A big table and the paradox of tolerance

There’s a popular meme that circulates on social media from time to time; one of those sort of epigrams for our age — “when you have more than you need, build a bigger table, not a higher fence” — it’s always struck me as an interesting quote as someone whose denomination talks of my role in administering the sacraments as involving “fencing the table,” and it strikes me too that much commentary around the direction of Eternity News playing out on social media is grappling with whether Eternity should be a big table, or whether it should erect some fences.

I have massive sympathy for what Eternity News is trying to achieve in its opinion section, and while it pains me to see the culture wars fought out in a publication I love, and one that I’ve invested time, energy, and words into contributing to and promoting over the years, and to have been part of the war of words, I do believe Eternity’s vision to provide a forum for conversations for those who’ll share eternity together is good and necessary, and that it requires a diversity of political and theological positions to be gathered around one table.

This week Eternity ran a pro-Israel Folau/ACL campaign piece by David Pellowe, and then, for balance, ran a piece critical of that campaign. I do fear John Sandeman’s approach of pursuing ‘balance’ in the opinion section by posing opposing views rather than views that seek to discern the truth (ie classic news/feature writing) ends up fuelling the division rather than bridging the gap — especially because of how the Caldron Pool reacted to the two part series in this piece by Mark Powell (that seems to have no sense of the existence of the Pellowe piece). There’s also an irony here in that Mark Powell, in a 2019 interview with the then Bible Society CEO, asked a question that implied correct views on the Trinity should be a deal breaker for their platform, but he and his mates are quite keen to promote Israel Folau’s orthodoxy.

The Caldron Pool piece was, predictably, shared by the union of figures I’d named in my now deleted article. They don’t like that Eternity will feature voices critical of their political theology and practice. Curiously, the editor of Caldron Pool, who’ll write pieces against cancel culture, will, without irony, seek legal advice and complain to church courts if anyone has the temerity to criticise his publication in public. The Caldron Pool is not a ‘broad table’ — it has, clearly, different aims to Eternity, though its unclear who they believe will share the eternal table with them. One might ask at what point their accusations of ‘wolflike’ behaviour for those ‘woke pastors’ and woke platforms represent an act of discernment that these people fall outside the kingdom?

The table is such a profound and powerful Christian image; for many Christian traditions the table is the centre of the church gathering — around communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharistic meal (depending on one’s theology or tradition). At the table we Bible believing Christians do the work Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 11 of ‘discerning the body.’ Now, part of this is surely to do with how one understands the presence of Jesus in the sacrament, but, in the context of 1 Corinthians 12, and the bad table manners Paul is correcting in 1 Corinthians 11, this act of discernment includes recognising that our union with Christ and the church, by the one Spirit, draws together people from all corners of society to this one ‘gathering’ (what ‘the church’ is) as one body.

Jesus spent lots of time at the table in the Gospels; sometimes these were tables managed by religious leaders who were out to get him, often he ate with sinners and tax collectors; some of the most beautiful moments are when he brings the judgmental religious people to the table with those people searching for the kingdom who were on the margins of society to reveal something of the character of God and his love for the outsider. Jesus didn’t stop eating with the people who were out to get him — right up until the Last Supper he’s eating at a table in the presence of his enemies. In that meal, as he gave us the model for our meals together that Paul draws on in 1 Corinthians, Jesus speaks about the eternal table; the heavenly banquet, such that his act of hospitality as he breaks bread and pours out the wine is not just a picture of his coming death, but of eternity.

In Luke’s account, Jesus talks about the nature of his kingdom — that the table won’t run in his kingdom like it does in the kingdom of the Gentiles, where rulers lord it over others and the seats at the table are allocated in some sort of status game (that’s the Corinthian problem), instead, he says he is at the table as “one who serves” and greatness, or indeed “the kingdom” is defined differently for those who Jesus says will “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.”

Earlier in Luke, Jesus also talked about how people in this kingdom should participate in other tables — not as fence builders or power grabbers, but as guests. Guests who do not seek the places of honour, or to have their status boosted and their voices heard by all at the table, but as those who sit in the lowly places, he says “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” and then pivots to providing hospitality advice for when we run tables around the same ethic. He says don’t just invite the powerful; the high status — those who’ll make you look good and give you a boost in the world. That’s the gentile power-game. Instead make space for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

This advice should guide how those of us who’ll spend Eternity together might use our tables — whether those are literal, in our churches and homes – or metaphorical, our digital places of hospitality and dialogue. It’s not that such spaces should exclude the powerful necessarily, Jesus eats with Pharisees and religious leaders, as well as sinners and tax collectors, it’s just that we Christians should recognise the dynamics here (and our own tendency to act more like Pharisees and religious leaders than sinners, tax collectors, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” When Eternity is at its best it is sharing stories — making space at the table — for the outsiders in our church communities; when it is at its worst it has religious leaders like me sparring with others in the opinion section. My own contributions have ranged from lofty heights — working beside marginalised voices in the broader church, to the lows — writing a piece so inflammatory it was pulled after an outpouring of anger, and some legal posturing.

While I, and other church leaders, often bear a responsibility to administer a table as we lead our communities in the sacraments, and while this might mean ‘discerning the body’ and ‘fencing the table’ from some we believe fall outside the kingdom based on our doctrine and practice, Eternity is a deliberately broad table, crossing denominational and local boundaries. Those of us who run narrower tables — in denominations, or local tables — in local churches — need such ‘broad tables’ to remind us that the kingdom of God and the body of Christ exist outside our particular tribes and communities. Eternity invites us to sit at the table, discern the body, and enter conversation and perhaps even communion with those saints we will join with for Eternity. We need voices from outside our local bubbles or theological grids to offer gentle critique, encouragement, and opportunities to listen to other ideas as we humbly remember that all our human institutions are the product of humans who are simultaneously justified and sinful (at least for Protestants that’s part of the package). Institutions like Eternity, and their big table, remind us of our union with Christ unites us with loads of people who think and live differently to us (and might encourage us to practice hospitality when it comes to how the tables in our churches or homes operate).

