Confession: I am not always virtuous in my online interactions

Yesterday, in my anger, I sinned.

I am spending lots of time angry at the moment. I’m angry at the culture wars; and the way the institutional church — especially the one I am part of — is being co-opted into that war and given a position at the centre of the line on the hard right. I’m angry that this mirrors the way the church got in bed with Trump and we can’t see how that damaged our witness.

I’m angry at our tin ear that is produced by seeing every issue as a battlefront in the culture war that we need to fight with gusto. I’m angry that it’s the people in our communities who are most vulnerable who get caught in the cross fire on these culture wars (the ones who have intersecting interests with the causes championed by the other side of the war).

I’m angry at how little thought goes into the positions we take — whether theological reflection, theological anthropology, or theological ethics. I’m angry that we thought sexual orthodoxy was more important than theological orthodoxy (and even nuance) when it came to the Israel Folau saga; that we couldn’t defend him without making him ‘one of us’. I’m angry at our ethics being utilitarian, where any means are justified by the ends of the culture war.

I’m angry that to speak against the hard right — in a conservative denomination is to be, a bit like the ‘never Trump’ Republican, viewed as some sort of ‘Fifth Column’ trying to undermine the culture war agenda.

I’m angry that people call out my ‘lefty responses’ to influential figures in our denomination — like Mark Powell, or his framing of our Moderator’s email — but won’t ever call out the hard right because they’re fighting the good fight. You know whose criticisms of Trump I valued — not the Democrats; but the Lincoln Projects; not the progressive Christians who’d dismissed the authority of the Bible, but faithful never-Trump thinkers like Karen Swallow Prior, or Alan Noble.

I’m angry that we can’t escape the polarising view of the world provided to us by social media and our current socio-political context — and so, that everything I say about that grid gets interpreted as reinforcing that grid — the same goes for critiquing ‘right/left’ politics as expressions of liberalism; if I’m not ‘for’ one side of the culture war, then I must be against that side. It’s exhausting.

I’m angry too, that in fighting against the culture war, and against the hard right, I inevitably become a player in the culture war and the left keep wanting to make me a champion.

A pox on all your houses.

#teammecutio.

Some people have said that ‘where I’m coming from’ is confusing — or, have demonstrably been confused about where I’m coming from, seeing me as a would be champion of ‘the left’ (almost never of ‘the right’). And that makes me angry too.

So here. Let me confess my beliefs, before I move on to confessing some particular sins from this week.

I am not a theological, or political, progressive — I am sympathetic to causes the progressive side of the culture war has decided to pursue, just as I am to causes conservatives have decided to pursue.

I do not want to be a champion of either the theological or political left, co-opted to fight some culture war against the right. But I am not in an institution with people on the theological left, so I devote my energy and my words to trying to bring reform in the communities and institutions that I have signed up to. I believe the oaths I swore when signing up to minister in the Presbyterian Church. I believe this institution should be broad enough to accommodate Mark Powell and me (and people to my left who stay silent because taking on establishment figures like Mark Powell who spend their time platform building and boundary policing is really costly).

I am theologically conservative in that my beliefs are confessional, and creedal — but I am also committed to the spirit of the Reformation, and the belief that human institutions can build traditions in error and so must constantly ask what it is we are ‘conserving’ and seek to move back to the original teaching and tradition — the Scriptures, and especially, Jesus, the exact representation and image of God. I believe Jesus defies categorisation in modern partisan terms, so his church should too.

This is not to say that I do not like people on the political or theological left, or people on the political or theological right. I believe in loving our neighbours, and our enemies.

I am pro-life, #alllifematters.

I am pro-non-government mediating institutions.

I am pro people being able to form communities that pursue shared beliefs about ‘the good.’

I am pro-religious freedom. I believe the Bible to be the authoritative word of God.

I don’t believe we should revise church traditions in response to worldly progressive politics.

I do believe we should revise church traditions where they are not aligned with the word of God, and, especially the way the word of God — the whole counsel of God — is about Jesus.

I do believe that the Bible calls us to love people, and invite them to submit to Jesus, and That people cannot live as though Jesus is Lord, or even as those in the ‘image and likeness’ of God if they have exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worship created things instead of the creator.

I believe that the Bible calls us to love the marginalised and the oppressed.

