Tag Archives: social justice

Why, with all due respect, it’s wrong to pit social justice against the Gospel

Eternity News has a new podcast, With All Due Respect. It features two people I appreciate and respect, Baptist pastor-theologian Megan Powell Du Toit and Anglican pastor-theologian Michael Jensen. The first four episodes have been fun, and a model of irenic disagreement. In episode three they tackled the relationship between social justice and the proclamation of the Gospel, a discussion prompted by a new ‘statement’ issued by a bunch of Christians in the U.S, who seem to have nothing better to do than sit around and come up with line drawing exercises to decide what really is and isn’t kosher for Christians; it’s in the tradition of the Nashville Statement, with a series of ‘affirmations’ and ‘denials’, and this one, The Statement on Social Justice, aims to make it clear to true Christians that the social gospel, especially as it applies to issues of racism and social justice is a distraction from the work of proclaiming the Gospel.

As something of a follow up to the podcast episode, Eternity ran this piece from Michael Jensen, fleshing out his argument — he’s not embracing the Statement, but he does share some of its concerns when it comes to the way the mission of the church might be confused when it comes to ‘social justice’ — he argues, in sum, that:

“The gospel of Jesus Christ demands social justice but working for social justice is not the gospel.”

His piece tracks back through the history of the evangelical movement’s approach to (and embrace of) the pursuit of justice as a fruit of the Gospel, to a fork in the road moment. A divide he describes between:

“… those who were committed to personal conversion through evangelism as the supreme, even only, calling of the church, and those who argued that the Christian gospel was advanced as much by social justice as by evangelism.” 

He reflects on the polarising way this debate has often been framed; and then attempts to chart a via media — and a new one — through the poles. Between “Christians are doing gospel work when they argue for racial equality or promote more just treatment of the poor, regardless of whether the gospel is preached or not,” and “our task is to preach the gospel, and when hearts are changed we find that society is changed.” 

The position, or understanding of the Gospel he sees underpinning the former, the social gospel position, is a version of the Gospel that recognises that there’s more to sin and evil than the individual, and that sin infects systems, institutions, and other social structures (a classically ‘left wing’ approach. The position, or understanding of the Gospel he sees underpinning the latter, is a version of the Gospel that focuses on one’s individual sin, and that Jesus takes the penalty for that sin. His middle way:

“And that means we cannot think of discipleship in simply individual terms. Neither can we think of the Christian gospel as only a matter of the individual’s reconciliation with God. But if it doesn’t begin with the individual’s reconciliation with God, it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not just die for sin. He died for sinners.”

And this is all good stuff. It rejects a certain sort of reductionism that plenty of us fall into along tribal or ideological lines, and invites us to consider that the Gospel has both individual and systemic implications.

Jensen does make a claim about the priority in this relationship — the individual. And I’d like to humbly suggest that this definition of the Gospel also turns a fruit of the Gospel into the Gospel; that it is an anthropocentric Gospel rather than a Christocentric Gospel… that the Gospel ‘begins’ with Jesus, not our reconciliation with God; that it is good news because it is an announcement about the victory and rule of Jesus, as God’s king, and that this victory has individual and corporate fruits — the forgiveness of sins for the individual, and our reconciliation with God, is a fruit of this victory at the same time (and with the same priority); that Jesus is king of a new and different kingdom.

If we make the Gospel first about Jesus, rather than about the implications of what Jesus does for us, then we don’t have to resolve certain tensions but can hold them together (this is a bit like the way the reformers seem to use union with Christ to resolve a tension we’ve then tried to create between justification and sanctification).

Jensen’s conclusion is eloquent and excellent, after making the case that “the gospel demands that we think about social justice” he says:

“… we can too easily substitute working for social justice for the gospel – in which case we just become a reflection of whichever political philosophy we prefer, progressive or conservative. The power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, by drawing repentant sinners to the cross of Jesus Christ and by unleashing his resurrection power in them, is the power we wield for change.”