After my controversial anti-culture war piece (that became a culture war piece) — one that ended with a call for peace-making across very real divides, David Pellowe, host of the Good Sauce, convener of the Church and State Summit, and now, it seems, Eternity columnist, who I’d specifically named in my piece, reached out across the divide and invited me to break bread with him, and subsequently, he invited me onto his YouTube program, Pellowe Talk, where I sat at the table (or desk) in his studio and we had a conversation. I’m reasonably convinced that David Pellowe thinks we’ll be spending Eternity together, even if his most recent piece describes positions I hold — positions on core, orthodox Christian doctrine (like the Trinity being foundational) as making me a “progressive believer.” If that’s progressive, count me in. David’s hospitality and this act of peacemaking helped both of us ‘discern the body’ in such a way that while I still believe his politics, and those shared by others on the Christian Right are dangerous to both the church and society, I would not ‘fence the table’ if he attended our church gathering, nor would I keep him from my dining table; I’m not, by extension, concerned that Eternity makes space for him at the table of public discourse. I do recognise that it creates a genuine expression of ‘the paradox of tolerance.’

In a nutshell, this paradox, coined by Karl Popper, says that for a tolerant society — or table — to operate, it has to be intolerant of intolerance. Or, as my friend Cameron puts it “you can’t invite people to the table if their express goal is to set the table on fire.” The trick here is that even if fellows like Pellowe, and other new Eternity columnists are committed to a ‘broad table’ — and even if Eternity itself is — at some point a broad table becomes unsafe, and not just for the ‘leftists’ or whoever the target of intolerance is.

Quite a few of my Eternity columnist stablemates have been in conversation over the rightward lurch in the opinion section, concerned about this new direction, in part because it seems to us that some of these new writers are not interested in tolerance, or pluralism (and indeed, many from the Christian Right turned to language of boycotts and cancellation when Eternity ran pieces critical of the hard right), the catch is, some of the gentler voices in the Eternity stable are also grappling with the goodness or wisdom of sharing a table with the intolerant. Meanwhile, John Sandeman, Eternity’s editor has been doing the rounds of conservative Christian media outlets (including Pellowe’s show, and Jonathan Cole’s The Political Animals) to cast his vision for a broad table as an invitational act of peacemaking (in part managing the fallout from my piece, and one of his own), and to court the addition of gentler conservative contributions.

I am not inclined to boycott Eternity, or its opinion section, because of these new voices being included. I love Eternity, and I find John’s vision compelling — but this is, perhaps, a product of my privilege and my place at the table.

I don’t want the answer to be fencing the table from conservative religious leaders with significant status, but, at the same time, it is true that sometimes particularly aggressive sheep can bite like wolves and be a danger to the flock, and just as my role in our church community — with other elders and leaders in our church — is to shepherd the flock in the way of the good shepherd, Eternity, as a “Christian institution,” even a broad table, has some pastoral responsibility here too. One that might look like a firmer editorial hand, or clearer parameters around acceptable voice or tone that defines the sort of conversation one might be invited to enter at the table; some agreed upon Eternity table manners. I was the first to admit that my pulled article was ill-mannered (that, rather than ‘untruth’ was why it was pulled). Eternity did not ‘cancel me’ or my piece, though some people I wrote about did — and are continuing to push for my cancellation in other spheres I operate in, in response to the piece. John and I made the call in consultation, and John’s hand was forced into that consultation because I publicly apologised for the tone of my piece and distanced myself from that tone, while Eternity was still expected to host it. I’m seeking to learn from that experience as a contributor, but I wonder if there is space for Eternity to apply some learnings from that piece and the fallout across the board, beyond just that it’s hard to be a place where iron sharpens iron. Sometimes sharp iron, and flecks of iron thrown off in the process can do real damage to people.

My concern about the current editorial direction of Eternity is not only that seeking loud mouth institutional voices (like mine) to engage in traffic driving ‘iron-sharpens-iron’ tit-for-tats in the opinion section, and the comments on Eternity’s Facebook page drowns out the experience of the lost, the last, and the least — the sinner and tax collector, or “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” — those we should be hosting at our tables, but also that some recent articles are inhospitable to those we should be including.

Want to find a community of ‘sinners and tax collectors’ or the downtrodden and oppressed, who need Jesus in our modern western world — there are plenty of candidates, from members of the LGBTIQA+ community, to those whose experiences sit outside the ‘male, middle class, and white’ norm of Australian institutions (like the church), including women (whose voices were drowned out in Eternity’s own stories on International Women’s Day by a boisterous boys club push-and-shove).

The catch is that for many in those communities — if you pay attention to the comments on social media, these new voices introduced to the comments section are pictures of intolerance and exclusion of their own voices and experience, not only by virtue of arguments, but because of trauma responses because religious institutions, and their tables, have not always been shaped by the way of Jesus.

Some of these more recent opinion pieces have an intolerant tone — not a tone that is hospitable to “the other,” but that is dangerous to those who’ve been hurt by wolves or biting sheep in the past. Even if these writers are fellow guests; fellow sheep; fellow members of the body — such words, and the way they are spoken, can produce an atmosphere of condemnation, or produce traumatic responses in the vulnerable or hurting, or can lead to others feeling unwelcome not only at Eternity’s table, but at God’s eternal table. Some, believe this new tone — and also the words being said — have made Eternity a less hospitable table. This is not the case for bull-headed people like me who are prepared to go charging into any conversation without fear for my own safety. This lack of hospitality is not something I tend to feel in the ‘Christian bubble’ as a religious leader with status, education, and a degree of wealth, status, and security. It’s precisely people like me who should be challenged by the words of Jesus about his table — and how Christian spaces operate, and precisely those others — who feel a sense of inhospitality — who Jesus called his kingdom to be hospitable to. It’s this change that others who have been part of the Eternity stable but are feeling uncomfortable are reacting to. Eternity has become a hospitable place for religious leaders to play power and status games, and an inhospitable place for those who are, or have been, outsiders and victims in those games.