I believe God opposes the proud, and the oppressor, and gives grace to the humble; and liberation to the oppressed. I believe that political and physical oppression are visible symptoms of spiritual oppression; and that Jesus didn’t just come to deal with the ‘spiritual’ reality of sin and our status before God, but also with the way sin impacts individual lives, and systems, and nations.

I believe the Bible pictures sin as both personal and systemic, and that we should recognise both. I believe ‘the right’ reduces sin to the personal, or individual, and that ‘the left’ reduces sin to the systemic, especially systems that oppress.

So, for example, I believe that racism is evil, and that it is not just about individual attitudes, but systems set up when individual attitudes were explicitly racist, and where those systems have been perpetuated in ways that advantage ‘the proud’ and the wealthy, and disadvantage the outsider.

I don’t believe people should be cancelled. I believe that speech should be costly — but the cost of speech is ‘ethics’ (ethos); living up to your words with integrity and sacrifice. I don’t believe people holding different opinions, and holding those in communities-of-difference should be inherently harmful. I believe cancellation is typically ‘religiously’ motivated, and that everybody worships — either the true God, or an idol fashioning God into an image of our making.

I believe there’s a spiritual dimension to our reality where political systems reflect the nature of shared ‘national’ gods — and these might actually be real spiritual beings, not just avatars of human desires, and that ‘human empires’ like Babylon, or Rome, are actually expressions of cosmic rebellion against God, and that religious people through history (think Israel) often get swept up into false kingdoms while believing they are worshipping God.

I don’t believe state power should be used to do much more than uphold a civic space in which people and communities can pursue truth, goodness, and relationship, but I believe state power will almost always serve a ‘god’ or collection of gods, and that politics is religious. I believe our politics should be built on the Gospel, and that we should be more concerned about the pastoral than the political, and, because the kingdom of God is not yet universalised, we should uphold pluralism and the religious freedom of others to pursue life on their terms, as we would have them treat us.

I believe our sexed bodies are realities given to us by God to be stewarded. I believe that the fall effects our biology (including that our bodies die). I believe this means Intersex people are real, and gender dysphoria is real, and that it’s possible that if there’s an intersex body there is an intersex brain. I believe that gender is performed, and constructed. And that most ‘progressive’ thinking denies physical realities — and so is gnostic — while most ‘conservative’ thinking denies social dynamics (like construction and performance) and so is materialist. I believe that it’s possible that people who don’t believe our bodies are given to us by God are ‘acting in good faith’ according to their own religious and political convictions when making laws to protect such individuals, or affirm their vision of the good.

I believe sex — and our bodies — and our relationships to other people (families, spouses, children, and especially the church) to be as central to our personhood (or identity) as our ‘personal desires’ and that our ‘performance’ of our gender should reflect those realities not just our desires. I believe that ‘individualism’ as it applies to the modern, post-Christendom west, is a Christian heresy. I believe that marriage isn’t just a ‘natural order’ biological thing about making babies through straight sex; but a picture of the relationship between Jesus and his church. I believe we are called, particularly as Christians, to be people of good character (who thus make decisions from our hearts) — not to do what gets results.

I believe greed, power, and empire are actually more pressing idols shaping the western world than sexual liberty — and that the church turns a blind eye to those (and is swept up in them), while demonising idolatry in the areas of sex, sexuality, and gender to our detriment. I believe often sex and sexuality are actually functions of greedy power games, including ‘self-liberty,’ and we spend more time on symptoms than on the heart of the problem.

There are many other things I believe. But this is a start.

I am angry at how easy it is for positions like this to be forced into a ‘right/left’ grid so that we might dismiss some other.

I am angry that these beliefs lead to some people calling me ‘a wolf’ and ‘everything that is wrong with the church’ and ‘woke’ and ‘a pharisee’. But I’m not really that concerned about how people think about me. I’m angry that the culture war has a crossfire that catches faithful, orthodox, nuanced pastors I admire from the left, and individuals living vulnerably in church communities, while making the church seem unwelcome to anyone to the left of Scott Morrison, from the right. I have thick skin, and bankable skills. I’m not marginalised, or a victim, or oppressed. I am not claiming victim status here. I just don’t want to be a fighter in your stupid wars, and I don’t want our institution to be a significant culture war player held up as an example by the leaders and media platforms of the hard right.

