Why I’m a generous pluralist, not a pluralist by pragmatism (or a pragmatist), and why we should be ready for a diet of worms

Nobody likes me everybody hates me
I think I’ll go eat worms
Long ones, short ones, fat ones skinny ones,
Ones that squiggle and squirm
Bite their heads off suck their guts out throw their skins away
Nobody knows that I eat worms, 3 times a day — A song I used to sing as a kid


Image: WWE’s old worm-eating character, The Boogeyman

 

Stephen McAlpine is always worth reading even though he’s a little older, grumpier and more pessimistic than I am. I like him a lot. In his most recent post asking where the progressive Christian voices speaking about religious freedom are he has a dig at those who write blog posts spruiking ‘a confident pluralism’… I’m reasonably sure he’s not talking about me. But just in case others are drawing a link, I thought I’d spell out what my motivations for generous pluralism are; that it’s not that I expect (necessarily) we’ll get a better deal from those who disagree with us, but rather that it is the right position for us to adopt.

“I read blog posts which predict a confident pluralism in Australia which will only target extreme homophobia, as if the recent brittle pluralism on this matter (Coopers anyone?) is merely an anomaly, a blip on the radar that will magically correct itself with the objective is achieved.”

Just to be clear this is not my prediction; but also to be clear, my diagnosis of most conservative Christian responses to same sex marriage here and abroad is that the loudest voices have not practiced a confident pluralism but a zero sum game (and to be charitable to John Inazu who coined the ‘confident’ qualifier for pluralism, or at least trademarked it, his confidence, like Stephen McAlpine’s is largely eschatological and theological, not political).

The snowball that started the Stephen McAlpine internet juggernaut; of which I am a fan; was his series of posts on life in exile. He concluded we’re not in Athens but Babylon, my response was to suggest that the distinction between Athens, Babylon, and Rome is probably not one that Revelation makes — we’re still in Rome, and the question is ‘how should the church operate when in Rome?’ We should consider ourselves operating in the world that crucified Jesus, despite thousands of years of the church influencing western culture.

My paradigm is not one of navigating the easiest road for the church in these times; but making sure we’re being crucified for following Jesus (doing the right thing), rather than for using ‘the sword’ to try to make other people follow Jesus (the culture wars/modern crusades/wrong thing). If you’re seeing something other than cruciformity driving my agenda I’d invite you to first try to understand my words through that lens, and if you still can’t see it, to call me out.

The Babylonian metaphor Stephen often uses (most recently in his cracking post on Israel Folau) is a useful one, provided we see Babylonian exile as involving powerful counter-narratives about humanity that go a long way beyond sex, and sexual ethics as the last thing the church is being called to give up, not the first. Like Stephen, and others, I see Daniel as a powerful motiff or model for how to respond to life in Babylon, but I see Jesus operating in the Roman empire as a subversive alternative (and victorious) king who wins through crucifixion as an even better model (and Daniel as a ‘type’ of Jesus). Like Stephen my confidence is eschatological, not political. Like Stephen, my solution to this diagnosis is that the church should be the church; and so when I pursue a confident pluralism and generously engage with some of the more aggressive members of the homosexual campaign against religious freedom being exercised I’m not doing it to silence the Christians they are silencing (though I do wish those Christians would practice pluralism), I’m not doing it to secure an easier run from the world, I’m doing it to model an alternative — that I’m ultimately not confident will be politically effective, but I am confident is effectively the right thing to do. I’m trying to practice a political ethic derived from the Golden Rule, operating not just as an approach we take in our relationships as individuals, but corporately.

For the record I think it’s highly likely that it’s going to feel like we’re eating worms, or being fed to them, as Christians in Australia if we don’t radically change our approach (and even if we do). And this might be good for us. It might be deserved. But it might also be the cost of following Jesus.

Why not pragmatism?