It is absolutely the power we wield for change. But how then do we wield it. Presumably, because he doesn’t expand on this point — he sees this wielding happening predominantly through proclamation, that there’s a priority here being expressed of word over deed. And again, I’d humbly suggest that this still resolves a tension that doesn’t need to be resolved, or prioritises one arm of a paradox. I think we’d do better to hold ‘word’ and ‘image’ or ‘speaking’ and ’embodying’ together in the way the incarnation of Jesus does; so that our actions and words together are what proclaims the Gospel. Our lives are part of the medium that carries the message of the Gospel.

In this way “the Gospel” has both individual and corporate fruits, and they work themselves out in the world through Christians — ambassadors of Jesus — as we live as embodied communities and individuals who belong to his kingdom; the church being both ‘the body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12) and Christians being those the Spirit is transforming into the image of Jesus. It seems oddly reductionist to separate word and deed the way we so often attempt to in these debates about what has priority. And here’s my real disagreement with this piece… It’s about who we are as humans and what it means to be human, then, what it means to be embodied speakers, and finally, the relationship between ethos and logos in communication. If we insist on splitting embodying the Gospel (or its fruit) from proclaiming the Gospel (or its fruit) in order to decide which activity has priority, we tear apart things that are held together both biblically and in our experience of reality.

One of Michael Jensen’s specialty areas is theological anthropology — what it means to be human. And I’m not going to be the young punk who tries to undo him on his own turf. I’m going to suggest he’s already undone himself… In one of my favourite essays (not just ‘essays by him,’ but essays), ‘Through a Glass Darkly: Social Media and the Paradox of Virtual Intimacy,’ he says:

“The Word, as John wrote, had become flesh: and the appearance of the Word enfleshed had been proclaimed as the decisive manifestation of the divine presence, full of grace and truth, revealing the glory of the Father. The fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily on Jesus Christ; and now that that body had ascended, and was no longer present to be touched, the presence of Jesus could be experienced textually – by means of the spoken and written recollections of Jesus. The fellowship of believers is then is called into being as itself the “body” of Christ, so as to mediate the presence of Christ in the world. It has in its possession the recollection of Jesus’s words and his works – and so it is called to believe his words, and depend upon his works, but also to repeat his words and perform his works.”

It’s difficult to split the church mediating the presence of Jesus in the world, and taking up the task to ‘repeat his words and perform his works’ — much as I’d suggest it’s difficult to split proclaiming the Gospel and living lives marked by the Gospel… especially if the Gospel is not about me, or us, but Jesus (with implications for me and us), and if Jesus is both the ‘word of God in the flesh’ and the image of God — an embodied communication (in word and deed), then these two tasks — word and deed — are aspects of one task. What I’m really trying to say… or what he said… is:

The Incarnation of the Son of God as “the image of the invisible God” is also a refraction that most basic of anthropological themes, namely, the imago dei. As the English theologian Alastair McFadyen and others have argued, the “image of god” is not a reference to some particular ability or capacity that human beings have, but to their vocation: they are called to represent the creator to the creation, in visible, bodily form. For this role they are made articulate: they are agents of communication in part because they are tasked with declaring the will of God to the world, and because they are invited to declare his praises to him. And they are made as bodies, located in time and space. They are something to see, and hear. The New Testament not only sees Jesus Christ as the one who finally fulfils this human vocation (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 4:4), but the church finds its new vocation in being renewed in the image now of Christ (as in Romans 8:29).

Splitting ‘representing the creator’ in visible, bodily, form and ‘proclaiming the Gospel’, given that this representation is about mediating or communicating, and ‘articulating’ starts to seem a bit like splitting a hair to me (as opposed to hairs).

