On Australia Day

A few years ago I wrote about the complexity of multiple Australian stories converging on Australia Day, and how I was finding January 26 increasingly difficult to navigate as a Christian. I’ve kept listening to people like Aunty Jean Phillips — who I mentioned in that linked post — and to others, be they First Nations voices across the political spectrum, white Aussies, or migrants whose citizenship began on the national holiday.

This year I tuned in to Common Grace’s #changetheheart service (you can read a post on the Common Grace website about why), which you can still view online, and I’d encourage you to do so. You should probably prioritise that over reading what really amounts to another white guy adding noise to a conversation that needs less white guys adding noise. I’m still working out how to ‘pass the mic’ in these conversations so that I don’t just become a whitesplaining bloke who keeps ‘centering’ himself, while also having a corner of the internet where I write and process my own thoughts (while also realising that even using ‘whitesplaining’ and ‘centering’ is so ‘woke’ that I’ve already triggered an overt negative emotional response from some readers).

The difficulty I feel personally around January 26 hasn’t eased in the intervening years, though I’m not at all convinced by arguments, typically — but not exclusively — from white folk that we should keep the national day as January 26 and morph it into a day of mourning and acknowledgment, as well as celebration.

I’m puzzled as to why this question — the date of a national public holiday — has become such a polarising ‘culture war’ battlefront not between people of different ethnicity, or history, but between people of different political affiliation. That is, why we can’t just all say together ‘yeah, it’d be really good to have a national day that wasn’t inherently offensive to people in our community.’ That so many people want to hold on to January 26 while so many people are distressed by it just seems to me to be a failure to be good neighbours. It’s like the house on the street that wants to play their music loud, without considering the family with the unsettled infants, because, ‘freedom rules’…

I’ve noticed in the hyper-polarised discussion this year (see, for eg, News Ltd going to town on the ABC allowing its employees to refer to January 26 as Australia Day or Invasion Day), that the predictor of how one responds to the national day, and the call to national pride or national mourning that comes with it is not necessarily linked to ethnicity, but rather, a predilection to a certain political pole.

There are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the right who want to celebrate the goodness of Australia as a land of opportunity, where individuals can flourish, and there are Indigenous, migrant, and white Australians on the left who want to see deep systemic change in Australia and believe that dealing with our nation’s history, or at least acknowledging it as a source of ongoing inequality, is the first step towards closing the gap. There are also those who want to do both. Simultaneously. On the same day. One thing I’ve noticed when (typically white) people call for a ‘redemption’ of January 26 through holding the tension of lament and celebration is how few Aboriginal Christians seem publicly supportive of the idea.

I’m not convinced this is possible, or good, for a few reasons, but one of them — in particular — is built on a Biblical principle around freedom and disputable matters, and I’ll unpack this below — other reasons are just how recently January 26 became a national Public holiday, what it is that January 26 commemorates, the ongoing injustices created by that date, and that a day of unity is not a day of unity when not everybody wants to come to the table. So long as the day is treated as a front in a culture war between right and left it can never be what those on the right say they want it to be (a day celebrating the unity and goodness of our nation). To achieve that end, the ‘left’ in the culture war would have to be wiped out. Before I get to the Biblical rationale for, at least Christians, supporting a change to the date, I found this essay fascinating and helpful when it comes to understanding how issues around racial equality play out, broadly speaking, along political lines both in the U.S (the context of the article), and I think also in Australia. I found it helpful in trying to unpack how we might transcend political division and work at peacemaking, especially as Christians. The piece was originally looking at how white people and black people in America approached race differently, but I think it’s actually also about how those on the right, and those on the left, approach race differently (including why people on the left accept Critical Race Theory, and the idea of ‘whiteness’ as an oppressive construct in white-dominated western countries). Michael Emerson, a sociologist, wrote The Persistent Problem back in 2010, the introductory thesis statement says:

“While whites tend to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, people of colour tend to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

The essay drills down into how this plays out in areas like how one defines racism — and again, I think the individual/systemic divide is a right/left divide, not (only or exclusively) a white/black divide.

“Whites tend to view racism as intended individual acts of overt prejudice and discrimination.”

To call a right leaning person a racist, with this definition operating in our heads, shuts down the conversation because the right leaning person says ‘but I do not have hatred in my heart towards a person of colour, nor am I personally prejudiced such that I discriminate’. Emerson observed that this individual emphasis is particularly held by white Christians. Perhaps this is because of the way individualism is a construct of both western thought (and thus ‘white’ thought), and Christian thought, as I unpacked a little while ago.

“Most people of colour define racism quite differently. Racism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.”

We see this definition at work in, say, the Black Lives Matter protests, Critical Theory, and the response to the Australian Prime Minister’s (racist by this definition) statements about the First Fleet this week — that’s a classic expression of the sort of racism this definition describes, even if ScoMo has no personal animosity towards individual Indigenous people (or Indigenous communities). Interestingly it’s probably also why when we talk about ‘closing the gap’ and we want it to be about individual health care, and opportunities for education, and fixing individual behaviours that might cause less individual flourishing around health and education, it’s possible the system (the government) that is responsible for health and education, and that has a straight line institutional responsibility for the historic dispossession of our First Nations people, is doomed to fail.

Some of the gap that needs closing is a product of our nation’s systems — whether its stolen wages, the stolen generation, or the stolen land. All of these government operated policies created intergenerational disadvantage and when a government tries to create equal opportunities, or even reconciliation, against this historic disadvantage, without acknowledging the systemic ramifications of that historic (and ongoing) sin, it is probably not going to work — and yet, it is also true that better health and education outcomes for individuals are an important path to flourishing.

Disagreeing on racism’s definition means not only the potential for more group conflict, but also reduced potential for overcoming it. Different definitions mean groups and people are working to different ends using different means.

Emerson’s essay unpacks the idea of ‘white privilege’ in a useful and clear summary built on the three pillars of ‘white structural advantage’ where most of society’s institutions (public or private) are controlled by white people who benefit from the status quo of the system set up by and for them (an example here in Australia is, for example, that I come from at least three generations of land owners, such that the inherited wealth and stability I am born into allowed me to easily access education and be schooled in a secure environment that allowed me to thrive and pursue even more education, while also receiving good health care, in those generations my family ‘urbanised’ moving from settler status in regional New South Wales to life in inner city suburbia), ‘white normativity,’ where white people don’t have to navigate life in these systems as outsiders society is set up so ‘the way we do things’ is very close to ‘the way things are’ (so, I don’t have to navigate a difference between my ancestral language, music, and culture and the dominant or popular culture and language, plus, my ‘story’ is the ‘typical’ Aussie success story, totally built on ‘opportunity,’ wisdom, and ‘hard work’ but without state-sanctioned tragedy in the mix), and ‘white transparency’ where I don’t have to think about what is or isn’t an expression of ‘whiteness’ (and, beyond ‘whiteness’ I have very little idea about my cultural heritage, and don’t need to — for example, I was a teenager when I found out our ‘Campbellness’ comes, most directly, from Ireland, rather than Scotland).

Emerson makes a useful distinction between a ‘racist’ society — where these structures are overtly prejudiced against the other, and a racialised society where these structures work to systemically advantage those who neatly fall within them, and disadvantage other groups. And, while this is difficult for those of us who are ‘right-leaning’ — systems and especially institutions are a classic building block of small government conservatism so the sort of colour-blind individualism one might find advocated by commentator Gerard Henderson in his Australia Day piece, where ‘group identity’ is out and ‘individual success’ is to be celebrated across ethnic lines, is tricky to mesh with lived reality where one (an individual) receives their success only by successfully navigating and embedding in such institutions (like a university). It assumes a colour blind status quo that simply does not exist given the history and multiple stories interweaving in our nation. Emerson’s piece is, again, U.S centric, but it describes life in Australia in observably real terms.

A racialised society allocates what society values—income, wealth, fine neighbourhoods, quality schools, social status, respect, psychological well-being, health, life expectancy—unequally along racial lines. Society (its institutions and its people) create racial categories which change over time, as well as the form of racialisation—such as slavery, Jim Crow segregation, de facto segregation and inequality. So while its form changes, what does not change is that race matters considerably for people’s identities, whom they know, where they live, whom they marry, and their life chances.