Once upon a time, I was reminded the other day, I called myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’ — I thought the best thing to do was the pragmatic thing to do that secured the best results for Gospel proclamation. I wrote about this. I was convinced. And then I went to Bible college and thought more about how important ethos is for our proclaiming of the Gospel (logos), how you can’t just be about results but first have to cultivate virtue, and this virtue then amplifies what we have to say; the ethos of the Gospel of the crucified king is cruciformity. This is why Paul both consistently appeals to the example of Jesus (and his own example) but also retells how the example of Jesus has caused him to be beaten and bruised for the Gospel (2 Corinthians 10-11, Galatians 6).

The pragmatic approach described by John Stackhouse in his ABC piece (quoted yesterday), at least as I understand it, calculates a political strategy based on achievable results; it’s is essentially utilitarian, seeing politics as requiring dirty hands or compromise (which it absolutely does), but seeing the potential results as worth it. I can understand people landing on this position, though much of what is good about it you also get with pluralism (which is why I think David Brooks only identified two categories of political engagement in his piece I quoted yesterday). I’m not a pluralism as a ‘dirty hands’ option, but because I think it’s how you best keep ‘clean hands’ in a dirty world (for more on the hands metaphor see this piece). I understand and appreciate pragmatism, having held what I think is a fairly similar position, but I think pluralism (which looks like dirty hands to the idealist) is its own expression of virtue ethics; it says ‘as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ and requires us to set about building our own virtue forming institutions (especially the church), or rather it allows the Spirit to go about God’s business of transforming us into the image of Christ, as God’s handiwork — created in him to do good works, but allows other people the freedom to pursue their own handiwork. This is the best way, I believe for us to be able to proclaim the Gospel, and seek to persuade others to join our communities, or adopt our (true) monotheism.

Why then pluralism? How the Golden rule is different from ‘treat others as they’re going to treat you’

As I articulated in yesterday’s post about pluralism being preferable to idealism, there are many ways one might approach the fractured world we live in where we do face an aggressive polytheism that wants to eradicate a (perceived as aggressive or oppressive) monotheism (this polytheism is especially the secular idolatry of sex and individual liberty, so long as that liberty conforms to the collective mores). I don’t think we can totally blame the other at this point; the church (institutionally) has earned a reputation for trying to make people outside the church conform to our own patterns via politics, and being too slow to let go of that chokehold as our culture has become more diverse. This is where I believe pluralism is the right thing to do, but also why I don’t believe pluralism will achieve a desirable outcome for us politically, because mostly the people who follow the Golden Rule, are those who follow the golden ruler, Jesus, not ‘golden statues’. The golden rule is a subversive ethic because our default isn’t to treat people as we would have them treat us, but treat them as they’ve treated us (or as we’ve perceived it) or as they might treat us in the future. The self-seeking default is to hold on to power and play the zero sum game of ‘I win/they lose’ for as long as possible. Christians still playing this game have not realised that we lost the numbers a long time ago and now we’re systemically losing the sympathy of our neighbours and reinforcing the ‘oppressor’ narrative; so we shouldn’t be surprised when we become oppressed. My concern is that we get oppressed for the right stuff — faithfully proclaiming Jesus. Not the wrong stuff — being political oppressors, no matter how well intentioned, of those who do not worship Jesus.

Pluralism is where I think you  land if you take a communitarian approach to life in this world, and want the freedom for the church to be the church (religious freedom), seeing that as a good thing. Personally, I am ok with the church being the church without religious freedom, that’s been how the church has operated in many other times and places (still); and God will still freely be God even if those proclaiming the Gospel are in chains; his word, as the book of Acts finishes, will continue unhindered.