I’d love to see their vision of a big heavenly table involve a broadening of the voices (including perspectives, practices and experiences) they platform, and correspondingly, some of us prominent blokes with institutional power dialling down our participation in culture war bunfights to make space for that — for the richness of the body of Christ to be on display we must decrease so they might increase.

I’d love to see the ethics of that heavenly table shape the tone of voice Eternity allows at its table, not just the broad spectrum of political views invited to speak.

The paradox of tolerance is real, it is impossible to run a broad table when some of your guests are telling others they aren’t welcome, and while this might go both ways, the way of Jesus is clear — the religious leaders who believed they were the righteous ones, who had power and status, and were used to running the table — they were able to stick around so long as they were listening to the Lord of hosts, through his chosen king, even when he spoke pointedly to condemn them, and the lost, the last, and the least — those were the people who have priority at the tables of the kingdom. It’s possible that creating safe tables for those others — whether through calling for change in existing institutions (like churches and publications), or starting new ones is the work of the kingdom here; and it’s possible that such pressure might be applied by refusing to share a table with those trying to burn down your table, or who want to build big fences.

The challenge for committed pluralists like me is to take up invitations to be a guest at hostile tables, to provide hospitality through the tables I serve at, especially to those we’re called to love and serve by Jesus

On Presbyterians preaching ‘the whole counsel of God’ while burning dollar bills

In 1994 the performance art group the K Foundation (aka musicians KLF) burned 1 million quid. They stacked up a bunch of banknotes and set fire to their hard earned dollars — capital they’d built up through years of craftsmanship. Every time I think of the way the church has responded to LGBTIQA+ issues in Australia I picture that burning money. All the social capital we spent years building through establishing schools, hospitals, and charities — advocating for the local and global poor, looking out for those on the margins… set up in flames; a $1 million dollar donation from a prominent Evangelical denomination there, an attempt by a less prominent-but-still-wanting-to-be-significant denomination to exit marriage all together if those others were granted recognition here… smoke and ashes. Gone.

One way I know we haven’t learned is that in the face of the Change or Suppression (Conversion) Therapy Bill passing in Victoria we haven’t been able to recognise that smell of smoke in the air as our own capital burning up. In fact. We’ve doubled down and stoked the fire with whatever small bills we’ve got left.

Now. This isn’t to say the Church shouldn’t be faithful, at cost to itself, in the world. Or that popularity of social capital is the essence of faithful presence in the world (though we are meant to ‘live good lives before the pagans,’ lives that are appealing and notable… but I had hoped we’d burn our social capital speaking against the powerful on behalf of the marginal (or, particularly, not out of our own self interest). Now I know, I know, speaking out for God’s design for sex and marriage and human flourishing is speaking for marginalised people. That’s true.

But when the Government acts because it says we are harming a marginalised people group through our practices, and so many of us are prepared to say ‘yes, those practices did exist in a relatively mainstream way in the past, but they’re unicorns now, but trust us…,’ the additional fuel we have to throw on the fire is this.

We keep insisting on our right to keep harming people.

Publicly.

At least. That’s how it reads. All the nuance in the world about what exactly we’re objecting to isn’t going to cut it so long as people are convinced that our practices and beliefs lead gay young people to suicide. All the world is hearing in our objections to this Bill is that we want to keep hurting people. We might not think we’re saying that, but there’s a big pile of smouldering bank notes sitting behind us just itching for a little more fuel. In the eyes of Joe and Jo Public, The Royal Commission showed our institutions can’t be trusted to have power over vulnerable kids, while the plebiscite showed we aren’t particularly safe for LGBTIQA+ individuals.

If we genuinely, in the interest of our neighbours, want to invite people to know the goodness of submitting one’s whole self — including our sexuality — to loving and worshipping Jesus, and we want that to be persuasive (humanly speaking), we need to rebuild our social capital — perhaps precisely by caring for vulnerable kids and the LGBTIQA+ community (creating some public distance from Andrew Bolt might be wise on that first one). Most churches have outdone themselves in responding to the findings of the Royal Commission — and there’s a vast gap between the credibility of an entire Royal Commission and one Victorian Study interviewing traumatised survivors of church practices — but maybe, just maybe, we could take those survivor’s accounts seriously and respond pastorally. Not just to rebuild our social capital as some appeasement exercise, but because it’s the right thing to do…

The other thing we might do, to take up the task of rebuilding our social capital, is heed the call of the Presbyterian Church of Australia’s Moderator General Peter Barnes to ‘preach the whole counsel of God’ in Victoria, and perhaps around the country. Rev Barnes responded to the legislation passing in Victoria by urging Presbyterian ministers around the country to: “preach all that He has revealed to us, whether law or gospel, and to do so in a spirit of love and truth.” Barnes has been praised for his courageous leadership. What the K-Foundation did was courageous too. Burning all that money. Courage isn’t necessarily wisdom.

Now. Rev Barnes was particularly encouraging ministers to clearly proclaim the Bible’s prohibition on same sex sexual intercourse, calling sin sin, that was both the spirit of the email he sent out and the spirit of the glowing feature article written by another Presbyterian Minister over at cess pit Caldron Pool, that site took a break from calling Joe Biden a Communist, to run an article headlined “Presbyterian Church of Australia Set to Defy Gay Conversion Bill”... which is just another way of saying “Presbyterian Church of Australia wants to harm Gay people.” Because the thing is, despite the scare campaign about an (overreaching) Bill, the legislation only kicks in when Christian practices are harmful. Now, harm is a nebulous and utterly subjective concept, to be sure. But. The plain reading of a headline urging defiance of a Bill that prohibits harm, is that this denomination wants to harm people. Another way of framing the article could well have been “Presbyterian Church of Australia set to set fire to $1 million” — only, we probably don’t have the money.