If education and better health outcomes are essential parts of closing the gap in Australia — and if the gap is a genuinely observable phenomena in a way that meets this definition of a ‘racialised’ society — then some changes will need to be systemic, not just the result of heroic individuals overturning the status quo and its disadvantages (though long may those individuals exist and be celebrated). No person is born into the world as an individual though — we are not the authors of our own story — we are born into families and social groups, and places, that we have no control over but that reflect the advantage, or otherwise of the people who have come before us. Again, it’s a fundamentally conservative thing to acknowledge this truth, the political left, and, typically, non western collectivist cultures just make this a bigger deal than our individual/liberal culture. Emerson says:

“We need to focus our attention on undoing our racialised society, on making our organisations fairer places for people of all racial backgrounds, on making our congregations places that do not reinforce racial division, but which instead bring people of all backgrounds together for the common purpose of glorifying God. We would do well to acknowledge that for all the reasons discussed earlier, whites’ tendency will be to focus on creating good-intentioned, right thinking people, whereas people of colour’s tendency will be to focus on group equality and justice. Both are important, so they need not be at war. But the focus must be on working together to undo the racialised society, and that is by definition not just about individuals.”

Again, for some purposes ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’ are interchangable with political ideologies (right, and left) that emphasise the individual and those that emphasise the collective. Although, it’s also true that ‘right’ and ‘left’ are built on the same western liberalism that makes ‘freedom’ the chief good; they have a common foundation, so there might be a ‘western right’ and ‘western left’ or ‘white right’ and ‘white left’ that operate differently to other political cultures from outside western liberal traditions… Part of ‘de-racialising’ might be ‘de-westernising’ or ‘de-whiting’ our society, so that we think corporately or systemically, not just individually.

One must — I think — particularly as a Christian see identity functioning corporately at least a little. For Christians this happens both for Israel (and the nations) in the Old Testament, and for the church and our union with Christ in the New Testament. Sin and blessing work inter-generationally in the Bible as well, with, for example, blessings and curses for Covenant obedience (land v exile) for Israel, and also judgment on the nations who mistreat Israel (and then, the church, in, say, Revelation).

A multi-purpose Australia Day where lament and celebration are held in tension doesn’t actually address the cause of the tension in Australia — it does not close the gap, nor does it address the ‘racialisation’ of our society, or help us develop the sort of language and common purpose that could allow us to start working towards de-racialisation and improvement in our communities. It may be that a mixed day is better than a nationalistic day of what is essentially conservative (or white) pride, but even if that means conservative (right-leaning) indigenous people, or successful individuals who have navigated the pressures of racialised society, feel their story is being celebrated — it does nothing for those people who by either ethnic experience, or political conviction, feel like something token is being offered. It’s not ‘virtue signalling’ to call for a date change to a more inclusive date if inclusivity is the starting point for a de-racialised society any more than it is ‘virtue signalling’ to call for the date to remain the same (for the white/right leaning Australian), or for a mixed occasion (for the person comfortable with tension). Every option put forward for January 26 is a contribution to a conversation about the virtues we want at the heart of our society — be it celebrating individual triumph in a nation we think has everything sorted (right-leaning nationalism), calling for mature holding of tension (typically a ‘centrist’ position from a position of privilege, that wants a more honest appraisal of history, and a maintaining of parts of the status quo worth celebrating), or a call to change the date to a mark a more inclusive and re-constructive occasion (typically a position from the political left).

And here’s why, as a Christian, I think we should throw our lot in with the Change the Date movement (while also pursuing the harder #changetheheart work) — not as an expression of ‘rightness’ or ‘leftness’ but as a path towards actual unity and deconstruction of our own racialisation, so that we operate as ministers of reconciliation — those who have been brought together in Christ — in an unreconciled nation. Nationalism is often a form of idolatry — this was true where the nation state and a religion were perfectly overlapping realities (say, in Ancient Rome, or in modern monarchies where the king or queen rule as divine regents), but it is also true in a secular world where the nation has become the ‘ultimate’ good in a world that has pushed divine or supernatural realities to the margins. One of the reasons the national holiday is so contested in the modern culture wars is that it is a ‘holy day’ — a chance to celebrate what we think should be held sacred (ANZAC Day is another expression of secular nationalistic religiosity). Marking a national holy-day is potentially idolatrous, that isn’t to say that Christians shouldn’t ever join in celebrating the good things about our nation, and to be thankful for God’s providence to us, just that we already have reason to be careful — because we are ‘citizens of heaven’ and worshippers of God, serving our Lord and King, Jesus. The Old Testament is full of nationalistic idolatry — just read the book of Daniel — and we should try to navigate life in the public square much like Daniel did. He was a contributor to Babylon’s success (much like Joseph was to Egypt’s), but he did not worship its king in a display of empire-celebration (nor did Esther or Mordecai in Esther). We should approach a national day of celebration as people who live in our country, but whose citizenship is, ultimately, elsewhere — in a way that creates the potential for differentiation from calls to participate in idolatry. Some people in our midst will feel like the line between ‘idolatry’ and ‘not idolatry’ falls in different places — a bit like in the first century ‘food sacrificed to idols’ debate in the early church.

White nationalism is a particular form of idolatry that Christians, especially in the U.S, but not exclusively, are predisposed towards — perhaps because much of what we take for granted as ‘whiteness’ is a product of Christianity’s influence on the modern west and its nations — including our emphasis on the individual. When we are asked to celebrate Australia, what we might think we are being invited to celebrate is a western nation built on ‘judeo-Christian values’ — and so our conservative impulse is to use this as an opportunity to signal the good fruits of Christianity in our nation. Those outside ‘whiteness’ or ‘conservatism’ — whether those committed to a more collectivist outlook because of politics, or culture, or religious convictions might see ‘idolatry,’ or at least a participation in sin caught up much earlier in the celebration or participation in nationalism — right back to the choice of date and what is being ‘celebrated.’ When they are asked to celebrate Australia Day, with a time of lament attached to beginning, it feels a bit like saying grace before chowing down on food from the idol temple up the road. Those peoples consciences are seared to the extent that they are genuinely hurt when other members of the body — people who share their ultimate citizenship — participate without thinking in idolatry. The unity in the Body of Christ is damaged. The analogy isn’t exact, but I don’t think Paul’s ethical principles outlined in Romans and 1 Corinthians are only about food sold in the meat markets in the first century but about the absolute priority of unity in Christ; particularly, when it came to food laws, unity between two ethnic groups — Jew and Gentile. Paul’s ethic was to create a ‘de-racialised community’ built on the absolute truth of our union with Christ. I say it’s not a perfect analogy because Paul thought eating idol meat in your home was not the same as going to the idol temple and eating it in a liturgical BBQ. He definitely did not think Christians could or should participate in overt idolatry — and it’s possible to make a case that Australia Day, and certain forms of Australia Day celebrations, function overtly as holy-days for an idolatrous post-Christian ‘white nationalist’ society, especially given our nation’s history.

So for me, when some members of the body of Christ — our indigenous brothers and sisters — even if it’s not all of our indigenous brothers and sisters — say that they feel a breaking of fellowship when others participate in something — an area of genuine liberty — but one that they can only understand as participation in idolatry, I think we should listen, and respond in love. At least personally that’s where I’m at. I admit it’s hard for me to be convinced that anybody is deeply and ideologically wedded to January 26 as the traditional date, given its reasonably recent history (it’s only been a national holiday since 1994).

Changing the date won’t do everything in terms of de-racialisation, but not changing the date communicates something that keeps us from sharing the table with one another — whether in the church, or in the nation at large. All the fancy lamb ads in the world won’t overcome that divide. Not changing the date, or joining the call to have it changed, will keep some members of our community (whether church or nation) away from the table, and feeling like we’re at (culture) war with one another, rather than trying to make peace.

In Romans 14:5-9, Paul says:

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

And that sounds all well and good. We should each be convinced of our own position — whether from our ethnicity or our politics — and yet, he doesn’t end there… does he. Part of the ethical implications of our own individual union with Jesus — our not living for ourselves alone — is that we are also connected to one another… Part of the reason I’m unpacking my thinking here is that I’m not entirely sure this is just a ‘disputable matter’ or an area of total freedom. I do think there’s some idolatry caught up in Australia Day, and nationalism, that moves from ‘area of freedom’ to ‘area of sin’ — and while I’m not Paul, he tried to tread the line between taking an obvious position on a moral issue, upholding freedom and liberty, and making the absolute moral priority our union with Jesus. To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t in good conscience celebrate Australia Day as you see fit on January 26, with or without lament — but simply that because I am aware of the distress this causes some of my brothers and sisters, I can’t. Because to do so would be to no longer act in love — even with lament and tension, nor would it be to act towards de-racialisation as effectively as changing the date (whether that’s a token, or not, it’s going to help build trust in the sorts of institutions that provide education and healthcare, rather than perpetuate distrust).