Pluralism is what it looks like to say “I want our community to have the freedom to define ourselves and live according to our vision of the good, so I will treat other communities built around different visions of the good with the same freedom.”  The government in a secular nation has a responsibility to not have a state religion, the government in a liberal democracy has a responsibility to uphold the freedoms of its citizens but to balance those freedoms with the freedoms of others; this is a politically coherent position in our framework, but building an ethic around what works politically is another form of pragmatism. For me, pluralism isn’t primarily a politically smart or socially defendable position, it is those things because it seems to me to be the right thing to do when you have many communities formed around many religions, and people with no religious affiliation forming their identity around other visions of a good life; pluralism is the right thing to do (as opposed to aggressive/oppressive monotheism or polytheism) because it is what I would have people who disagree with me offer me. It’s the right thing to do even when they don’t or won’t. And let me be clear, I don’t expect them to, ultimately, because I believe pluralism is only really something you can offer from a position of absolute confidence and certainty, or from genuine epistemic humility. You either have to be so confident that your view will ultimately be vindicated (in the Christian case ‘by God’, in other cases ‘by history’ or their gods) that you are able to operate with charity to those you disagree with, a sort of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ approach; or so genuinely humble about the views that you hold and open to being persuaded that you want to afford the opportunity for people to persuade you to every other group, a sort of ‘it’s possible I only know this by God’s grace, or I might actually be wrong about everything’ approach. It’s possible to be both (which is where I think generosity kicks in over confidence as a qualifier for pluralism). I don’t think modern secular ideologies have either the confidence (built from thousands of years of tradition and a coherent and compelling story) or the humility to play this game. There are certainly good reasons why oppressed minorities don’t feel this confidence based on how they’ve been wrongly treated, so I’m not condemning the passion of those who are fighting hard against their perceptions of an oppressive reality, that’s not my point; my point is that Christians have every reason to be confident, charitable, humble and generous in offering this sort of pluralism even to those who would crucify us, and even if thye do, because our confidence is not in earthly politics and human recognition and affirmation, but in God. I really love this quote I found in a book somewhere a long time ago. I come back to it regularly:

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.” — Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

We can confidently engage with others personally and empathetically — seeking to persuade but not restrict those who hold to other views — and even be crucified, because of the God we believe is at work in and through us.

The Daniel “Diet of Worms” Diet

One of my favourite recent posts from Stephen McAlpine was his ‘four Ds’ look at what it means to be a church shaped by Daniel’s life in Babylon; where the church defies, declares, dies and is delivered. I’ve always found the idea of a ‘Daniel Diet’ (popularised in some books in your local Christian book retailer) a relatively bizarre take on Daniel, but there is a certain sort of ‘diet’ Daniel anticipates for Christians (by first anticipating it for Jesus). I think Stephen nails it. There’s also a certain sort of optimistic mocking of worldly power in the light of who God is and his hand being at work in the world, I like the scholarly view that the Book of Daniel is a satirical critique of human empires and worldly power.

One of the better books I’ve read on political theology and strategy in the secular age is How To Survive The Apocalypse, authors Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra have a slightly different take on the Babylon motiff; they point out that in our modern age we don’t have a Nebuchadnezzar; our individualism means we’ve thrown down any institutional authority and replaced it with all of us clamouring to be king; a sort of anarchy where different communities or tribes (or individuals) are at war, just like in The Hunger Games (an example they cite). This war certainly profits some ‘king like’ sectors of the corporate realm — we’ve replaced politics with the market, or politics now serves the market).

“The question for politics today is how to build Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar has been dragged through the streets and hung at the gates.” — How To Survive The Apocalypse

They’re not pessimistic though, following Charles Taylor they suggest that change always moves simultaneously in a bunch of directions and our modern storytelling reveals a dissatisfaction with this sort of world; there might be a hope that we can patch things back together and that the church might be a part of this. But that will require a sort of uncompromised willingness to compromise; or a ‘faithful compromise’; we need to learn from Daniel, and perhaps, more recently Martin Luther, who has his own ‘diet’ where he pursued faithful monotheism within the confines of the church. We need to be both ‘faithful’ in our own community, and pluralist or compromising in the community at large. Both confident and humble. It is possible. Here’s Luther’s ‘Diet of Worms’ diet for faithfulness (ok, I know this is a bad pun).

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. — Martin Luther, Diet of Worms (like most historians, I don’t believe he actually said “here I stand”… which is a shame).