But Rev Barnes is right. We Presbyterians should be prepared to call sin sin. Even if it makes us unpopular. We should preach the whole counsel of God — including the Bible’s design for sexuality and human flourishing — grounded as it is in the relationship not just between man and woman, but Jesus and his bride (the church).

We should preach about greed. About affluence and Aussie comfort. About penalty rates, and the modern banking industry, and negative gearing. We should talk about how the Bible has lots more to say about the idolatry of Greed than the idolatry of sex, and how comfortable the average Aussie is with the notion that greed is good, and economic prosperity should drive our ethical decision making. Greed is sin.

We should preach about systemic racism. About how all people are made to bear the image of God, and how sin gets entrenched in structures to improve the lot of the proud and haughty — nations and systems that rule at the expense of others — and how the Kingdom of God came to reverse these structures because of God’s nature and character, and his love for all humankind. Racism is sin.

We should preach about the environment — about how we were made to be stewards who ruled the world with God, and for his purposes, to bring life and fruitfulness — but how our sin, especially greed, turned our ‘dominion’ with God into ‘domination’ and destruction. Vandalising God’s planet is sin.

We should preach about gender equality and toxic masculinity and the way the same cursed, sinful, relationships that create systems of racial inequality create systems of gender inequality, and create the grounds for things like coercive control and family violence. Sexism is sin. Family violence is sin.

We should preach about how the story of being exiles brought home to God — as gentiles — is a lot like the story of Israel being brought as refugees out of Egypt, and how that story of God’s hospitable welcome to us in Jesus, just like the Exodus for Egypt, should cause us to love and be hospitable to the refugee. Not showing hospitality to vulnerable people — our neighbours — like in the Good Samaritan — that’s sin.

We should preach about the importance of truth in an age of fake news, and hit-piece sites that run polarising attack ads on the repugnant political other. Bearing false witness is sin.

We should preach about Australia’s past; the dispossession of our First Nation’s peoples, and the ongoing systemic disadvantage they now face not just because of the original European settlement, but because of government policy decisions that led to things like massacres, and stolen wages. Murder is sin. Theft is sin. Racism is sin.

We should preach about God’s love for the poor, and the marginalised, and act in ways that led the church for generations before us to invest in building institutions like schools and hospitals not just for our own good, but the good of our neighbours, building credibility for the goodness of the Gospel of Jesus. And we should practice what we preach.

We should preach the whole counsel of God. Both law and Gospel. We should call all these things sin, in a Spirit of love, and truth. And we should offer the same pastoral support to Greedy people, racists, and toxic men.

But we won’t. Or, most of us will do that too — but we don’t get emails from the Moderator General inviting us to do this when laws pass that prop up the destruction of the environment, or support our greed, or continue our track record of racism or the abuse of refugees. We won’t get told to ‘preach the whole counsel of God’ when the Close The Gap report gets handed down, or when new statistics about family violence in our country are reported.

We’ll just keep talking about sexual morality — one of the things that was meant to set Christians apart from their neighbours. We’ll keep asking to harm people in Jesus’ name, rather than love them into an encounter with his bride, and body, the church, that makes his love tangible and oh, so worth it.

We’ll just keep adding fuel to the fire.

On Cultural Marxism, Capitalism and Christianity as a third way

There’s what seems like a coordinated push from hard-right Christian media and social media outlets this week to raise awareness about the dangers of ‘cultural Marxism.’ Here, for example, is a quote from the ACL’s Martyn Iles in his third post linking “Black Lives Matter” to cultural Marxism.

“Black Lives Matter: not what it says on the tin.

It is so important to exercise discernment – a virtue mentioned dozens of times in scripture, essential to living wisely.

There are many labels doing the rounds at present – Black Lives Matter, Safe Schools, Extinction Rebellion, Liberation Theology… and others.

Each of these attractive labels has a surface appeal, but masks what lies within. They are fronts for Cultural Marxism.

The “facts” that lie at their roots are popular deceptions. A supposed underclass of children oppressed by heteronormativity… horrifying, systemic racism by police officers… an imminent ‘end is nigh’ style climate catastrophe… Jesus as a figure concerned mostly about the earthly ‘oppressed’ and mostly for their empowerment in earthly systems.

These deceptions alarm people.

They recruit people’s emotional support for an anti-Christ political cause.”

Now. Before I go much further, I think it’s worth making a distinction in our conversations around race issues between Black Lives MatterTM (@blklivesmatter), and “Black lives matter” the statement, and #blacklivesmatter the hashtag. One way to imagine the distinction would look like:

“Because black lives matter that we should rally against systemic racism, and also because #blacklivesmatter, we should ask @blklivesmatter to reconsider its position on abortion.”

This would, as an example, use the phrase to affirm a truth: black lives do matter. Connect the use of that phrase to a conversation on Twitter, where #blacklivesmatter works as a hashtag, and address a concern that one might have with the Black Lives Matter organisation and its vision of the good. One might stand with @blklivesmatter on its diagnosis of the problems in our western society, and the way white privilege works systemically to disenfranchise non-white people, and see how historic injustices like slavery or dispossession continue to work themselves out today (so they’re not really history) without sharing @blklivesmatter’s solutions to the problem.