Even if the church’s primary task is proclaiming the Gospel — especially because the Gospel is the power we wield in the world — then the idea that we can proclaim something just with words doesn’t grapple with who we are as people, how we communicate, or how we are persuaded. It assumes that our words (logos) can somehow exist in a vacuum, apart from our lives — our integrity and credibility as speakers. They can’t. Medium and message are inextricably tied together — if a message comes without a medium (well it can’t), but if it were simply words on a page with no reference to a communicator, that, in itself, communicates something that shapes the way the message is received… Our lives, our pursuit of justice and our lives as individuals, provide the context for others to interpret our proclamation. Here’s Jensen again, on Paul.

“It was not only his words, but his observed manner of life in connection to those words – in imitation of Christ – that establishes his apostleship, and proves his sincerity of motive. He reminds his listeners of his costly service of them and of the way in which he supported himself financially when he was with them.”

This is true for individuals — that our lives are the ethos that form the basis of our communication — that our words and manner of life work together… Why then, when it comes to the pursuit of justice, systemically, would we split our ‘observed manner of life’  — the imitation of Jesus our king — from the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king of a God’s kingdom? Why split the pursuit of justice from proclaiming the Gospel so long as both are consistent and there’s an integrity to our words and deeds?

,

What is a “Christian” response to Australia’s foreign aid cuts?

Lets face it. I probably wouldn’t have voted for Labor at the next election anyway. Like millions of other Australians, I’m feeling completely disenfranchised by the major parties in Australian politics.

While part of this is because neither side is particularly likeable – and that goes double for the leaders of the parties. Another part of the problem driving my political apathy is that I don’t think it makes a huge difference who is in power in Australia.

Both major parties are essentially centrist. Both parties have pretty sound credentials. And while extremist pundits on either side of the spectrum want to run around saying that the sky is going to fall in if the other party gets/stays in power – it’s simply not true.

We’ve got it pretty good in Australia. Ridiculously good. Our first world conditions are improving. Yesterday’s luxuries are necessities, tomorrows luxuries are becoming necessary quicker than ever before. So complaining about the political scene in Australia where neither major party is out to oppress a minority, or start a war, is pretty much the epitome of a #firstworldproblem.

Because we’re a first world country there are many people – myself included – who think that the decent, and necessary, thing to do is to provide aid to developing countries to help raise the standard of living and save lives across the globe.

This is, if you’re not into altruism, good foreign policy. More stable countries around the globe means less wars, less refugees, less poverty. To channel Toby Ziegler’s “free trade stops wars” argument – we’re better off and more secure when other countries are better off and more secure.

The Labor party has been accused of back-pedalling away from their surplus promise faster than an off balance unicyclist. But at some point, a promise isn’t worth keeping. If the promise shouldn’t have been made in the first place. Sometimes you’ve just got to wear changing circumstances on the chin. Sometimes you’ve got to admit you were wrong – with a flat out mea culpa, a “deficit we had to have” speech, or an explanation that while economic times have changed, and while a surplus was the government’s best intention, certain other social and moral obligations have to be kept… any of these things is a better than the alternative the Australian Labor government has settled on.

How many foreign lives need to be cut short so that Labor gets its $1 surplus? What is it worth to gain that surplus, but forfeit our nation’s soul in the process.

Here’s what’s happening. Labor is cooking the books a little, to allocate $375 million of foreign aid spending to Australia’s refugee program. Ben Thurley, from the Micah Challenge, says this is allowable under Australia’s aid obligations.

He says:

“The Foreign Minister says this isn’t a cut to foreign aid, and in a strict sense he is right. Under Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rules (pdf), governments are allowed to report the first 12 months of in-country support costs for refugees – the official term for “aid”. The Foreign Minister even points to three donor countries who claim more refugee assistance as aid than Australia is reportedly planning to claim, the US ($895 million in 2010), France ($435 million in 2010) and Sweden ($397 million in 2010).”

While it might not “strictly” be the case, it’s pretty clear what the government’s intentions are – a member of their own back bench is speaking out against taking the politically expedient route to a surplus.