We need to have Luther’s preparedness to stand for what we believe, and be crucified, but Daniel’s readiness to be part of the world that was happy to throw him to the lions, committed to its good (and optimistic in such a way that it fosters generosity). Here’s Wilkinson and Joustra:

“This may sound a bit unsatisfying, but it’s also the context for the hard work of making culture. It is a call to proximate and slow justice, to work among the ruins of a Secular age because it is our age, and we are responsible to find, restore, and build on the best of its motivating ideals. That’s Chief Astrologer Daniel kind of territory: making faithful compromise, resisting what needs resisting, changing where change can be made, building where the best is already present. Maybe the often-repeated Jeremiah invocation to “seek the welfare of the city” is just a good Hebrew summary of Taylor’s argument to find and build on the best of the motivating ideals of our Secular age. Nobody argues Babylon is or will be the City of God. But it can be better than it is now, and we can be part of that work…”

They touch on pluralism, identifying a sort of listless and historically radical pluralism operating in our world that defaults to ‘no religion’ and the destruction of institutions, but suggesting the answer to a world that probably won’t give us the pluralism we might desire is, counter-intuitively (or golden rule shaped) more pluralism, not less.

“… the better answer to the fear that accompanies a Secular age is to refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities. There is no turning the clock back to pre-apocalypse times. There is only identifying and building a renewed consensus. This is what Taylor describes as a project worthy of any society deserving of the name “secular.” He argues that we need a radical redefinition of the secular. What should be called secular, he says, is not the inverse of the religious, but the (proper) response of the political community (the state) to diversity…

It calls for more, not less, pluralism in the public sphere. It calls for that understanding and those practices to be tested in dialogue to find areas of overlapping concern and agreement.”

This will hurt. It’ll probably be incredibly costly for many of us; but it’s the right thing to do and our confidence is not in the politics of this world, but the polis of the next. Not the cities of our age, but the city of God. But this is both our diet (in the trial sense) and our diet (in the suck it up sense). Here we stand, we can do none else.

 

The persecution complex: Ware the carrot more than the stick

carrot_stick2
Image Credit: Mark Stivers

There’s always an easy way out.

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

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

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

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

There’s always a carrot.

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

This was true in Daniel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He refused. Over and over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles… You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

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

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” — Matthew 10:16-18, 22-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Be like Jesus. Pursue the real carrot.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3

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

On Gayby Baby, sex education, the new normal, and the better normal

An education system is a powerful thing. I’ve perhaps not thought so hard about that power because I spent most of my time in institutions trying to avoid becoming institutionalised. Such is the contrarian streak that runs through just about every fibre of my being.

Australian schools are pretty contested fronts in a bunch of ideology wars — I was only vaguely aware of the “history wars” back when John Howard was Prime Minister, but at the moment there’s a “worldview war” going on for the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.

It’s interesting, and worth chucking in up front, that Christians have long known about the importance of educating kids. One of the big reforms Martin Luther championed in the Reformation was in the education space. You couldn’t tell people they should be able to read the Bible for themselves, robbing the priesthood of some of its mysterious power, like Luther did, without teaching kids to read. The early schools in the Australian colony were also, often, set up by churches (eventually becoming public schools), and there are still Christian schools all over the place. Christians love education because education is powerful — in some sense, we should have no fear of education if we are confident that what we believe is true and stands up to scrutiny and comparison with other world views. But we should also realise that education isn’t ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ because curriculum are typically set as an expression of a set of values — we should realise that because we’ve been doing it at least since Augustine told Christian teachers to make sure they got a robust classical education so that they could understand God’s world in order in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus well in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). This was published back in the year 397. Education served the church’s agenda well for a long time.

It turns out Christians aren’t the only ones who know that education is a powerful tool for deliberately shaping the way our young people see and interpret the world. A Sydney school, Burwood Girls, which happens to be the school my mum went to as a girl, kicked off a massive round of controversy this week when they decided to make a screening of Gayby Baby compulsory for students, who were also to Wear It Purple as an act of solidarity for the LGBTQI community. According to the Wear It Purple “about us” page, the student-led organisation believes:

“Every young person is unique, important and worthy of love. No one should be subject to bullying, belittlement and invalidation. We believe in a world in which every young person can thrive, irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity… We want rainbow young people to be safe, supported and empowered in each of their environments.”