Here’s how Paul concludes his example on idol meat in Romans 14:15-21… applying our union with Jesus to our union with one another. He says we should ‘make every effort’ to do what leads to peace, and the responsibility lies with the person who is not distressed, but who causes distress through the exercise of their freedoms around a Holy Day.

“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”

Note: I’m using this image here because for some reason when the link gets shared it’s grabbing a picture of Trump holding a Bible from a ‘related post’…

On Idol food, Covid Vaccines, Abortion, Retrieval Ethics, and Love for Neighbours

Modern life is complicated.

This piece is both about that complexity, and how hard it is to make good ethical decisions, and about the current conversation about how a potential Covid-19 vaccination uses cells from abortions conducted decades ago.

The Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies has described use of human tissues from abortion as ‘reprehensible,’ and he, and others, have suggested use of this vaccine is now a conscience issue for Christians.  The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said, in an article urging the Government not to create an ethical dilemma, that news of a Covid Vaccine seems great:

“Until you read the fine-print on the ampule. Turns out that this vaccine makes use of a cell-line (HEK-293) cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.”

He said, further:

“Of course, many people will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes.

Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable.

But others again will draw a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion, through the cultivation of the cell-line, to the manufacture of this vaccine. They won’t want to be associated with or benefit in any way from the death of the baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivialising that death, nor to be encouraging the foetal tissue industry.”

There’s a beautiful picture of just how complicated in the Netflix series The Good Place, where modern people have stopped being good enough to earn a ticket into the afterlife because of how deeply enmeshed modern systems are — even when it looks like we’re doing ‘good’ things, the system runs a long way down and our actions are almost always the product of a system that involves some evil. Really obvious versions of this involve supply chains for the goods we purchase in the western world; I might buy some baby clothes to donate to a new mum, but I might buy them from a source who have slave labour in the supply chain for both the raw materials and production of those clothes; at which point I am complicit, whether I know it or not, in propping up that evil.

The Good Place makes the case that, whether knowingly or not, being complicit in evil is inevitable. Knowing that we’re complicit presents a dilemma, because, from that point on, we can’t claim ignorance as a way to mitigate our culpability.

This makes doing the right or good thing pretty tricky; and might just lead us to a fatalism that says evil is inescapable and so we should just do what we want, or what seems best to us, as individuals, without tackling the complex systemic issues.

The Good Place was an attempt to at least frame that conversation in a world without God in the picture; it provided its own answers with a sort of virtue ethic built on love for others and the pursuit of happiness in the realms we can control; it offered a humanist approach to the dilemma of complex, systemic, sin.

The Bible has both an account of and a solution to, complex, systemic sin, and a guide for how to live in a complex world where all human behaviours intersect with evil and are complicit in benefiting from evil. There’s a stream of Christian ethics developed from this understanding that the world as we know it is not ‘turtles all the way down’ but ‘frustrated by sin and curse all the way down.’

The Bible accounts for systemic sin with a vision of humanity that starts in our hearts and minds; we’re actually not capable of pure altruism that only benefits the other and has us escape from the system; at one point in Genesis, God looks at humanity and the human heart, and declares our hearts to be ‘only evil all the time’ (Genesis 6:5). The ‘good’ that we do, even as those still made with the capacity to reflect the image of God in the world, is inevitably tainted by complex mixed motives and especially self-interest.

This is one way that people from the Reformed theological tradition, following Calvin and Luther, have understood ‘total depravity’ — the idea not that all our actions are absolutely depraved, but that sin and its effects are such that all our actions are the actions of hearts tainted by sin; Luther borrowed Augustine’s idea of the heart curved in upon itself; which is a nice picture — even as we offer love for others, or for the world, there’s a self interest in the mix.

One way the Bible unfolds with this in the background is that no person is capable of righteousness, or doing good, until we meet Jesus in the story; the righteous one. This means that as good happens throughout the story of the Bible it happens through God’s actions in the world and despite human failings; the Old Testament is full of figures who do evil stuff, but who God still works through — sometimes, even, God works through people whose hearts have been hardened towards him, like Pharaoh in Exodus (as Paul explains this in Romans). Sometimes what we intend for evil, God can use for good — this is true of, explicitly, Joseph’s brothers sending him into slavery in Egypt for evil reasons (Genesis 50), but is also true of the execution of Jesus; an evil, sinful, expression of human selfishness (as the Bible frames it) that we intended for evil, but that God used to bring goodness and life; this act from God, through the righteousness of the son, is one where we’re either complicit in a way that brings death and judgement on us, or one where we find — in the fruits of that evil act — that is, Jesus body broken and blood poured out — eternal life. Good is retrieved from this act; Jesus, obviously, is willing in this moment in a way that Joseph was not so much (that’s the point of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he says “not my will, but yours” and then goes on to be arrested, tried, and executed as an act of selfless love for God, and for those who will find life in him).

Even as we seek to do good, we’re caught in a world made by people who operate in self interest, and who sometimes operate in a sort of self-interest that doesn’t love others; especially distant others. Our inclination, self-interestedly, is to love those neighbours we get the most back from; those we’re most proximate to (who can effect our well being the most); the distant vulnerable aren’t always on the radar (see how easy it is to cut foreign aid, especially without seeing what that does to a complex global system, or worse, because we do see what that does to a complex global system and want to maintain a status quo of inequality so we get cheap stuff). We cannot actually escape benefiting from sin or evil. This is the system we live in and benefit from; even, for example, Centrelink payments come from taxes raised by the government, including taxes raised from gambling, and mining, and other industries that make money from sin. They’re handed out by a government that makes legislation that promotes sin (for eg, greed), and pays an army that engages in many military activities, not all of them ‘just wars’.

David Foster Wallace captured this in his famous This Is Water address; where he said this selfish default drives a world of “men and money and power’ that hums along in a pool of “fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self,” our lack of inclination to upend this status quo comes because “our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

The account the Bible gives for this systemic mess is that we turned from the life giving God towards autonomous self rule; to self worship (as Wallace put it); this starts in the first pages of the Bible with the story of Adam and Eve, who reject God’s good design for a world in harmony with him; a role bringing goodness, fruitfulness, order, and love — Eden — to the whole planet, and so instead of the whole earth being made as Eden, the world is cursed and frustrated, and people are exiled from God’s presence and the relationship with him that would shape our hearts.

When Paul reflects on the human heart, and its entanglement with a systemically broken world, in his letter to the Romans, he says the system we all end up being shaped by, this system of sin, starts with a decision to worship and serve created things instead of the creator (Romans 1), after a lengthy working through just how bad what the Bible calls sin is for us, our relationships, and our destiny, and how God does something about this with a new pattern for humanity in Jesus, his death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit — so that we can be forgiven, and share in a new humanity (by sharing his death and resurrection) — Paul lands in Romans 8, where he talks about ‘creation’; the whole world; being frustrated by sin; captive to sin. It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s sin. In Romans 7 he describes the human experience without God’s Spirit as being one where even if we know what good things we should do, we can’t — our idolatry means our hearts are curved not towards God, but towards created things, and ultimately towards ourselves.

Idolatry is serious business. It destroys life; it creates systems of mess. So, of course, Christians who are trying to live a new life in Jesus — where we share in his death and resurrection, and receive his Spirit to liberate us from bondage to curse and sin — are meant to ‘not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind,’ as we worship God properly, ‘offering ourselves as a living sacrifice’ to God (sharing in the death of Jesus, one might say). The false worship in Romans 1; where ‘self’ rules, is replaced by a different picture of worship — where we give ourselves in love; where we put self interest to death (a theme Paul picks up on repeatedly in his writings, most clearly in Philippians 2).

Idolatry is a picture of the systemic complexity of the world, for Paul, it is both a symptom and a cause of systemic mess and sinful behaviour. One way this complexity manifested itself for first century Christians was in food sacrificed to idols. At a physical level, idol food was still food. It still nourished the body and gave life; it was still meat from an animal that God made. If it landed on your table and you had no understanding of its provenance, you’d be hard pressed to know the difference.

This is a bit like if someone gave you a cotton shirt today, with no label, it might be difficult for you to tell whether that shirt came from a sweatshop, or was ethically produced, or whether the cotton came from an Aussie farm, or from slave labour internationally… you might eat that meat with a clean conscience (or wear that shirt). But once the provenance is made known; after that first bite, or first wear, you’re faced with a new dilemma.

You’re being asked to decide if more bites, or more wears, make you complicit in a whole sinful system, and what that means for you.