Others, like my friend David Ould have a principled disagreement (along the lines of avoiding association with evil) that I think is both an example of the sort of prescriptive v descriptive word games I’ve mentioned before, and too much of a concession around terminology (rather than entering a contest) to one party in a conversation. If the meaning of words is contested, rather than fixed, more people are able to enter a conversation, bringing more perspectives and richness to the commons. Objections to participating in the Black Lives Matter cause or conversation tend to, at one level, conflate entity, statement, and hashtag and treat them as a monolithic identity marking thing — and then some, like Iles, jump from that monolith to this idea of “cultural marxism.”

It’s not just Iles who’s on the warpath against “cultural Marxism” — you can find articles in The Spectator from the Presbyterian Church’s very own Mark Powell titled ‘Cultural Marxism’s War On Freedom‘ (and if one was to play Presbyterian assembly bingo you can tick off that box on your sheet just about every time Mark speaks about a social issue), you can follow the dirt sheets at Caldron Pool where, for example, young Ben Davis says “Cultural Marxism is a poison eroding the West from within and we need to know how to identify it,” the definition this piece offers is:

“One of the ways in which relativism has influenced society is through Cultural Marxism, or “Social Justice”. Like Classical Marxism, Cultural Marxism is an inherently divisive ideology. Where Classical Marxism was concerned with class warfare between the wealthy and the working class, Cultural Marxism shifts the focus to imagined conflicts between the privileged oppressive majority and the disadvanced oppressed minorities.

Which category a person falls into is determined by certain aspects of that individual’s identity, such as gender, skin colour, sexual preferences, family, ethnicity, culture, and religion.”

The “Canberra Declaration” an obtuse right-wing Christian thinktank, defines Cultural Marxism as “a secular philosophy that views all of life through the lens of a power struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor,” where:

“The oppressor is usually an aspect of traditional Western society such as the family, capitalism, democracy, or Christianity. The oppressed is anyone who is or who feels marginalised by these institutions, depending on the cultural and political debates of the moment.”

Using word or hashtags (like ‘privilege’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘systemic injustice’ or ‘patriarchy’) — even to acknowledge those as categories — can trigger an avalanche of despair from anti-social justice warriors who want to stamp cultural marxism out of the system; and certainly want to prevent anything like “cultural marxism” slipping into the church; in doing so these political activists end up setting up a boundary marker around the Gospel such that anyone to their left is either a ‘woke panderer,’ or partnering with an anti-Christ, or both. Here’s Iles again:

“I condemn Black Lives Matter because they are a Marxist movement.

Marxism is anti-Christ.

They substitute sin with power.

They substitute the individual with the tribe, imputing guilt, innocence, and judgement to collective groups, not responsible people.

They absolve guilt, not by repentance, but by claiming victim status. Sin is justified for some tribes.

They do not absolve guilt for all. It cannot be absolved for the wrong tribes.

They exist to agitate, tear down, create chaos, divide, and destroy. That is the cultural Marxist objective – wreck the joint; destroy the system; do it violently.”

“Anti-Christ” is very loaded and evocative terminology in Christian circles; it draws on beastly satanic imagery (and eschatological conspiracies about end times); and it is pretty much the ultimate statement of anathema. Thing is, the Bible is quite careful to describe the term:

“Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” — 1 John 2:18-23

Now, this isn’t to say that the Bible doesn’t speak about political systems and structures to condemn them; it does; it tends towards describing those structures as beastly, animalistic, following in the footsteps of that dragon/serpent Satan. Revelation is loaded with this sort of imagery with the finger pointed squarely at worldly power. But more on that below…

What it uses the term ‘antichrist’ for is for those who deny that Jesus is the Christ, those that “deny the Father and the Son,” those who were once part of the people of God, who have “gone out from us” — for John this is probably people returning to Judaism denying that Jesus has been raised from the dead (see this post to flesh this out a bit). To be antichrist is to deny substantial and fundamentally important truths about Jesus; it is not to subscribe to a particular political system, or to use terminology to enter discussion with those subscribed to a particular political system.

But interestingly, each of the figures I mention above — Iles, Powell, and the writers of Caldron Pool — have, in the last 12 months, very carefully and closely aligned themselves with one who fits this bill: a Trinity denying modalist who denies that Jesus, the son, came in the flesh, denying father and son (by saying only the father, named Jesus Christ, exists). Iles in particular did his very best to position this figure as a Christian for the sake of his politics and fundraising, despite being given substantial evidence for this person’s theology.

But back to “Cultural Marxism”…

One of the problems I have with the attack on cultural marxism is that part of the critique is a critique of the idea of systemic sin, built on an argument that there is systemic sin at play in our institutions. What the noise about cultural marxism really boils down to is a feeling amongst a subset of conservatives that they are losing the culture war because they’ve lost control of cultural institutions.

If the so-called left, including the “black lives matter” conversation, is suggesting that systemic racism is a problem, and that part of the problem is with a ‘hegemony’ consisting of white people (typically males) who control political, economic, and cultural institutions, and so set patterns of behaviour in order to hold on to the status quo of wealth and power, at the exclusion and expense of others; and if this is “cultural marxism” — then the so-called right is responding by suggesting a conspiracy  where a system of leftists (the cultural marxists) are conducting a long march through the institutions. This leftist system now apparently seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct public belief, behaviour, and discourse. It’s actually “systemic set of sins A” v “systemic set of sins B” — and Christians should have issues siding with either. We have our own kingdom, with our own king.