This sounds like a pretty noble aim to me, so long as there’s room in the rainbow spectrum for people who share different visions of human flourishing. I desperately want my lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex neighbours to thrive, and I want to love them, but I also want an Australia where those neighbours are able to love me. And where we’re able to disagree, charitably, about what place sex and sexuality play in true human thriving. I’m not sure how a kid at Burwood who didn’t share the same framework for achieving a noble aim like this for their LGBQTI friends would feel about being forced to wear purple. I think regimes that force people of different views to wear different colours, historically, are fairly dangerous and not great at providing an environment for human flourishing.

The clothing thing seems almost impossible to enforce as ‘compulsory’ anyway. Doesn’t it? The screening of the documentary, at least in the initial proposal at Burwood Girls, was compulsory. And this raises some interesting questions. Here’s the trailer for the doco.

Mark Powell, a Presbyterian Minister, was quoted in the Daily Tele

“This is trying to change children’s minds by promoting a gay lifestyle… Students are being compelled to own that philosophical view by wearing certain clothes and marching under a rainbow flag. Schools are supposed to be neutral and cannot propagate a political view.”

I’m curious about what change in children’s minds the screening of this movie was attempting to achieve. I’m sure there are dangerous ‘mind changes’ that could be involved (as outlined above), but I’m equally certain there are mindsets about homosexuality in our community that still need to be changed. A Fact Sheet from the National LGBTI Health Alliance presented by Beyond Blue, contains the following picture of the landscape for young LGBTQI Aussies… Perhaps we do need to change children’s minds… and perhaps normalising the gay lifestyle is part of that…

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%

Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Rates are 6x higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%).

The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’.

The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health.

Up to 80% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians experience public insult, 20% explicit threats and 18% physical abuse and 26% ‘other’ forms of homophobia (80% of this abuse occurs at school)

I didn’t go to Burwood Girls. And I finished school 15 years ago. I went to co-ed public schools. But I’m pretty sure I would have benefited from seeing a movie like Gayby Baby when I was at school. In my public schools it wasn’t uncommon for sexual slang about homosexual acts to be used to insult and belittle people, with little regard to how the pejorative use of ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ or any of the litany of terms associated with homosexuality might be heard by those in my year group, or in the school community, who were same sex attracted. Many of the people I know who identify as gay, or same sex attracted, came out after High School, and while I’m sure there are many reasons that are part of this decision for any individual, I can’t help but think the uneducated masses of people they might have had to confront in the school yard who spent years using words associated with their sexual orientation to demean others, was a barrier to having the sort of open conversations about their identity that might have been of benefit to them, to us, and to me. Perhaps I would have been better able to love my neighbour if the environment had been more conducive to my neighbour being truly known? It’s not just Christians who are nasty to gay people, and its not just religion that causes homophobia (and not all disagreement with a sexuality is a phobia).

Is it possible that more education might actually make life at school more comfortable for LGBTQI kids or kids with same sex parents? I would think so. Is it possible that sex education that presents homosexuality as a normal human sexuality might lead to less anxiety, depression, and suicide in the gay community? It seems possible.

Aren’t these good outcomes?

Why then are we Christians positioning ourselves against such education — be it Gayby Baby, or the so-called ‘normalisation of homosexuality in schools’?

I understand a certain stream of Christian thought that wants no sex ed in schools, but in the age of pornography, when kids are educating one another, and you can’t just leave it up to parents to encourage healthy practices, I’m not in that camp.

I don’t think you can truly love a person without truly trying to understand them. I love the idea that love is caught up with truly seeing a person through paying them attention. I love the idea that love is an exercise of subjectifying, not objectifying, the other in a sacrificial seeing of the person and their needs, and in an act of offering a way to meet those needs… based on that seeing. The true seeing won’t always mean agreeing with how the person you love sees themselves, we might actually be able to see a person’s needs in ways that they can’t imagine. But it will always involve seeing how a person sees themselves and the world in order to build a connection between their needs and your offer of love.

So, with this picture of love, you can’t love a kid who is working out their sexual identity, or a kid with same sex parents, without trying to understand what its like to be that kid, and without helping other kids in that kid’s network develop that same ‘seeing’ or that understanding. You can’t keep that kid as an “other” or as an “abnormal” kid. I think this is true in a secular sense, but I think its even true for Christians, even as we seek to point people to alternative identities and visions of flourishing, especially an identity built on who Jesus is, rather than who we want to have sex with.