This aid saves lives. It improves the status quo in measurable ways. Here are some stats from World Vision, via the Micah Challenge again:

World Vision has estimated that in the last year alone Australian aid money saved at least 200,000 lives, provided education for more than half a million children and gave disaster assistance to more than 10 million people. It is these outcomes that are threatened by this plan.

Aid works. It’s not enough to throw this burden to Christian charities, and support them with your dollars – the same charities, who have people at the coal face in these countries, are calling for the government to be more generous, not less. Compassion has this useful mythbusting post on the benefits of foreign aid.

TEAR Australia is also speaking out against the proposed changes.

They’re calling people to take action – and providing some tips and easy(ish) ways to do it.

Tim Costello, World Vision CEO, wrote this piece in The Agesumming up the situation nicely in terms of how the Australian public at large should respond…

“They know that funds designated for poor communities beyond our shores should not be plundered to support the government’s own political interests. Australians will rightly view this decision as a sleight of hand, not least because it is driven by a desperate political imperative to reach a budget surplus.”

Both he, and the Micah Challenge, point out that there’s a bit of a mystery in terms of what programs are going to lose funding via this move.

Each of these groups is a Christian aid group. Doing good work in less fortunate countries, in the name of Jesus. And making a difference. You suspect if they could do the job without government aid, they wouldn’t be all that concerned about the cuts. But concerned they are.

The Australian Christian Lobby has also issued a statement – calling for the government to rethink.

“The government certainly has an obligation to fulfil its commitment to asylum- seekers and refugees in Australia but to do this at the expense of poverty-stricken communities overseas is unfair,” he said.

He said it’s the second time this year the government has not followed through on its commitment to foreign aid.

“In May the government announced it would delay increasing aid spending to 0.5 per cent of GNI by 2015,” he said.

“Australia’s current commitment stands at 0.35 per cent of GNI – well short of what is needed to eradicate poverty and help developing nations implement poverty-reducing policies,” he said.”

Should Christians respond to these cuts?

Evangelical Christians have been rightly scared by the “social justice” or “social gospel” movement – a product of the approach to mission adopted by the ecumenical movement in the mid-to-late 20th century. Basically people from a bunch of different Christian traditions got together – and because they couldn’t agree on what the gospel was, decided to focus on what they could agree on – looking after the poor. So they saw gospel work, God’s mission, as work on social transformation, the liberation of the poor and oppressed. That’s a little simplistic – there was also a group who genuinely think looking after the poor is all we’re cared to do, with a mantra that goes something like “preach the gospel always, never with words,” it seems they collapse these verses from Luke 4 into just the bits I’ve bolded:

“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.”

Evangelicals – and I’m one of them – are right to emphasise that part of the church’s role – the defining part – is to proclaim the good news. That’s how poor people, and all of us, are truly liberated.

But as is the case with most correctives – the pendulum has swung to the point where evangelicals now don’t want to touch anything that looks like social justice. Preferring “just to do gospel work.” I read a tweet just yesterday that basically wrote the whole movement off.

This is silly. How can we claim to love people if we aren’t seen to be loving them. This, again, is where ethos – our character, how we live, has to form part of how we communicate our message. We love people because God loved us. But if we want to be loving people by sharing the gospel, part of that means living in a way that makes it clear that we believe our message. That it shapes and excites us.

Social justice – provided it is performed by Christians, operating as Christians, is gospel work. It underpins proclamation. Social justice without this intent is still good work.

Social justice is there, as an imperative, for the people of God, in both the Old and New Testament.

The Micah Challenge, for example, takes its name from a cracker of a Bible verse – from Micah 6:8.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Which, coupled with a little bit of James 1:27…

27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Jesus says looking after the poor is a sign that we belong to him… in Matthew 25.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Looking after the poor is part of how Christians serve our king.