The more ubiquitous the meat in the marketplace or shirt in the clothing store, the more difficult it is to avoid such complex ethical questions and participation; in fact, it is almost inevitable that our consumption of goods in this world will be a product of sin and evil (see David Foster Wallace’s description of the default system); in the form of idolatry; and some sin and evil will be more palatable to us than others (for Christians, where we’ll get to below, it’s interesting to ask why abortion is a conscience issue around a Covid vaccine, where sweatshop labour, or supply chain issues, don’t seem to challenge us so much on a daily basis in our consumption of goods).

Paul addresses food sacrificed to idols on two occasions in his writing in ways that I think are helpful for framing the present day conversation about Covid-19 vaccinations and cell lines coming from two aborted foetuses. I’ll unpack a little bit of what he says in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and the principles for ethics in his working out that issue; touch on some key teachings of Jesus that I think are in the mix for Paul and us (on these questions), and then, against the backdrop of acknowledging how complex the modern world is, and how it’s sin all the way down, ask how we might best approach issues where we are being made aware of sin in the provenance of something we’re being invited to partake in; so that one might act according to conscience. I’ll sum these up in a nice numbered list at the end. So feel free to skip to that to see if this whole thing is worth reading.

How one approaches an ethical question like whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, or whether to receive a vaccine that comes from a questionably sourced line of cells, or prosperity in a nation built on stolen land and the genocide of its first peoples, will be the product of one’s ethical system (and often there’s a political shortcut here, where we outsource our ethical thinking to chosen leaders).

It is interesting that the people most loudly opposed to the use of this vaccine are those most interested in individual sin, from a particular paradigm, rather than systemic sin. That’s an ethical outlook. There are lots of ways to do ethics; our default western method is utilitarianism, where the ends justify the means (who cares where the vaccine comes from so long as it works and is safe), some Christians like divine command ethics (our job is to act where God has spoken clearly, how he has spoken, and to discern what he might command of us if he is silent) — in a complex modern world, people from this camp are often looking to create new black and white rules where none have previously existed. Duty ethics are closely related to divine commands; where we have a duty to obey God, but also any legitimate authority he has created (church leaders, denominational articles/confessions, the state (depending on how one reads Romans 13 etc).

These systems will all ask questions about whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to take a particular course of action, with a different authority in the mix (the results, God, the authorities one recognises who establish a duty for us — even nature, in some forms). Another form of ethics; virtue, or character ethics asks not so much ‘is this action right or wrong?’ and ‘who says?’ but ‘am I acting rightly as I take this path’ — virtue ethics can both recognise how inevitable sin is in a messed up world, and provide a way forward that focuses not so much on choosing the lesser of two evils, but on being as virtuous as one can be in a given situation.

There are lots of ways to frame virtue ethics; I love a combo approach that brings Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue together with the Christian story; the type articulated in Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Hauerwas, as an anabaptist, is very committed to the idea of systemic violence; the impact of sin ‘all the way down’ — he particularly draws that out with reference to the modern state (or kingdom) as essentially a violent, military, enterprise. I’m sympathetic to a criticism of anabaptist ethics that it ends up seeing people disengaged with worldly institutions, and always operating in parallel (and I like James Davison Hunter’s response to Hauerwas in To Change The World); but Hauerwas is bang on the money in his willingness to see sin impacting systems, and to call for an alternative system that radically reshapes our ethics and our understanding of character and virtue.

Incidentally, there’s a terrific piece on Christianity Today from David Fitch, who is a guy with anabaptist sympathies who wrote a book unpacking some of Hunter’s ideas around “faithful presence” critiquing Tim Keller’s recent paper on social justice and critical theory that is worth a read. I also think given the complexity of modern life, where it’s sin all the way down, the question is not ‘how do I avoid evil?’ — if evil is inevitable — it’s not even ‘how do I pick the lesser evil?’ But ‘how do I do what is most loving?’ It may be that this sometimes means choosing not to participate (in a trolley problem type scenario, you actually never have to pull the lever), but it should always, for Christians following the example of Jesus (and secure in the results that the evil done to him produced for us), involve a heart not curved in on the self, but towards God and others by the Spirit. Modern ethics requires some of us to stand distant enough from the fray, with a degree of purity intact, so that we might ask questions about the status quo, and some of us getting our hands dirty in the mess and muck of compromise in order to work towards change. We need both Anabaptists and Anglicans (but maybe not Anglicans who act as Anabaptists).

Idol food in Corinth and Rome: A path for navigating ethical dilemma in complex and sinful systems

I think Paul, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, champions an ethical system built on the commands of Jesus; specifically, the command to love God (above idols), to love one another (those within the Christian community), to love one’s neighbour (such that they are clear about God and idols, and might become clear about the love of God for them); and that he leaves navigating life this way as a matter of freedom, conscience, and character rather than in the realm of rules or results. Here’s some of the data.

Paul says:

1. Even though idols aren’t real and people should be free, then, to enjoy idol food as meat made by God, some people don’t know this (1 Corinthians 8:4-7). This knowledge gap is a relational reality; and this makes the right thing to do disputable, rather than black and white (a question, perhaps, of ‘ethics’ rather than law or divine command.

This model doesn’t immediately map on to the vaccine question; because the abortions in question were real and sinful (just as the idolatry in the meat sacrifice was real and sinful); and the vaccines are a fruit (some time removed) of that sin (just as the meat is), part of Paul’s logic is that these idol statues aren’t actually real (not that the sin isn’t), they haven’t magically changed the meat.

Now, it’s worth teasing out that part of Paul’s ethical framework, at least in Corinth, is the idea that ‘an idol is nothing’; that the meat in question is simply a clump of cells, and that meaning is created by the way the cells are framed. An aborted foetus is not nothing, it is someone. The question here is different, but there are similarities too. Abortion, in the form we experience it in the modern west, is not just a health issue (such that one might decriminalise it), but also a biproduct of idolatry (have a look at the behaviours that Paul lists in Romans 1, and you’ll see the behaviours that produce lots of the modern demand for abortion). This means the parallel is not exact; and yet, while the cells used in this research come from people; unborn babies; unborn babies  who experienced an evil (so far as we can tell, or assume, without knowing the medical and social circumstances around these abortions — though the letter from the Archbishop says they were from an ‘elective abortion’), the cell culture involved has been duplicated over and over again in a chain for decades, it is not so straightforward to argue that the cells that exist now are ‘the person’ who was aborted then. It is clear we’re not, in this instance, talking about the ongoing trade of foetal tissue from elective abortions; though this sort of research justifies the ongoing trade of aborted persons for scientific research, and certainly prevents the status quo being changed to make abortion less commercially or scientifically attractive. Part of the conscience question facing us is whether using this vaccine, or this cell line, rather than other options, props up, or justifies, a system that should be torn down; the other question is about what good might be retrieved from that historic evil (not an ends justifies the means argument) for the sake of people now.

The human tissue cultures used in these vaccines is intrinsically connected to the sin in a way the meat isn’t (the meat was a good creation from God, taken by people to do bad things, but there was an original purpose for that meat connected to God’s glory which can be redeemed — receiving it with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4); the cells were a good creation from God, but the human intervention means they can’t be directly redeemed for that purpose — the life of the person who was aborted, though a vaccine is life-giving it isn’t in the same form that God gave the material substance in question; and yet, is also disconnected by time and duplication in a way that makes the question less clear cut (and a matter of conscience), and a ‘good’ can be retrieved from that evil, which is a pattern we see from God through history, and particularly at the cross of Jesus, where a life is taken that then gives life to others.

It’s a complex question; the issue is that some people will inevitably, now, think that anybody who receives this vaccine is complicit in evil. Their consciences will be seared, and it is likely this searing will create division between those whose consciences are clear, and those whose aren’t.

2. How we approach these conscience issues and areas of freedom really matters because of the way those who are a little more black and white (the ‘weaker conscience) perceive your exercising of freedom, and when they choose to act against their conscience, while following your example, or choose not to care about the sin at the heart of the question, because they think that is what you are doing; they do the wrong thing (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). If you’re going to articulate a position on a disputable issue it seems important to make it clear that it is disputable and not binding (like Paul is, himself). And if you’re going to say an issue is disputable it inevitably means making space for the ‘stronger’ position to actually be the correct one (if it is possibly true and explicitly not illicit). In Romans, Paul unpacks this a little more, he says ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your Christian brothers and sisters believe you are supporting evil/idolatry and so leading them to do something against their own conscience.