This sort of understanding — the understanding required for love — actually comes through education. It comes through education that comes packaged up with different agendas.

It doesn’t just come through the application of our own agenda, or our own framework for how we assess other people based on what we’re told is true about them in the Bible. As true as that framework might be. It comes seeking to understand people on their own terms in order to have a conversation about these different frameworks. Our different ways of seeing. This education comes through hearing stories, through understanding more of the experience involved with ones sexuality, or family background, the sort of stories Gayby Baby presents. If this is the sort of change of mind Burwood Girls was trying to achieve, then who can blame them?

I’m not sure a documentary, or even the act of being forced to wear purple can achieve the second half of Powell’s suggestion — compelling students to own a philosophical view — but I do think coercive practices are problematic, whatever agenda they serve. Be it the ‘gay agenda’ or the ‘Christian agenda’.

I can understand the suggestion that Gayby Baby serves an agenda other than education, that it ‘promotes an ideology’, but it does also seem to serve a valid educational purpose given that there are families in our schools where children have same sex parents. People who believe education should be agenda, or ideology, free should have a problem with the screening of this film on the basis of its agenda. But that’s a pretty naive view of the way education functions, and has functioned, in our world. There’s a reason governments fund education, it produces ideal citizens according to a pattern, there’s a reason churches fund schools… But in a secular democracy it can be pretty dangerous for the liberty of our citizens (whatever the age) if one ideology is presented unchallenged. What if the best (both in terms of possible outcomes and desirable outcomes) that we can ask for in this contested space is that all voices are given a platform, in an appropriate context?

Which is interesting, because the Gayby Baby furore is kicking off exactly as governments around the country consider whether or not to follow Victoria’s example to remove Special Religious Education (known by other names around the country) from school life. There’s a particularly vocal group of activists, Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) who are campaigning noisily to remove the special privilege religious institutions enjoy when it comes to access to the schools. Christians I’ve spoken to have been pretty upset about the removal of this privileged position — occasionally arguing from the historic involvement the church has had with education in our country, occasionally disappointed that this mission field has been lost (because if you’re genuinely concerned about the ‘flourishing’ of our children, as a Christian, you want them to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to follow Jesus), while others have been angry at this further evidence that the church is being pushed to the margins in our society. Angry that our education system is being hijacked to serve a liberal, anti-Christian agenda. It’s incredible to me that SRE still exists in any form in public schools (and what a privilege), and I’d love it to continue to exist for many years. I’m not sure it can last, but if it is to last, if we are to maintain that seat at the table, we need to be prepared to offer space to other minority voices, with other visions of the good life. If we want to continue having the ability to speak to children in our schools to articulate a vision for human flourishing that centres on the reality of a good creator God, and his good son Jesus, who invites us to follow a pattern of life that will deliver a version of flourishing that will last for eternity, then we might need to be prepared for people to offer a vision of human flourishing more consistent with our age, and more in keeping with the church’s marginal position in the social and moral life of our country. We might have to let our kids hear about sex that some of us don’t think of as “normal”… and to hear about families that fall outside the statistical norm… and this giving others a voice might actually be a good and loving thing, and it might also be good for our kids, if we want them to grow up understanding and loving their neighbours and living together in community.

By the by, I feel like the real indicator of our ‘position’ in the education system isn’t so much in the SRE space, but in the chaplaincy space, where we agreed to be neutered in order to maintain a position of privilege. We agreed to give schools the benefit of a Christian presence, so long as that presence was not coupled with a presentation of the Christian message. What could be a clearer indicator of our position in modern society, as exiles, than a government and a population who are still prepared to use us to care for kids in crisis, but not to present an alternative, positive, view of the world that centres on Jesus. But I digress. Let’s return to why, as a Christian parent, I’d want my children watching Gayby Baby, and why I want them to learn, from their schools, that homosexuality is normal.