While I’m happy enough for ‘cultural marxism’ to be a contested descriptor of a certain element of the left, I think it’s dangerous to use it prescriptively, to label and dismiss a group of people (and I’m struck by how often the same people not happy to use Black Lives Matter because of its political association are happy to use “cultural marxism” with no regard to its political associations). I don’t use it as a label or to open up discussions with those on the so-called left because it’s not a description they would typically apply to themselves, and it is a term with troubling origins. Aussie scholar Rob Smith has a long article on Cultural Marxism and its origins as a school of thought in Themelios that concludes:

“Given the existence of conspiratorial explanations of the nature and goals of Cultural Marxism, is there a case for avoiding the term and using an alternative (e.g., neo-Marxism or Critical Theory)? In my view, there is no inherent problem with the label, but Christians ought to be careful with how (and to whom) it is applied. It really can function as a kind of “weaponised narrative” that paints anyone who gets tagged with it as being “beyond the pale of rational discourse.” It can even be a way of dismissing fellow believers who display a concern for justice or environmental issues or who are mildly optimistic about the possibilities of cultural transformation. We should certainly discuss and debate such matters, but Carl Trueman is right: “Bandying terms like ‘cultural Marxist’ … around simply as a way of avoiding real argument is shameful and should have no place in Christian discourse.”

One might then ask if the Caldron Pool, Canberra Declaration, Spectator articles and Martyn Iles’ recent Facebook posts manage to clear the jump of ‘avoiding real argument’ and bandying the term around to create a boogeyman, and dismiss other perspectives from fellow Christians.

I was convinced by Christian friends with some Marxist sympathies (especially because of the Marxist critique of capitalism), that ‘cultural marxism’ is an unhelpful pejorative, or snarl, that shuts down dialogue between Christians, and between Christians and non-Christians on the so-called left, so I don’t use it. I was probably more convinced by an analysis of the phrase “cultural marxism” from the guys at The Eucatastrophe (here’s part 1) than I was by Smith’s take. I do use other ‘contested’ terms in order to open up dialogue with those same groups, and I’m increasingly aware that this closes down dialogue with those on the so-called Christian right, either because my use of terminology makes me a ‘woke panderer’ or because my descriptive use of language (and post-modernism) is an affront to their modernist prescriptivism. I’m yet to be convinced that ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ aren’t essentially Biblical terms that align with the Biblical picture of sin. That’s an area for me to consider carefully. I do think the dominant Christian voices in my tradition tend to conflate ‘Christian’ and ‘right wing’ in ways that exclude those on the left so my bias is towards including or embracing those who might otherwise feel excluded by default.

If I were ‘code switching’ and speaking to my friends on the Christian right, or just secular conservatives, I’d be acknowledging a particular agenda from the left wrapped up in deconstruction, and cancel culture, and attacks on free speech, religious freedom (in some forms) and occasional attempts to enshrine a particularly gnostic view of sexuality and gender that denies the reality of bodily sex in favour of feelings. I’d acknowledge that there are certain expressions of marxism, and certainly its solutions beyond the toppling of capitalism and oppressive power structures, that are just as evil.

I’d reject the idea that it might be ‘better the devil we know’ and suggest a Christian approach to politics might be one that seeks to obey Jesus, and for Christians to be people of virtue who practice the “golden rule” while taking up our cross rather than our sword. I’d acknowledge that the secular left is unforgiving, and weaponises shame, having watched cancel culture attack a prominent Aussie barista this week, and J.K Rowling. I’d suggest it’s odd that “the left” wants to pit Donald Trump (the big evil) against Martin Luther King (the big good) in this present moment, while ignoring significant evidence that MLK should’ve been “cancelled” because #himtoo. I’d acknowledge that culture wars and politics as a zero sum game are destructive to civility, pluralism, the ability to coexist, democracy as an acknowledgment of the equality of all (rather than the victory of the winners), and ultimately to our ability to love our neighbour.

These figures on the so-called “Christian right” might pretend to be acting neutrally, but by supporting a status quo (especially a capitalist one as opposed to a Marxist one, as though there are only binary options for our economics) are identifying their own version of systemic or structural sin to condemn the identification of structural sin as antichrist.

What might be true of a leftist conspiracy, where a system is developed to fight a culture war could also be just as true of a rightist conspiracy. The right’s antithesis to cultural marxism, where the so called ‘free market,’ and individual autonomy and the right to own property (including, as Locke put it, the idea that an individual person is a property in their own right) is just as systemic. And ultimately the market is actually controlled by a group of people (those who decide the rules of the game and serve as gatekeepers), and the whole game is rigged to benefit people who fit with, and perpetuate, the status quo (we might call these people ‘the privileged,’ and these people might include me). If the left enshrines various ‘identities’ as idols, the right enshrines money, property, and personal autonomy.

There is nothing sub-Biblical about the idea that sin and curse are enshrined in structures that oppress. This is a thoroughly Biblical idea — and it’s a double edged sword. It cuts down the utopian eschatology of both the left, and the idea that we might find heaven on earth if we get rid of some bourgeois class of oppressor and their oppressive structures (especially capitalism), and the right, and the idea that we might find heaven on earth if individuals are free to own and accumulate property and wealth according to their ability (with no acknowledgment of the way this might play out intergenerationally, and that greed might occur and massively distort the market at the expense of those without that same intergenerational cachet). Both ideologies are beastly without Jesus, and neither totally align with the kingdom of God as we see it revealed in Jesus in his death, resurrection, ascension, pouring out of the Spirit, and his eventual return to make all things new.

Christians should not be surprised that sinful people form communities (and political visions) around idols, and that as we do this, our sin becomes enculturated and forms the structures and norms of life together.

This is precisely what idolatry does to the nations around Israel, and precisely what happens to Israel when they become like the nations and choose to worship created things instead of the creator. Our common objects of love — and whether we’re in lefty sub culture or righty sub culture — our common political visions — will form and deform us, and they don’t simply do this internally but as we build societies, cultural artefacts, relationships, and systems to pursue these (idolatrous) visions of the good. To suggest that this sort of system is never built along racial lines is to ignore the testimony of the Old Testament; but these systems are also built along ‘market’ or economic lines too.