How should Christians respond to these cuts

If the charities who look after the poor around the globe – in the name of Jesus – are saying that foreign aid is necessary for making change, saving lives, and caring for people, and if caring for people is something that we’re called to do, then it follows that we, as Christians, should do what we can to see that aid continue… doesn’t it?

But what should we do? As Christians?

Pray. Definitely.

Give. Absolutely. The charities mentioned above do great work, in different and creative ways. So by all means – give directly to these charities. But they’re saying that’s not enough. The small government libertarian in me wishes this was an issue that could be solved without government intervention. By individuals. And there are plenty of generous individuals out there. But it’s not a level playing field – and libertarianism needs a situation where people are treated as equals, and where opportunities are essentially equal across the board – and that’s not the situation here.

Speak out. This isn’t just about awareness raising. This is about participating in a democracy. As Christians, but also as citizens. This is a political decision. The charities I’ve mentioned above have pretty much unanimously suggested that we respond by contacting our local federal members, and the leaders of each major party – which is as simple as googling their name and sending an email.

I think this is a good idea.

I realise I’m turning into a complete lefty at times – which is weird. I’ve only ever voted conservative. But I like to think that there are certain political issues that transcend a really arbitrary political spectrum that has been imposed on us through lack of choice, and the political reality of a two party system. So much complexity gets lost in that pursuit of political simplicity.

I’m hesitant to push hard and fast political conclusions here – but a truly Christian response is shaped by Jesus – who sacrificially gave himself up for those who follow him, out of love. At great cost. We’re called to imitate him. He calls us to love the poor. If the best way to love the poor, around the world, is to encourage the government to spend money on doing that – then we should. Right? You may think there are better ways to do it – and I’m more than open to suggestions. Perhaps these charities are unanimously wrong.

But I think Tim Costello’s right – the public knows this is a politically expedient move to save a stupidly promised surplus – so I wonder if a bit of public pressure, in the media, is called for. So don’t just send your email to your MP, send it as a letter to the editor of your paper, call a talk back radio station when this topic comes up. And if you’re in a situation where you can send a media release, on behalf of a Christian organisation – do that.

Here’s a brief sample. To finish. It covers the bits I’ll be including in my own emails to local members and party leaders. But this sort of thing works best if people are putting their own thoughts into their own words.

I really like something that a very wise friend of mine said on this front recently – he said it’s a real shame that Christians have a reputation for being conservative when it comes to this sort of political or social issue – it’d be great if we could be seen to be progressive.

Church X calls for government to increase, not slash, foreign aid commitment

Church X is dismayed by recent reports that the Federal Government is looking to slash foreign aid spending by $375 million to fund refugee care and in a bid to deliver a surplus.

Church X recognises that economic times are tough both domestically, and internationally, and suggests that wealthy countries like Australia should see this as an opportunity to generously invest, and increase foreign aid.

Church X spokesperson X said that while foreign aid is a smart investment in global stability, it also saves lives.

“We believe in the sovereignty of nations, but we also believe that God has generously provided our nation with wealth, and that this wealth presents an opportunity for Australia to be generous to fellow humans around the world.”

“We are dismayed that the government is looking to cut aid when it is needed most. Times of economic instability are precisely the times when wealthy countries should be concerned about the poorest of the poor.”

“We believe that all human lives are of equal value, because all humans are made in the image of God, and that if it is in our power to save lives – and if this is something our nation is obliged to do – we should be using the resources God has provided our nation to be generous to others.”

“As Christians we believe the ultimate display of generosity has been offered to all of us, through the death of Jesus, on the cross, in our place. This sort of sacrifice for others is the model we seek to follow, and a model that has led to significant social transformation in the last two thousand years.”

“Australian charities, with workers on the ground in those countries Australia’s aid benefits say that foreign aid is essential for saving lives. Our charities do great work. But it’s not enough.”