The idea that homosexuality is normal is one that offends a certain stream of thinking that wants to equate ‘normal’ with ‘God’s pattern for flourishing’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘normal’ with ‘natural.’

This Gayby Baby initiative seems to fit with the Australian Marriage Forum’s (AMF) anti-gay marriage argument that a change in the definition of marriage will change our educational agenda to “normalise” homosexuality. This is seen by this particular lobby group, and presumably others, as a problem. The AMF does not believe there is any reason to focus on sexuality when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives, and especially no justification for ‘normalising’ homosexuality.

In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too thin; or for standing up for other kids who are being bullied. That is something we all go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffered it worse appears to be “taken at face value”.

There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying – for all students – than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.

 

Is it just me, or is this saying “there are other forms of bullying, so we shouldn’t tackle this one”? Even if its true that other forms of bullying are out there, if there’s a genuine belief in the community that the mental health outcomes for same sex attracted people are due, in part, to bullying, shouldn’t we try to stop that bullying to see if the correlation is causation? Shouldn’t it be enough that bullying in any form is wrong, without the greater risk?

Dr David Van Gend, a spokesperson for the Australian Marriage Forum, disputes the link between mental health and suicide in the LGBTQI community and bullying or homophobia, he provides a list of other possible causes to suggest there’s no need to ‘normalise’ homosexuality as a result. In its 2012 submission to the Australian Government, as it considered an amendment to the Marriage Act, the Australian Christian Lobby argued against the redefinition of marriage for a variety of reasons, including the argument that such a change would ‘normalise’ homosexuality in our education system.

“Some educators in Australia are effectively seeking to normalise homosexuality under the guise of “anti-homophobia” campaigns. ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr opened an anti-homophobia art display at a Canberra school, at which one student’s poster read “Love is not dependent on gender, what’s your agenda?

Although no one would object to the condemnation of homophobia, promoting homosexuality in this fashion is something many parents would not be comfortable with. Redefining marriage will increase these incidents, as schools would be required to teach the equivalency of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The principal public school teacher’s union, the Australia Education Union, actively promotes homosexuality among its members and in schools. Its policy document, Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, says it is committed to fighting heterosexism, which involves challenging “[t]he assumption that heterosexual sex and relationships are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’”.

The change to the Marriage Act hasn’t happened (yet), but these words from the ACL seem almost prophetic (except that Biblical prophecy is all about pointing people to Jesus ala Revelation 19, which says: “Worship God, because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — but now I really digress). The problem with the Australian Marriage Forum and the Australian Christian Lobby is that they’re speaking against one view of human flourishing, one view of “normal”, without actually providing a viable alternative. “This is not natural” is not an alternative argument to “this feels natural to me.” And the argument is not one that Christians should really be making when it comes to trying to have a voice at the table, and in our schools, in terms of a real picture of human flourishing. The AMF’s slogan is “keep marriage as nature made it,” the ACL submission uses the word natural 9 times and nature 4 times, and normalise or normal 10 times, while containing no mentions of God, creator, Jesus, or Christ. It’s an argument for one view of what is ‘natural’…

The problem, as I see it, is that homosexuality is totally normal. And it will appear totally natural to people. And I’m not sure we’re being true to the Bible if we say otherwise.

The “New” Normal

Here’s what I don’t get. When I read Romans 1, I get the impression that for a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, we should have no problem acknowledging that in our world, a world that readily swaps God for idols, like sex, homosexuality is the ‘new normal’… If you don’t take the Bible seriously then the normality of homosexuality seems uncontested (which, would ironically prove the point the Bible makes). And if you do, then the only people homosexuality is not normal for are the people who have had their sexual ethics redefined out of worldliness, by God. Check it.

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. — Romans 1:22-31

This is normal. Education doesn’t make homosexuality ‘normal’ — we do — and God does it to us because humanity collectively bailed on his design.

People in this picture aren’t given a choice about what to believe about the world. God chooses it for them. God acts to create a new normal for humanity because humanity rejects him. This downward spiral is the story of humanity that plays out through the pages of the Old Testament, and in every human culture since. Including ours. Claim to be wise. End up as fools.

