially when we inevitably misspeak, or aren’t quick enough to distance ourselves from those who do… there’s tremendous pressure on Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party to distance themselves from Jones, just as there was last week with Bernardi’s unfortunate contribution to the gay marriage debate.


Image Credit: SMH

As James puts it…

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

The aim is to use our tongue for the first, and avoid the second… while being wise (more from James):

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deedsdone in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

Incidentally – if you didn’t read verse 14 after reading verse 6 – you might think there was a contradiction between what Jesus says about the heart being what “defiles” – because James says the tongue starts fires that “corrupts the whole body,” while Jesus says the tongue reflects what’s going on in the heart. It’s clear from this verse that James thinks the heart is the basis of the boasting of the tongue… his argument seems to be that an untamed tongue poisoning both for the speaker, and those who listen…

That is all.