“On this basis, Church X is calling on the Federal Government, and our local member NAME, to increase Australia’s commitment to foreign aid to a level that makes Australia the most generous nation in the world, not decrease our aid spend in pursuit of a politically expedient headline, or a victory in a weekly news cycle.”

ENDS

,

Boat people and Christianity


Credit: Boat People Infographic from Crikey providing numerical perspective on the current situation (I’m not suggesting that people’s anxiety on the issue is fully captured by this picture.)

Wow. Tony Abbott. Here’s a pearler of a quote from a radio interview yesterday, where admittedly, Abbott was responding to a gibe about his asylum seeker policies being “unChristian”…

“Look I don’t think it is a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door.”

Now. Before we get into the myriad problems with this statement coming from a politician in a heated policy debate, I want to be a little sympathetic to what he’s trying to say… it’s a tragedy that genuine asylum seekers waiting in camps around the world obeying due process are missing out because some people engage in dangerous and expensive people smuggling. In an ideal world there’d be no need for people to seek refuge, but in our fallen world where bad stuff happens this sort of displacement is nothing new – it’s been happening since at least Exodus.

Whoops. I started on the theological problems already.

Every aspect of Abbott’s statement is problematic. He would have been better off copping the gibe on the chin or talking about the people trying to obey due process without even mentioning the people jumping on boats.

UPDATE: Here’s the fuller context of Abbott’s quote, lest you feel I’m misrepresenting the interview…

“And I’m all in favour of Australia having a healthy and compassionate refugee and humanitarian intake program.

“I think that’s a good thing. But I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way.

“If you pay a people-smuggler, if you jump the queue, if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat, that’s doing the wrong thing, not the right thing, and we shouldn’t encourage it.”

This makes a complex ethical question into an absolute question of morality – I’m not sure you can argue that genuine asylum seekers have done the wrong thing by seeking asylum, and 97% of people who seek asylum in Australia, after arriving by boat, are found to be genuine refugees… (END UPDATE).

But ignoring the elephant in the room, that most boat people are coming from countries that aren’t exactly known for fostering significant Christian populations (though some refugees are Christians fleeing persecution) – and thus the idea that the boat people should be Christian is perhaps patently ridiculous… let’s consider for a moment that God’s people, since the very beginning, and Jesus himself, have essentially been refugees. Here are some more useful facts about boat people (PDF from the Australian Government).

Abraham left his father’s land and sought asylum in various foreign kingdoms as he headed off to the promised land.

Joseph was a refugee to Egypt.

Moses led Israel out of Egypt as asylum seeing refugees. Israel was called to care for asylum seekers/the aliens in their midst, as God does, as a result of Israel’s experience as refugees. So Deuteronomy 10:

“18 He [God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

Their failure to care for the foreigner is listed as part of the reason they’re booted out and forced into exile again in Ezekiel 22…

“‘See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow.”

Now, I know Australia isn’t the promised land, and isn’t meaningfully able to be spoken of as a Christian nation, but if the leader of the opposition brings Christianity into the debate, then it should at least be represented fairly… It’s not unChristian to seek asylum – it is the most Christian thing in the world as we’ve had to seek refuge for ourselves in Jesus. It’s arguable, though I don’t think we should really make anything of this, that Jesus’ family sought asylum when Herod was out to get them in Matthew 2.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

And I think a fair case can be made that Jesus replaces the cities of refuge that OT people were to flee to (Joshua 20), and that turning to Jesus, as all Christians have, is the ultimate expression of seeking asylum. It’s certainly the ultimate expression of seeking citizenship somewhere better where we’re not truly entitled to on our own merit (especially for Gentiles). So this big quote from Ephesians 2…

12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

Now the comparison isn’t exact, and the issues here are referring to something different because Australia isn’t the kingdom of God – but there are two principles here that make it hard to justify the claim that urgently seeking asylum without regard to due process is unchristian. Firstly, Christians are asylum seekers, and secondly, the idea, for Christians, that our earthly citizenship of an earthly nation is something to be protected at the expense of being united with other people in Christ doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Christians in the early church framed their understanding of citizenship, a particularly significant concept when it came to the Roman Empire, around being aliens in the empire – sojourners, who loved other outsiders accordingly – loving foreigners wasn’t exclusive to Israel when they occupied the physical kingdom of Israel with some power. We seem to have lost that vibe a little bit as Christianity became a dominant socio-political force – but now we’re starting to be part of a post-Christian society we need to start being informed by this as a category again, and caring for our fellow aliens.

