Tag Archives: public Christianity

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.


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,



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.

John Lennox on science and faith

Like the rest of evangelical Australia I’m a bit of a John Lennox fan at the moment. His turn on Q&A last week was a masterful attempt at presenting the gospel graciously in a relatively combative adversarial format. Those critical of his content (and I’ve seen a couple of Christians suggesting he could have answered a couple of questions better) should pay heed to the format, and the way both Eva Cox and the ABC’s moderator Virginia Trioli were keen to jump in on him before he could finish answering their questions. He articulated the need for forgiveness and the intellectual legitimacy of a God who intervenes in creation in a personal and relational way. I thought he did a stellar job. I thought Virginia Trioli’s banging on about circular reasoning was a little bit annoying because truth will essentially be self authenticating and circular, circular reasoning is a fallacy, but it’s not a defeater.

Anyway. Here’s John Lennox on a topic I wrote an essay about this semester.