3. Because life is complicated and often figuring out how the wise and good path is ‘disputable’ rather than clear cut, Paul is keen for people to venture into discussions like this carefully and without quarrels; that means both those who are ‘strong’ and those who are ‘weak’ — that is those who think to participate is to be sinful and complicit, and those who think it isn’t — should make room for one another in Christian community and not break fellowship over the question (Romans 14:1-4). Part of his logic is that ultimately all of us have to give an account to God for our decisions (Romans 14:4, 7-13). But, digging in to questions like this and arriving at a position of conviction in ‘your own mind’ (Romans 14:5) is a good thing (especially in a mind being transformed and renewed by the Spirit and your true and proper worship ala Romans 12). He’d prefer people focus on unity in Christ, and things that will build that, than that they venture into disputable matters in ways that either offend or bind the conscience of others (Romans 14:19-22), and yet also says to ‘not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil‘ (Romans 14:16), and is, himself, writing a letter that got published in a pretty successful book making a particular case.

4. If you decide that to receive this vaccine is sinful, it is quite possible that you are wrong (and I think you are, as I’ll unpack below), but if that is your conviction, then to receive this vaccine is a sin (Romans 14:14); not an unforgivable one, but the lesser of two evils is still evil if you think you’re choosing ‘an evil’. Any deed not done as an act of faith(fulness to God) is sin (Romans 14:22-23).

5. Paul’s ultimate ethical questions are faithfulness to God and relationship with him (Romans 14:7-13), and love for neighbour (especially, but not only, fellow Christians) (Romans 15:2-7), but also explicitly that we act in such a way in society that builds relationships and models the Gospel to non-Christians (1 Corinthians 10:21, 33). His priority is not self-seeking. As he invites people to “come to your own conclusions” he also invites us to recognise that you aren’t only an individual; as a Christian you are both united to Jesus (and you belong to him), and you are a member of a particular community of people (the body of Jesus, the church), and that communion matters more than your individual freedoms (Romans 14:7-9). Paul would rather abstain from meat all together than cause another to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13, Romans 14:13-14); this is another point where the comparison is inexact. To not eat meat is fine, there are vegetables that are nourishing. A vaccine in a pandemic is a slightly different sort of health question than a question of diet preference; and, the Archbishops have also said that if it’s a choice between this vaccine and none, they think this vaccine would be a ‘good’ rather than an evil. Because the stakes are a bit higher (it’s not just about diet, and there are anti-vaxxers in the mix who are, at times, from a Christian fringe), I think there is a case to be made that the ‘stronger’ should actually be speaking up strongly in favour of vaccination as an act of love for neighbour (while perhaps questioning supply chains). To this end, I think the letter does a reasonable job, but the reporting of the letter makes the dilemma a little more black or white than either Archbishops Davies or Fisher were.

6. Don’t be an idolater at idol temples. It should be clear to people you belong to a different world and worship a different God (1 Corinthians 10:18-22). The equivalent here would be that it is enough for people to know that you aren’t complicit in abortion if you aren’t participating in the abortion industry, or seeking a termination. It is quite possible that our public opposition to the sort of world that produces an abortion industry that sells human body parts will be enough to make us not complicit in the evils connected to this vaccine’s history, but also to have an ethical model that sees some good retrieved from that history in the form of this vaccine (not in a way that justifies the continuation of the practice). Our true worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) and what we say yes to, including the ways we show that we value human life, will do more to frame our engagement in these issues than what we say ‘no’ to. In Corinth, the way they were meant to share in the Lord’s table, as they gathered (which they were failing to do very well) was part of the mess where people’s participations at other tables called their loyalty to Jesus into question.

7. If a thing seems to be a good thing that can be received as an act of faithfulness, not explicitly idolatrous, you are free to participate (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). It isn’t necessarily wise to raise questions of conscience when they wouldn’t otherwise be raised. In Corinth, unless meat came from a kosher butcher, all meat was connected to the idol temples and the meat market. It wasn’t that the status of the meat was likely to be idol-free, it was that asking made an issue of the connection. Don’t go digging into the provenance of a thing if you aren’t prepared to act on the information you then receive; but if you receive a thing that appears good without knowing its illicit provenance, you haven’t sinned. Once you’ve got that information you’re in conscience territory.

8. It’s not just conscience territory, but appearance territory. In fact, Paul says the biggest deal is not your own conscience, but the consciences of others — it’s if the people on believe your action is supporting the idolatrous status quo because you are a participant — that makes him take the position he does (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). So ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your non-Christian neighbours believe you support evil/idolatry.

Retrieval and Love: An ethical system for disputable matters in a complicated world

In his The How and Why of Love, Michael Hill develops an ethical system that is kingdom oriented, shaped by a Biblical theology that positions us as those awaiting the return of Jesus in a complicated and fallen world where there’s sin all the way down. He says it’s not enough for us to simply say ‘this is what God’s kingdom looks like’ and do that, because we’re not there yet, but also that the character of God’s kingdom is caught up in the great commands of Jesus, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. He takes a teleological ethic that says “an act is right if and only if it promotes the kingdom of God,” and shows that the kingdom is a kingdom of loving relationship between God and humans, individual humans, groups of humans, and humans and the created order,” and also “inner harmony within each human.” When I teach this to my RI kids I talk about how God made us to love him, love each other like we love him, and love the world like he does. That’s our purpose; that’s what the kingdom looks like. Hill’s restatement of an ethical system of ‘mutual love’ says “an action or trait of character is right if and only if it promotes (creates or maintains) mutual love relationships between (a) God and humans, and, (b) humans and humans.” Because we live in a world that is not yet ‘the kingdom of God realised,’ Hill suggests a “retrieval ethic,” where “in the context where hardness of heart prevents the accomplishment of the goal of mutual love, love would seem to necessitate the retrieval of as much good as possible, or, at least, the reduction of harm.” He distinguishes this model from the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach because here one is not choosing to justify evil, but rather, seeking to do what is most loving in a bad situation (a sort of virtue ethic, where our understanding of love is shaped by the Christian story, and particularly God as creator and redeemer, through the cross of Jesus, the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit), and the “kingdom ethic” model where we are told to act as though the kingdom is already fully realised (or as though that’s our job).

Hill does have a chapter on abortion in his book; one that touches very briefly on the use of cells in research. He doesn’t dig into that as a picture of retrieval, but instead, outlines a thoroughly Christian vision of the unborn foetus being fully human. Once that life has been taken though, as was the case decades ago, the ultimate good to be retrieved would be the retrieval of a view of their personhood, and their dignity, and the tragedy of the loss of life involved; we’re decades down that chain now, which is why Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal is a useful vision of what it might look like to both retrieve that good, seeing the personhood of the unborn child, and the good of the medical research, that has emerged from their tragic death, including the possibility of this vaccine.

Here’s how I’d approach this particular vaccine, through an ethical grid supplied, in part, by Paul’s approach to food sacrificed to idols.