If we’re taking a “Christian” approach to the chance to show love to the poor and oppressed people who don’t know Jesus then we’re going to want to welcome and love them. That’d be my thinking anyway…

The onus isn’t really on the asylum seekers to act as Christians when they’re approaching a country – unless they’re claiming to be Christians, in which case the decision to jump the queue is something they’ll have to wrestle with personally – the onus is on the country receiving them, if they claim in any sense to be Christian (which Abbott does), to be receiving the refugees in a Christian way. This is where Abbott went really wrong. The question was legitimate. Because caring for refugees, or any oppressed people, or any people, is a definite outworking of following Jesus.

Interestingly, Jesus echoes the Deuteronomic principle that people who are trying to be like God should be caring for the oppressed, he framed his understanding of his mission this way (quoting Isaiah):

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

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.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
So. You might be thinking. It’s all well and good for Jesus to say this and apply it to his own ministry, if he is this refuge for the oppressed – but it doesn’t follow that it is “Christian” to love refugees.

You would be wrong.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in Luke 11 on the basis that they care for their religiosity but not for the poor.

39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

Then, when he’s talking about how people who want to follow him should approach social conventions and the hosting of status building banquets, he makes it clear that his concern is on provision for the poor (Luke 14)…

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Then, when he’s talking about how his followers, Christians, will be distinguished from people not following him (unchristians?), he makes it clear that this is one of the markers of a Christian, someone whose thinking has been truly transformed by the Spirit as they follow Jesus.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

James follows suit.

27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

It’s pretty hard to maintain anything that looks like the policies of either of Australia’s major parties on “boat people” if you’re trying to take a Christian approach – the justification for taking a Christian approach is obviously quesitonable for the same reason that introducing any policy into a secular democracy for solely theological reasons is questionable. But we have every right to speak in the democratic process, and you’d hope such contributions would be framed by our theological reality, more than by political expediency, you’d hope we’d be the most compassionate voice out there, and call for something more than what our major parties are happy to settle for… and yet, when given the opportunity to make a statement following Abbott’s theological faux pas, here’s what Lyle Shelton from the ACL says:

“It is unfortunate that the term ‘Christian’ has been co-opted in the debate… I don’t want to say what is Christian and what is not, but it is important that our policies give people languishing in camps a fair go. We have to stop the people smugglers’ business model. We have to stop people perishing at sea.”

Could this organisation stoop any lower in its bid to represent as broad a church as possible? How bout defining Christian as “somebody who follows Jesus and holds to something representing the historic confessions of the church”? It’s not that hard. And this sort of waftiness is precisely why the ACL can’t claim to speak for anybody in particular. It’s also an issue that needs the  voice of Christians to offer some compassionate clarity.

It’s unfortunate Christianity has been misrepresented in the debate, but it’s more unfortunate we had to be co-opted, and haven’t been on the front line from the beginning (which notable exceptions have been – like Melbourne’s Crossway Church, which offered to care for unaccompanied minors who were at risk of being deported).

People who follow Jesus are refugees. People who follow Jesus are to love the oppressed, including refugees. This has to be the basis of a “Christian” response to the tragedy that leads people to flee their countries, and the tragedy that many of those people are turning to criminals and jumping on dangerous boats.