So far as Paul is concerned, this is the new normal. This is the default view of the world. This is what our worldly schools should be teaching, so long as they are worldly schools. To suggest otherwise misses the role and place of the church in such a world entirely. Our job is to preach the one message that enables a new normal. A new identity. A new view of the world, and the things we are inclined to turn into idols.

If we want a picture of human flourishing that doesn’t look like the things in this list, we actually need a counter story that points towards a different normal and a new nature. That’s the problem with AMF and the ACL and the push to not let our schools treat homosexuality as normal. It is normal. Until someone has a reason to believe otherwise. And that reason isn’t ‘nature’ — it’s Jesus.

The Better Normal: Paul, Athens, giving others a voice, and God’s picture of human flourishing

Let’s briefly recap. I think a summary of the important bits from above is that education is important because it allows us to truly see, and truly seeing allows us to truly love. When it comes to (secular) public education in Australia there are multiple voices wanting to be heard offering multiple pictures of human flourishing. One obstacle to any version of flourishing (except very twisted understandings of that word), would seem to be the plight of LGBTQI students in our schools, and also the children of LGBTQI families in our community. These families, by any measure — Christian or secular — are actually normal. Hearing stories from these families and creating a space to truly hear from these young people is necessary in order for us to love and understand them… But these families may not be the ideal setting for human flourishing, and embracing one’s normal sexuality may not be the best path towards that end. It may be that purple is not the colour on the spectrum that represents the best solution to the experience of LGBTQI students and families in the community, or the very best pattern for life in this world.

If Christians are going to get a voice at the table, in schools or in politics, what is the voice we really want being heard? What are we going to say? We may not have that opportunity for very long in the form of SRE, and we certainly won’t if we keep rattling cages by shutting down alternative voices, and alternative normals, rather than presenting our own, and graciously be asking for the opportunity to do that… Should we be mounting an argument from nature that it seems God himself is foiling by making things that are unnatural seem natural and desirable? Or should we be trying to better understand the link between the rejection of God, the pursuit of alternative gods (idols), and what this does to how people picture the world and how to flourish in it?

I love much of what Stephen McAlpine writes (he’s posted on Gayby Baby as I’ve been writing this, but his piece on the Sexular Age is pertinent at this point. Here’s a quote:

“Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.”

I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it).  I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.

That’s not trite.  Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture.  After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle  then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now.  Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.

I’m struck by what Paul does when he enters a city full of idols. Athens. The city of Athens exists in the world of Romans 1. If Paul followed the power-grabbing, take-no-prisoners, God’s-way-or-the-highway methodology of Christendom (or ISIS, in its iconoclasm), and the church defined by a vision of the world loosely modelled on Christendom, he’d have entered the city with a sledgehammer. He’d have used that hammer to destroy every statue and altar set up in opposition to the real normal. He doesn’t. He walks around. He seeks to understand. He speaks to people in the marketplace. He preaches Jesus and the resurrection. He gets an invitation to the Areopagus, a seat at the table, if you will. And he uses it to speak about the city’s idols with a sort of ‘respect,’ in order to ultimately speak about God’s vision for human flourishing as revealed in Jesus. Sure. He absolutely nails the hollowness of idols in his alternative vision, he pushes back at their version of normal… but he doesn’t do this by knocking the statues over, or even by treating the people who follow these idols as complete fools.

He speaks to people whose view of nature has been clouded. He even does it in a way that demonstrates the value of a good secular education, quoting a couple of ancient, non-Christian (non-Jewish) poet/philosophers.

This is how to speak in a world, and city, whose view of normal is dominated and defined by idolatry and heads and hearts shaped by the normal human decision to turn on God. Because this is how to offer people a path back to God, and his version of human flourishing.

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” — Acts 17:22-32

Paul allows Athens a voice even though he believes his God made the entire universe.

Paul listens.

Paul really understands.

And this understanding gives him an opportunity to love by offering an alternative. He offers them Jesus.

That’s why I want my kids to watch movies like Gayby Baby, and listen to the stories of people in their world. Because this is the pattern of engagement I want them to follow in this sexular age. I want them to love like that. Even if they, like Paul, are laughed at by most…