The Bible is not neutral about questions of power; specifically about questions of dominion, and the abuse of power where instead of cooperating in spreading God’s dominion over the face of the earth as his image bearing gardeners, we turn to seek domination over one another and enshrine that in nation v nation, or culture v culture contests. Ultimately the Bible pits God’s kingdom as revealed in the crucified, resurrected, exalted, spirit-giving, and returning Christ against the beastly kingdoms of this world.

Systemic racism is a feature of the Old Testament; peoples who, by virtue of belonging to one nation, oppress outsiders, is a feature of the Biblical narrative. The answer is not political revolution from one idol to another; the answer is Jesus. Now, Iles wants to acknowledge this too; but his Jesus has nothing to say to those oppressed in this world by power structures, because his system somehow wants to deny that power structures can be oppressive. And this, ultimately, is sub-Biblical — especially in that if fails to grapple with the way “Babylon” and beastliness work in the narrative of the Bible from beginning to end (and Egypt before it). Babylon becomes a cypher for Rome in the New Testament; but it really is just any empire that makes power and dominion — a kind of ‘might is right, take what you want’ mentality its fundamental way of life; it shouldn’t be hard to recognise ‘take what you want’ as one of the most basic pictures of sin (think Adam and Eve in the garden), but here’s a little primer on how all this works; and how the Bible is not just concerned about freedom from slavery to Satan, but about the creation of a world where Satan’s pattern of behaviour does not infiltrate and influence human government (whether in the guise of right or left).

In the Bible’s creation account, God’s image bearing people are given this task of exercising power as God’s agents in the world (Genesis 1:27); they are to use this in life giving ways that allow humanity to flourish and multiply; to ‘fill the earth’ — the picture we get of what a filled earth should look like is in Eden. People were made to cooperate with one another as God’s agents, in partnership with God, working in this garden like world, taking natural resources (Gen 2 mentions gold, etc) to spread the conditions of a good and flourishing life. There’s no sense of private home ownership (or even total self-autonomy here, as Adam and Eve belong to each other); there is a sense of God’s ownership and our stewardship. When Adam and Eve desire and take the fruit; when they usurp God’s rule, part of the curse is that their cooperation is broken, and their relationship will now be marked and marred by how power is used (Genesis 3:16). Later, when humans conspire to build Babel — a towering monument to human achievement — God scatters people into lots of nations so that they might not seek this glory and autonomy again. This is an archetypal storyline about the human condition and our relationship with God as creator; the attempt to build Babel is a particularly obvious example of ‘structural sin’ — of people working together to enshrine particular sins as both a very visible ‘norm’ and an architectural feature that would’ve testified and enshrined a particular story about human achievement, power, and dominion.

We’ll come back to the Biblical storyline in a moment — it’s just worth noting some parallel stories from the ancient world; especially in Babylon (the relationship between ‘Babel’ and ‘Babylon’ is not a coincidence). The Biblical story has an interesting relationship with Babylon’s alternative story — its vision of the good life. The Babylonian story does not have a hospitable God who makes a garden and tasks people with fruitful multiplication; in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian gods are gods of chaos and dominion. The earth is created out of the dead body of a god after a god-v-god war; the winner and chief god, Marduk, gets to build a monument to himself; Babel is ultimately his city, and people are made as servants of this hungry god of power and conquest. This is the story that shapes the life of Babylonian people in the ancient world, and defines their picture of kingship. Those who are outside of this god’s particular people; outside his city; are to be oppressed and conquered and put to work for the people who work for the god. This is based on race. It creates an oppressive group of people and an oppressed group of people. This is before Marx. Obviously.

In the Genesis story, God makes people and eventually these people want to build a stairway to heaven to ascend and take God’s glorious place in the sky; only to have the ‘Babel project’ — their empire — frustrated by God. In the Babylonian world, the gods fashion people but also build Babylon as the city where they descend from the heavens to feast on the earth, enjoying the slave labor of the people they’ve made. The Enuma Elish has Marduk describing his building of the great city of Babylon as a stairway between heaven and earth:

“Beneath the celestial parts, whose floor I made firm,
I will build a house to be my luxurious abode.
Within it I will establish its shrine,
I will found my chamber and establish my kingship.
When you come up from the Apsû to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
When you descend from heaven to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
I shall call its name ‘Babylon’, “The Homes of the Great Gods”

There’s lots of scholarship out there suggesting that the Tower of Babel is meant to be pictured as a ‘Ziggurat’ — a building functioning as a resting place for the gods, and a stairway between heaven and earth; the Biblical story offers a critique of the sort of worldly power and empire of Babylon right from the beginning (including its vision of ‘images of God’ — who is, and isn’t, an image bearer, and how images are made).

God’s people are not to be “Babylonian” — and part of what defines Babylon is the systemic oppression of those who are not Babylonians. Babylon, as the ultimate destination of Israel’s exile from God, is foreshadowed in Egypt. Egypt is its own oppressive system — a system built on structural or systemic racism. Hebrews are made slaves in Egypt by virtue of their ethnicity. They are oppressed. A system of sin and opposition to God is established that enslaves God’s people; and God cares not just about their pie-in-the-sky-when-they-die spiritual salvation from sin; but a fully embodied emancipation from slavery and systems of oppression; and Israel is specifically not to become an oppressive system; remembering how they were treated in, and saved from, Egypt.

Babylon gives was to Persia, gives way to Greece, gives way to Rome — each of these empires is a human empire built on dominion, and power, and systemic/structural institutionalisation of sin via stories about what it means to be human, the nature of the gods, and why their particular culture is superior to all others (as justification for conquest). Empires in the Bible are systematised sin built around idolatrous worship of things other than God. Empires in the Bible oppress and create victims. God’s people — Adam and Eve, Israel, the church — are called out of empire, out of these systems of sin, and into the people of God so that we become citizens of heaven and ambassadors of Jesus, being transformed into his image. While the so called ‘left’ might envisage an empire built on the destruction of a variety of institutions it deems oppressive, and progress through a reconstruction or redistribution of power from the oppressor to the oppressed — the so called ‘right’ envisages an empire built on power, dominion, and money. It wants to conserve an idolatrous status quo.