1. The complex world we live in means every act in a network of relationships, or culture, or system, or nation, is tainted by sin. We can’t avoid corruption from the fruits of idolatry.
2. Something more than ‘don’t partake in evil’ is required.
3. Adam’s original sin was partaking in something that had been declared sinful by God, something more than ‘partake in evil without worrying about it’ is required.
4. The law, or ‘divine commands’ in Christian ethics is ‘the floor’; love for God and neighbour (and the imitation of Jesus) is the ceiling.
5. Our ethical systems should compel us to imaginative love and virtue, not just right (moral) decision making.
6. Conscience is a really big deal in Paul’s ethical system; but he always implicitly sides with the ‘strong’ conscience while accommodating the weak; Christian leaders should avoid binding the conscience of others in case they are the weaker brothers and sisters on an issue and they unnecessarily bind the conscience of another by making an issue of provenance where none exists.
7. If we’re going to raise conscience issues on one sin of particular concern, it’s worth being consistent (asking questions about church institutions and their investment policies, super funds, environmental policies, etc, etc). Once we acknowledge complexity as a conscience issue in one area we better be prepared to follow that up with consistency.
8. God retrieves good things through human sin and evil; we are not God, but we might be prepared to adopt a similar posture of seeking to retrieve goodness, love, and life-giving approaches for the sake of our neighbours in good conscience, making the best of it.
9. That there are some goods retrievable from abortion (in the form of this vaccine), in no way justifies those particular abortions involved, or abortion in general. The end does not justify the means.
10. If Christians are never to participate in evil, when the complexity of systemic evil is made known, then we must create parallel institutions like schools, banks, libraries, etc; not to mention an alternative political state (especially in Australia); a paradigm of working towards good as redeemed people who, by the Spirit, are now able to curve our hearts away from ourselves to some degree, towards love for God and neighbour, then a more helpful paradigm for our ethics is ‘am I being Christlike in this situation’ and a working towards retrieving good.
11. True retrieval and love for both God and neighbour, in the face of complexity, means not turning a blind eye to evil or sin, but staring it down, and acknowledging it. Rooting it out of our own lives, but also seeking to change and challenge the systems we find ourselves in (across the board). Speaking out about questionable provenance of ‘goods’ that we seek to consume is one part of a step of undermining such a market, or status quo, creating genuine alternatives has to be part of that picture too. I think it’s a good thing that the Archbishops from these denominations have raised questions about the provenance of the Oxford vaccine, I think it would be great if other vaccines are pursued instead, but if they are, or aren’t.
12. Vaccines are a way we love our neighbours. The anti-vax movement is often built on an individual ethical paradigm (what is loving for self; often built on personal utility around minimising personal risks), rather than a community/relational one (what is loving for others and for God). Questions about the provenance of a particular vaccine aren’t questions about vaccinations in general.
13. The solution to a complex and messy system is the renewal of all things by Jesus, not the righteousness of us people. This doesn’t mean doing nothing; it just means our actions won’t be enough to solve the problem of sin and curse — either systemically or in our individual lives. We live our lives simultaneously recognising that creation is subject to frustration, and that we are, by the Spirit, the children of God the creation is waiting for in eager anticipation; how we tackle sin and mess now anticipates the return of Jesus to make all things new; removing sin, and curse. This is the story that answers the question ‘who am I?’ that provides the answers to the question ‘how should I live?’
14. You should not get a vaccine that is a byproduct of abortion if that is a conscience issue for you; that is, if you think you would be sinning if you received the vaccine voluntarily.
15. You should not subject other Christians to your conscience based assessment of the morality of the vaccine.
16. I do think whether or not one chooses to partake in the Oxford Vaccine is a matter of conscience similar to food sacrificed to idols; and one shouldn’t publicly trumpet your choice as a matter of Christian freedom that destroys a weaker brother or sister, but, nor should we not say anything; finding the balance of speaking like Paul did, and adopting a position on a contentious issue without delegitimising the positions of those who arrive elsewhere is a question of wisdom and imagination.
On balance, given the retrieval framework, it is, in my summation, a ‘good’ to receive this vaccine as an act of love for those neighbours presently alive, whose health and well being and ‘life’ (in pro-life terms) will be positively impacted by your decision.

But this last statement also has to be carefully qualified; and this is how I think I’m discharging that responsibility to not let something ‘good’ be called ‘evil’ in a disputable zone… On balance, personally, and without seeking to bind the conscience of others; I can say:

  • modern practices around abortion are a sinful failure of love for neighbour (the individual unborn neighbour, but also the system that makes abortion desirable represents a failure to love those in our community who might seek an abortion),
  • through the evil of abortion, in the case of this vaccine, some goods might be retrieved that allow love for neighbour in a different form (vaccination),
  • that to participate in those goods is not simply to participate in, or be complicit in, evil. In this I’m drawing an analogy here between the outcomes of idolatry (food sacrificed to idols, and abortion), and whether Christians can partake in free conscience, our knowledge of the sin involved in the production, promotion, and use of this vaccine, and whether our participation is perceived as making us complicit (or makes us complicit in the ongoing idolatry).
  • to participate in promoting and receiving this vaccine, while alternative vaccines might not be caught up in the same sinful system, might not be the most good and loving thing that I can do.
  • other vaccines will also inevitably be the product of other forms of sin (greed, immoral conduct, commercial enterprises built on various problematic practices or products),
  • our job is to act as people motivated by love for God, and love for neighbour,
  • a covid vaccination with widespread uptake in the community is a part of love for neighbour during a pandemic, but even this will involve a complex mix of systemic sinfulness, and possibly even my own selfish desire to preserve my own life, possibly at the expense of others rather than for their good.
  • so, there are more constructive approaches to ethics, and things for us to be talking about and doing as Christians. We might be better off focusing on positive alternatives than highlighting negatives; as a citizen in Corinth might have been better off giving and seeking hospitality with their neighbours, seeking to save the lost to reduce demand for idol food, or starting their own meat markets, rather than policing the food served up in a complex and messy world.

17. In all this, because the world is complex and our hearts still curve in on themselves, none of these actions or positions will totally avoid sin. Participation in sin in this world is inevitable. The Good Place had the diagnosis right. The answer is not that I live a good or ethical life of love though; I can not. Christian ethics are always a response to God’s grace and forgiveness received through Jesus. Whatever point you land on in this complexity (I hope this post is long enough to have earned this…) Jesus is the ultimate vaccine, and he protects us from the deadly consequences of our curved hearts.

A grief observed… online

Rachel Held Evans was something of an internet phenomenon; a voice of a generation of Christians, especially women, who felt sidelined and marginalised by an institutional church and a form of Christianity many have struggled to reconcile with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. She took twists and turns that made many (including me) uncomfortable, but her desire (whether you think she got there or not) to take Christianity back towards the heart and example of Jesus was undeniable, so too, her impact on the broader church, especially women and other people the status quo of how the church operates (especially in America). I’m reminded, in moments like these, that it is by grace, through faith in Jesus, that people are part of God’s kingdom, not (mercifully for me, and others) by ticking the correct doctrinal boxes. One just has to glance at the hashtag #BecauseofRHE to see this. She’s an interesting and powerful testimony to the way the internet destabilises the status quo in the church in a similar way to the printing press, giving a voice, and power, to those our structures might exclude.

Rachel Held Evans went to hospital for an apparently routine matter, and complications in the procedures, or with the medication, left her in a pretty dire, ultimately fatal, set of circumstances. The story about her health broke on twitter when an acquaintance published a private Facebook post, without permission, which led to a Twitter wide prayer vigil, and an incredible outpouring of support. The internet collapsed our creaturely separation from these events. Medical procedures happening a world away, to one individual, were suddenly occupying the attention of people around the globe; me included. I refreshed the page updating her condition daily; praying as I did. A new ‘daily office’ of sorts that compartmentalised a small part of my attention; and thus my embodied life, placing it in a virtual hospital waiting room a world away. It did this for many people. One life, a life I have no creaturely, physical connection to, a person I do not know, occupying attention that is limited, and probably has prior claims put on it by those in my more immediate, embodied, orbit.

And then Rachel died. Those updates and the outpouring of prayer and support changed, and there’s now an outpouring of genuine grief; the vast majority of this grief is being expressed by people who had no physical connection to Rachel Held Evans, but rather a spiritual connection. A sense of a connection to her built by her writing, in her questions, in her activism — in what she represents in terms of a challenging of status quos — she represents so many others, especially women who are often deplatformed by the evangelical status quo (and so turn to the Internet for a sense of community and a space to talk, and question, and be recognised). For good or for ill, for most of us grieving, we are grieving the loss of a persona as much as a person, because for many of us, our access to Rachel was always mediated by pixels and in words. All interactions with all people are mediated and the idea of getting an intimate knowledge of who a person truly is requires not simply embodiment, but vulnerability; Rachel’s writing and her approach to the internet in general, has been celebrated as being exemplary human, and vulnerable. Her impact on the church is real, even if virtual. Her loss is being felt by many — even those who had sharp theological disagreements with her online. The questions she confronted us with are not just questions of the content of our beliefs — where I was as likely to disagree with things she said as I was to agree — but with questions about our forms and practices, both in the physical church community, and the virtual space we now occupy.

What’s clear is that while many people are grieving the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s presence, mediated online, there’s a family — especially a husband and two very young children — and friends, for whom this loss, this grief, is more palpable; more tangible; the hole left by this tragedy will not be filled by hashtags or pixelated stories.

Grief is a strange thing to observe; and the internet makes it stranger. In the outpouring of grief around the death of one loved persona we’re seeing the best of the Internet, but also the weirdness of our increasingly disembodied, ‘excarnated’ age — where a local community of believers has, in many cases, for many people outside the norms, been a disappointment, such that comfort, community, and the sense of being known and loved has led many online, and many to voices like Rachel’s. It would be a tragedy for us, as the church, not to learn something from the expressions of grief from around the world, especially from women, and those our communities marginalise (including those seeking to reconcile their faith in Jesus with their sexuality), and to ask questions about where we might have failed locally; where there might be other women like Rachel, or who felt championed by her, in our midst; and where we might need ongoing reform of our church practices — our forms — to align them with our content.