,

Tea Party Jesus

Have you heard of the Tea Party Movement? If you’re into American politics (probably thanks to the West Wing) you probably have some idea what’s going on over there. I haven’t blogged much about politics for a while, and don’t really intend to now. There’s no election on. But there’s this odd moving of the deck chairs in American politics because the so called “religious right” is such a strong voting bloc. The Tea Party Movement doesn’t really seem to know what it is yet – or what it will do come election time – but they’ve been cosying up to the likes of Focus on the Family in order to lock up God’s vote. Because apparently God cares if you like health care or not…

Anyway, atheists understanably don’t like this, and if there’s one thing they’re good at, it’s pointing out hypocrisy in the lives of believers.

So, I give you, Tea Party Jesus – a site that brings quotes from Tea Party Members (usually prominent) together with pictures of Jesus to remind us why it’s a bad idea not to bring Jesus into the political realm as though he’s endorsing your position… Here’s a quote from right wing pundit Ann Coulter.

And one from Glenn Beck

And Bill O’Reilly

And lest you think I’m just picking out right wing shock jocks – here’s one from James Dobson (I kind of see where he’s going with this one, I just think he takes it a step too far).

If you’re going to claim to speak for Jesus you want to make sure that what you’re saying is consistent with what he said and how he lived. There are plenty of things that many of us, as Christians, say that would look equally preposterous – but we’re not there asking you to vote for me, or with me, on the basis that God would.

This is something all those of a political persuasion should learn. (I’m looking at you Tony Abbott – seriously, who could argue that Jesus would not show compassion and love to desperate boat people on the basis that he drove money lenders from the temple).

“Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.”

There are myriad ways that this statement does not work. What about the biblical injunctions to care for the poor? The widows? The orphans? Andrew has a good post about a better response to asylum seekers here.

Here’s a better statement.

“Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.”

For those playing at home – here’s how Jesus spells out how we’re to care for those crying out for help in Matthew 25…

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Christian Socialism

Christian socialism is all the rage. Bonhoeffer is the new black – cited by everyone from K-Rudd to Greens candidates… to Terry Eagleton. Terry Eagleton is the guy who wrote “that review” of the God Delusion – that took Dawkins and co for task for failing to understand theology when dismissing Christianity. He says they’re dismissing a caricature – they say the caricature is ok because they’re rejecting the fundamental premise that faith is based on.

This has caused a bit of a philosophical stink amongst friends in Britain’s intellectual circles. Eagleton is a Marxist with a Catholic background. He used to be a drinking buddy of Christopher Hitchens (another angry atheist). He’s got more in common with the writer of this interesting little interview from the New Humanist than he has differences. It’s worth a read. If only for these two quotes:

“Listen. If Dawkins has emancipated people, freed them from the religious closet as it were, then all credit to him. Loath as I might be to compare Dawkins to Jesus Christ, in this he resembles the heroic figure in the New Testament who comes to sweep away all the fetishism and sickness and cynicism of the neurotic religionists.”

In a sense, Dawkins is the opiate for the religious masses…

You want to save Christianity from the Christians?

“Yes, I quote my father who insisted that Jesus Christ was a socialist and that any Christianity that is not on the side of the dispossessed against the arrogance of the powerful and rich is utterly untraditional. Dawkins and Hitchens write about Christianity and never link the words God, justice and love. That is either a sign of their obtuseness or a sign of the massive self-betrayal of the Christian movement. It has got to the point where intelligent people like them don’t understand that Christianity is not about how many months you get in purgatory for adultery. It’s about a love and a thirst for justice that will bring you to your death. There’s nothing lovely about it.”

So, was Jesus a Marxist? Has the church got it so badly wrong that people need rescuing at the hands of someone like Dawkins?

I think Eagleton’s definition of Christianity is skewed – but it’s probably a useful thought for pulling people away from bible belt conservatism.

One of the central tenants of humanism is that humanity can basically “save itself” – that left to our own devices, and without nasty people causing trouble, humanity will move in a positive trajectory.