I’m angry at how our ‘tin ear’ could mean that on a day in which international apologist Ravi Zacharias — championed by political and theological conservatives (like Mike Pence and Martyn Iles) was exposed as a serial predator and rapist, and megachurch pastor Carl Lentz was exposed as a narcississtic predator, somehow those urging peace, or nuance, in a culture war are called ‘the biggest danger to the church‘… And let’s face it — Mark might publicly deny that this is about me, but everyone – including Mark — knows that he was writing this about me. But if it’s not — the great sins that article points out — nuance, a desire to be pastorally sensitive, a desire to enforce one’s ecclesiological structures, and a desire to be theologically accurate in our public engagements — are all apparently dangers to the church because they undermine our culture war efforts.

So, I’m angry. And there isn’t much virtue in anger — and, there’s a warning about this in the Bible that doesn’t say anger is inherently wrong.

But it does say: “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

And I am guilty of sinning in my anger in the last few days; in ways that undermine all the stuff that makes me angry.

It is clear that to be angry at the culture war — and to try to take no side — can end up just making you some sort of champion for a ‘third way’ of culture warring, or a mercenary who gets pulled from one side to another. And I have no interest in that.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

And so. Here are my confessions.

I find it harder to love my brothers and sisters on ‘the right’ — who should be ‘my friends’ — given that I am part of a confessional, theologically conservative, denomination — than I do to love those on ‘the left’ in the culture war. I find the commitment to justice for the marginalised more compelling than commitments to our own institutional power and Christian morality being extended beyond the church. I speak in harsher terms about their positions — especially those within my institution — than I do about those I believe to be in error on the other side. I do a better job of listening to and engaging charitably with the progressive theological and political positions that I agree with than with the conservative ones — in part because I’d like to present conservative positions without ‘culture war’ engagement, and to cut through the messaging that sees something like religious freedom as a culture war battlefront is difficult without differentiation. I believe there are times where this difficulty produces ungodly and immoderate interactions with others (I had several comments on a forum moderated yesterday because I consistently, and deliberately, misspelled the name Caldron Pool). I can do better at this, and am thankful for friends who call me out.

I particularly have difficulty finding a loving way to engage with those pushing a hard culture war agenda, and adopting the tactics of the Christian Right in the U.S. In my humble assessment these are the greater danger to those of us who are theologically conservative than to become theologically progressive.

I have trouble because I see things in fairly integrated ways, with not disentangling that integration. So. On the day Ravi was exposed in the way he was, as, I think, an indictment not just of Ravi, but of the sort of celebrity power-game culture that Christians have bought into and justified via ‘utilitarian’ arguments (eg, the idea Ravi didn’t need scrutiny because of how fruitful he was for the kingdom), I sinned by commenting on a glowing endorsement of Ravi by an Australian culture warrior made on the day of his death — when the accusations against him were public and well known, but dismissed as part of a culture war agenda against this giant of the faith.

This was cheap and unbecoming. There are more constructive ways to make that point.

I have been so swept up in my anger that I have lost a sense of what is righteous, and taken shortcuts around pursuing what is true. So today, I shared and condemned a tweet that I thought was from an American culture warrior that was actually from a parody account. I took a ‘culture war’ side; not because I think the ‘left’ had things right, but because I believe the hard right to be diabolically in error and problematic allies for theological conservatives. I was quick to speak, and quick to anger. I was deceived.

I could do with meditating more on this passage, that I do believe should guide our interactions on social media.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
— James 1:16-21

So. I’m working on my anger. Working on my peacemaking. Working on being constructive in my contribution to discussions about the intersection between Christianity and politics. Working on my contrarian streak that has me acerbically and cynically pushing back on those with whom I have genuine disagreements. This doesn’t mean that everything I’ve posted, said, or done is worthy of the criticism I’ve received, but that criticism does reflect an area of my life and practice that is worth repenting of, and there are areas that I, like any of us, can benefit from the calm correction of brothers and sisters. It’s that sort of calm criticism — rather than dog whistled, culture war driven, labelling of one another as ‘wolves’ that is likely to produce change; and those friends are the voices worth listening to.

I’m working on this stuff — but I won’t always get it right; and nor do I believe that working on this stuff can be done by staying silent on the damage the culture war is doing to our witness to the goodness of the kingdom of Jesus for all people.

I don’t think talking about virtue ethics requires perfection of virtues — but it does require a commitment to becoming more virtuous over time. And I hope to do that.

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