As I’ve spent my emotional energy watching the reaction to this tragedy roll out around the Internet, reading far too many awful, negative, ‘gotcha,’ pieces alongside the genuine expressions of lament, and loss, and connection to Rachel Held Evan’s and what she meant to real people, I’ve felt a little like an outsider; not to the expressions of grief, but to its embodied reality. I’ve felt like one affected by the loss of a persona rather than a person. I’ve been detached enough to start asking questions about the nature of grief, of personhood, of spiritual community, and of the Internet, I’ve not been able to escape the title of C.S Lewis’ writings about grief: A Grief Observed, and wondering if Lewis has much to say about how the Internet and this grief might be doing strange things to our personhood. I’m not without empathy; the thought of Rachel’s husband Dan having to publicly mediate his wife’s last few weeks to a legion of fans, while working through the medical process, and his personal grief, and now the thought of him raising two children who may forget their mother hits me pretty hard; harder than the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s voice — which will live on not just in the mediated pixels of the internet, but in the way her thoughts and experience were ‘incarnated’ into her books. But I also feel like a stranger who has walked in to the back of a church during a funeral service, or who has wandered into a wake and been handed a drink and caught up in what is quite a human experience that properly requires a body and some deep connection to a physical person who is now gone.

In A Grief Observed, Lewis, writing about his wife, H, reflects on how quickly in the absence of her embodied presence, he is left grieving — and recreating in his mind — an image of his wife; a persona, rather than the real person. And how much the reality of a person’s presence overwhelms the versions of them we create in our imagination.

“I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.”

How much more will this phenomenon be exaggerated by the Internet? How much more will our re-creation or re-imagination of a lost person be accelerated so that they become a sort of avatar if we’ve not been physically connected to a person? These questions aren’t to deny the attachment to Rachel Held Evans, or the reality of the grief, or the deep reality of a spiritual connection shared across time and space by those who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them — but to ask questions about how healthy, or human, such attachments are, and to ponder if this virtual reformation prompted by pioneers like Evans would best happen locally, with those our systems marginalise but who are still in our midst?

Lewis ponders this some more in the same chapter:

“Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years. And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well—how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said. The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely. Not that he had changed. On the contrary. I kept on thinking, ‘Yes, of course, of course. I’d forgotten that he thought that—or disliked this, or knew so-and-so—or jerked his head back that way.’ I had known all these things once and I recognized them the moment I met them again. But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years. How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H? That it is not happening already? Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”

Love, in some sense, is, and must be, bodily, not simply imagined or excarnate. When the Apostle Paul speaks about love in that most famous of passages, 1 Corinthians 13, he describes not just the physical, expressed, characteristics of love from one person to another; but paints a vision of love as being completely known, not simply imagined by another, not simply a reflection or a persona, but known. This is a picture that describes a future — the renewing of all things, the hope of the new creation.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12

Until that time all our knowing of an other, all our loving, is mediated — we encounter personas who are on the journey of becoming persons to us; the hope of those of us who believe in the resurrection is that, in the course of eternity, those we know now only virtually will be made real to us, and we to them. There’s certainly a longing for this to be true being expressed by those grieving the death of Rachel Held Evans this week; but also in all our grief.

But I wonder how healthy it is for us, as humans, to pour so much attention and affection — so much love — into pixelated personas; into people across the world where our hope for deeper connection is to be eternally, rather than temporally, realised? I wonder if the accounts I’ve read — and my own experience — feeling gut punched by this tragedy a world away might be time, emotion, and attention better spent locally, in my own (or your own) embodied, incarnate, existence.

As well as talking wisely about grief, C.S Lewis talked about how the invention of the car and the proliferation of international news via the newspaper, had a profound destablilising affect on our human experience — and not always for the better. In Surprised By Joy he wrote about how new technology — the car — led to the ‘annihilation of space’ — a breaking down of our embodied creatureliness and natural barriers; how much more is this true of the Internet? And how much should we be concerned by how that might disintegrate our attention and thus our affections and our relationships, so that we find our ‘deepest’ sense of being known with people we are not meeting face to face. Lewis said, of the car:

“I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room’. The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space’. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from travelling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.”

Distance is an essential part of being human; but also of our ethic — of our ability to love well. In a letter to a friend, Bede Griffiths, Lewis talks about the affect of the newspaper — the way news and views from across the globe suddenly, and more immediately, occupy our attention, first because of the connectivity brought about by the telephone, and telegraph — connecting newsrooms around the globe, but now on steroids via the Internet, the 24 hour news cycle, and the citizen journalism of the Internet. Is it healthy or helpful for me to obsessively refresh health updates about a woman across the globe when surrounded by the sick and dying in my city? Or to give attention to Rachel Held Evan’s family not just at the expense of my own, but at the expense of families in my community? These are, perhaps, questions that in our increasingly excarnate age, fuelled by the “annihilation of space,” that we need to keep asking ourselves lest we be lost; disintegrated, broken up into pixels that fly around the world, mediated by glass screens. Lewis said:

“It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know). A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise. As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so. Pray for me always.”

Sound advice in an age not just of outrage, but where the suffering of others we have no embodied connection with is beamed into not just our lounge room, or our study, but our pockets. As the philosopher Iris Murdoch suggests, virtue lies in deciding what to give attention to; and then in how we act; the internet makes the stakes different in this, it brings us closer to those who are far away, but at risk of making us further away from those who are near. The question ‘who is my neighbour’ has always been a vexxing one when it comes to suffering around the globe, and to not ‘annihilate space’ but live a hyper-local life seems to be just as problematic in reinforcing our blindness, but I wonder if the right use of the Internet rests in something like C.S Lewis’ affirmation of the goodness of the car; a chance to journey to far off places, but not forget where home is, a chance to, in our travels to meet ideas and people “clothe them with memories and not impossible desires,” to recognise the power of these ‘memories’ or ‘ideas’ to unite us and make us feel recognised and so not to minimise them, but also to remember that a persona is something slightly different to a person to us and more of a person to those in their proximity, for whom they are embodied.

Feels like home? Is it Telstra or Qantas shaping your holiday season?

We finally finished Christmas celebrations yesterday; rounding out a week with an extended Campbell family get together (almost) all of us in the flesh. That’s what Christmas — this holiday season — is about… isn’t it? Connection. Family. Togetherness. My Facebook feed has certainly been full of family photos of similar gatherings.

Today our little family unit hit the cinemas to catch Paddington 2 with the kids. The movie is what it is; if your kids liked Paddington 1 they’ll like the sequel (though this one isn’t quite as scary). The Christmas holidays are prime cinema advertising season, so the big guns were out — especially two big guns of Aussie ‘connectivity’ — Qantas, our Aussie airline, and Telstra, our Aussie telecom. Qantas, whose aspirational tagline is ‘the Spirit of Australia’ and Telstra, whose ‘vision’ is “to create a brilliant connected future for everyone.”

Two cinematic ads — stories — speaking to our desires, especially our holiday desires for connection with loved ones.

Both feature family separated by distance, both seek to bridge the gap because life is about connection.

The Qantas ad featuring the song Feels Like Home offers a critique to Telstra’s magic solution to distance (I’ve written about Telstra’s ad before). It features an adult daughter (and kids) connecting to her geographically distant mum via a screen; her disembodied head on the kitchen table as candles are blown out and her present opened — a picture of distance or ‘excarnation’ — the relationship is missing something because she isn’t there in the flesh. And then. She opens the present and its tickets for the family to bridge the gap, to be present with each other. Happy holidays. They smile. They hug. They are tearfully united. Cut to the shot of the flying jet and the line ‘Our Spirit flies further’ while the song finishes with the words ‘back where I belong’ — it’s almost poetic; here is Qantas’ vision of connection and the flourishing human life. The desires of our hearts met. Our emotions satisfied. And it’s all about connection through presence.

Telstra wants us to believe that connection can be mediated by a device running some software to link us as pixels; space is no longer an obstacle if we can “be in two places at once” — the promise of technology; the promise of Telstra and the means it is relying on to deliver its vision for a flourishing ‘connected’ future society. Qantas suggests there might be something less satisfying about this vision — that real connectivity isn’t via FaceTime but is face-to-face. Embodied. Fleshy.

Telstra wants us to believe we can have presence without sacrifice — presence without having to leave where we are to achieve it. That through technology we can be two places at once. Their business model, their vision, is to essentially put Qantas out of business and replace them with black glass, cameras, and touch screens. Swipe right for connection; just without leaving your home. Bridge the gap from your pocket. Virtually.

I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment — one building the framework for an ethic of attention in an age of distraction — it’s called The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. I’m loving it because of my own dabbling with Iris Murdoch’s ethical ideas around ‘loving attention’ back when I was thinking about the Internet outrage machine. The problem with Telstra’s solution for connection is that what they’re offering is technology that actually feeds distraction and disconnection (there’s some stuff on social media and media ecology and how technology changes us back in my archives too). Author Matthew Crawford paints a picture of life in our distracted age, where even public space has been given over to private interests and electronic screens bombarding us with messages, he asks what the escape is, and what happens to our ability to be present or pay attention if life is mediated to us by screens. He describes the dilemma of the modern worker who spends all day reacting to electronic stimulus — to notifications and hundreds of emails — who then heads home… or goes on holidays… and this sounds eerily familiar (it sounds like my life).