Babylon never really disappears; as I mentioned above the book of Revelation equates Babylon with the prosperous market-driven, military powered, dominion of worldly kingdoms — specifically those kingdoms that set themselves up in opposition to the kingdom of God. Those on the Christian right are quick to point the finger at Marxism for its hostility to Christianity (viewed as an oppressor, post Christendom), but very slow to point the finger at the right’s coopting of Christianity for its own power games (*cough* Trump *cough*), or to deny that the status quo in the west could possibly share anything in common with Rome, or Babylon, and be oppressive in its unfettered pursuit of wealth and the good life here and now. Greed is idolatry. Idolatry is inherently destructive. Politically enshrined idolatry is oppressive and destructive to those ‘outside the kingdom.’

Marxism, “cultural” or otherwise, as a systematised vision of the good, not defined by the Lordship of Jesus, is an idolatrous and destructive system.

Capitalism, as a systematised vision of the good, not defined by the Lordship of Jesus, is an idolatrous and destructive system.

Marxism might give us a language and diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, and help us recognise the oppression it creates. But it does not give us a solution if it simply invites us to deconstruct capitalism and change the nature of ‘dominion’ or ‘domination’ any more than a move from Babylonian to Roman rule freed the people of God from slavery and oppression.

Capitalism might give us a language and diagnosis of the ills of Marxism, and help us recognise the oppression it creates. But it does not give us a solution if it simply invites us to deconstruct marxism and change the nature of ‘dominion’ or ‘domination’ any more than a move from Babylonian to Roman rule freed the people of God from slavery and oppression.

To deny that human systems enslave and create victims, oppressor and oppressed, or to suggest Jesus does nothing but automatically save us and provide the good life, is to preach a Gospel that simply enshrines the political status quo, rather than critiquing it through the lens of the Gospel. It is to promote a gnostic Gospel that is only concerned about the Spiritual dimension of life; not a Gospel where Jesus came to offer a different political vision, to create an alternative polis where power is used quite differently.

And this is exactly what Martyn Iles, in his crusade against “Cultural Marxism” is doing; propping up the status quo — capitalism — by spiritualising the Gospel and denying the presence of “victims” or “the oppressed”… Here he is again:

“You don’t need a skin colour to fall into the victim trap. Every one of us can find a way, because every one of us has disadvantages and setbacks in life. That’s the human condition.

But so long as Jesus lives, you are no victim. Not only do you have all the blessings of God’s common grace each day, but He offers you everything, no matter who you are, when you deserved nothing, no matter who you are.

Like I keep saying, the God of the universe offers each one of us the greatest equality in the world. All of us need to get out of our seat in the dust and realise that.”

Iles does not acknowledge the way sin is not just a spiritual reality affecting our relationship with God, but a reality affecting our treatment of one another; that sin affects the experience of people in the world, and that this clearly affects some people disproportionally (think the Hebrews in Egypt). Faith in Jesus does not automatically end oppression; the return of Jesus to make all things new does; a world free of sin, and curse, and beastly governments. Iles ends up preaching an incomplete Gospel because he has a narrow view of sin, and so a small Jesus. He says of the anti-christ left:

“The “facts” that lie at their roots are popular deceptions. A supposed underclass of children oppressed by heteronormativity… horrifying, systemic racism by police officers… an imminent ‘end is nigh’ style climate catastrophe… Jesus as a figure concerned mostly about the earthly ‘oppressed’ and mostly for their empowerment in earthly systems.”

I’d say Iles himself ends up with a Gospel that minimises the importance of the divinity of Jesus and the Triune character of God by elevating the political; with a Jesus more concerned about righteousness, natural order, and sexual purity than those oppressed by injustice the abuse of power, denying the impact of sin on the physical world (whether the environment or human relationships), and a Jesus who is only interested in some disembodied heavenly future. A Jesus you don’t find in, say, Luke’s Gospel.

A Jesus who arrives on the scene as Caesar Augustus is flexing his muscles and measuring his empire with a census; a Jesus whose arrival is announced as an expression of God’s character, the God who, in Mary’s song:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.” — Luke 1:52-53

Who launches his ministry in Luke by announcing Jubilee; freedom for the oppressed, who then sets about contrasting his kingdom to the kingdom of Herod, Caesar, and Satan.

“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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

There’s certainly a spiritual dimension to Jesus’ announcement; he is announcing the end of exile. But there’s also a physical dimension to his announcement; he is announcing the breaking in of the Kingdom of God. This isn’t news to Martyn; the ACL’s whole schtick is attempting to enshrine and create a certain vision of the kingdom of God here on earth, in part through worldly institutions, it’s just this kingdom looks a lot like ‘the right’… and a lot like victory over ‘the left’…

In the meantime, Christians have an alternative political vision to both Marxism and Capitalism; both left and right, and are also free to adopt the critiques of worldly power (and language) from those critiques in order to make the Gospel known. There will be Christians who, because of experience or observations of the world will be particularly attuned to the beastliness of capitalism and the worship of money and power, just as there will be Christians who will be attuned to the beastliness of ‘woke’ marxism and its deconstruction campaign. It serves nobody to label one side of that equation “antichrist” — so long as they’re not denying Father and Son in their politics.

If those on the right feel free to throw around “Cultural Marxism” as the greatest evil, they shouldn’t be surprised if those on the left throw around “Capitalism,” “systemic sin,” “systemic racism” or “black lives matter” in response. There’s a better way than the culture wars, inside or outside the church… The way of Jesus. Who calls us from all forms of idolatry, to have relationships redefined by a new form of worship and a new politics.