“Yet this same person may find himself checking his email frequently once he gets home or while on vacation. It becomes effortful for him to be fully present while giving his children a bath or taking a meal with his spouse. Our changing technological environment generates a need for ever more stimulation. The content of the stimulation almost becomes irrelevant. Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to—that is, what to value.”

Telstra isn’t going to save us; their business model — their vision for the future (their own economic future) depends on reinforcing this behaviour, and convincing us that connectivity — that bridging the gap between us and other people just takes a screen.

Crawford suggests the Qantas ad might also be wishful thinking if we can’t disconnect ourselves from the screen long enough to pay attention, and picks the airport departure area as a prime example of our modern dilemma — even our attempts to connect are likely to be thwarted by the ‘magic’ of virtual connectivity and distraction. He talks about the way so much physical real estate at the airport is taken up by advertising, and attention grabbing  ‘content’ right up till when you sit down in the departure lounge in front of TV screens playing the news with no sound on (unless you pay to ‘escape the commons’ — the public space — to retire to the silence of the airport lounge. He paints a picture of our excarnation — our desire to move our attention away from where the ‘flesh’ is, in order to be somewhere else. Via our attention — and away from those we are embodied with.

“Of course, in my airport example, one can simply shift in one’s seat and avert one’s gaze from the screens. But the fields of view that haven’t been claimed for commerce seem to be getting fewer and narrower. The ever more complete penetration of public spaces by attention-getting technologies exploits the orienting response in a way that preempts sociability, directing us away from one another and toward a manufactured reality, the content of which is determined from afar by private parties that have a material interest in doing so… Alternatively, people in such places stare at their phones or open a novel, sometimes precisely in order to tune out the piped-in chatter. A multiverse of private experiences is accessible after all. In this battle of attentional technologies, what is lost is the kind of public space that is required for a certain kind of sociability.”

It’s scary stuff — genuinely I’m ok with the use of technology coming with some opportunity cost, but pit Telstra’s promise — its picture of connectivity — up against Qantas’, and I know which one I prefer. As I’ve read Crawford’s book I’ve started making changes — I’ve turned off all notifications on my phone, for example, to remove some interruptions (and found that liberating).

There’s something about the slightly different emotional responses evoked by these two ads that reveals something true about the world and about connection and about a ‘flourishing human life’ — I watch the Telstra ad and I feel like I’m meant to feel, they’ve pulled particular heart strings and there’s an inherent imagination and desire for ‘magic’ that it taps into. It’s better to have this sort of connection — this magic — than nothing at all, if there’s a gap that needs bridging something is better than nothing… but I watch the Qantas ad and there’s a greater longing, a deeper or truer emotion that it taps into for me. The ‘spirit’ of technology might stretch far enough to bridge a gap in a disembodied way, but Qantas is right — their ‘spirit’ does fly further. The Qantas ad makes me feel something deeper because it both reveals the limits of screen-mediated, excarnate, presence and the goodness of fleshy, embodied, incarnate, presence. We know that embodied presence is somehow realer and of more value than disembodiment. Part of being really human is being fleshy.

Being present.

Being attentive.

Being present requires paying attention — killing distractions. It requires actively resisting the claims made on our attention by our devices — our technology — our desire to be elsewhere. So that we are incarnate both in flesh and via our attention. When that happens — that’s where real connection can happen. Qantas’ vision and Telstra’s aren’t entirely compatible.

It’s the ‘holiday season’ — or Christmas season — which ultimately is the celebration of incarnation over excarnation; of Qantas style ‘bridging the gap’ over Telstra’s picture of connectivity. It’s the celebration of flesh and spirit trumping ‘spirit alone’. Christmas — the incarnation of Jesus — is God’s picture of connectivity, it’s God ‘bridging the gap’ as ‘Emmanuel’ (God is with us). It brings with it an ethos of presence; a valuing of the flesh, a sense that to be fully human is to be ‘in the flesh’ — incarnate — and that real love and connection requires this. Certainly it’s better to have ‘excarnate’ connection than no connection at all; but there’s a reason Qantas tugs at our heart strings in a way that Telstra doesn’t quite… it’s the same reason the Apostle John wrote, a couple of times:

“I have many things to write you, but I would prefer not to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come and speak with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” — 2 John 1:12 (cf 3 John 1:13-14)

This is the same John who wrote the Gospel which opens with the magic of the incarnation — the magic of presence — the sense that God bridging the gap between us and him required his presence in the flesh dwelling with us — the reason that Qantas trumps Telstra.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. — John 1:14

This is Christmas. This is what the holiday season is all about. This is what real connection, real presence, real humanity looks like. We flourish best by connecting with the God who incarnates himself, but whose ‘spirit flies further’ even than Qantas’ — but we also flourish more in life when our patterns of relating line up with God’s; when our character is shaped by his. Because this is how we were made to be by the one who made us and made us fleshy — that’s why Qantas makes us feel things that Telstra does not — by speaking to our hearts in a way Telstra doesn’t — a more complete and joyful way… the Qantas story taps into something true about God, the world, and us.

Home isn’t just where the heart is — or Telstra could have us home-and-absent. Home is where the flesh is; and the magic of the Bible’s story is that God made his home — a ‘dwelling’ with us — in Jesus dwelling among us, then by the Spirit dwelling in us, but ultimately, for eternity, where we’ll be home with him dwelling with us. Where we’ll be in the flesh; with our desire for a flourishing life answered. Telstra operates according to its vision of the future, well… here’s John’s vision of our future hope; our future home. We’re made for this sort of connection…

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.‘ He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5

7 Types of speech that are more important than free speech for a civil society (and 2 for our role in it as Christians)

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We’re told free speech is dead. And that the Coopers fiasco killed it (or revealed it to be dead, but let’s not get technical when making hyperbolic and overreaching claims).

But I don’t buy it. What we’re seeing in the rise of boycotts, no platforming, protests, and online outrage are exercises of free speech. Effective ones. So loud they drown out other positions.

Civil discourse relies on more than just free speech. Free speech means, essentially, that I am able to cover my ears and yell ‘la, la, la’ when I don’t like what you are saying. My children often exercise free speech in our household, and that doesn’t make for a more civil domestic situation.

Image: If there’s one guy who knows the cost of ‘free speech’ it’s Cicero. Who was executed and whose tongue was nailed to the rostra in the Roman forum, because of a series of speeches he wrote against Mark Antony. This painting depicts his arrest.

When we overreach in response to speech we don’t like what we’re revealing is just how good we’ve had it for so long. Our ideas; our positions; as Christians, have been the default. And it turns out they’ve been costly for people who don’t share them. And it turns out that part of the age we live in is that ideas are contested now. There are no sacred cows anymore. There are no ‘defaults’… at the moment it feels like the loudest voices are the ones that are winning, and we’re in trouble because we’ve been the loudest, freest voice for so long (did you know, for example, that the Bible Society is Australia’s oldest institution), and people are tired not just of listening to us, but of the way we exercise our freedom to speak without exercising a bunch of other civic virtues.

Free speech won’t, and can’t, secure a civil society. It’s part of it. But I’d argue a civil society is not where everyone yells at the top of their voices and the loudest voice wins; it’s one where all voices are listened to, and as many as possible are accommodated into the way it operates. This is what I mean when I use the word ‘pluralism’ — not that every voice is treated as true, but that every voice is listened to, and where the convictions are coherent, robust, and freely form a community of people within our society, those voices should be accommodated. Because that’s just — if I expect my views, and my community, to be accommodated, then I should extend that to others.

Seven types of speech more important than free speech for a civil society

Here’s a bunch of types of speech, built on the bedrock of free speech, that we need for a civil society. I’d suggest that free speech isn’t actually dead. What’s dead is a common commitment to these concepts as virtues, and it’s a mistake to lump them in all together to claim ‘free speech is over’… Most of these ‘types’ are explained with reference to how you get there from the Bible (cause most of the people who read this will be Christian, probably), but I think they’re pretty basic virtues for a civil society apart from Christianity too; it’s not that we’ve got a monopoly on civility, we do, however, have no excuse to be uncivil because it just doesn’t mesh with who we are as people who follow Jesus.

1/ Slow speech

Were you shocked by how many people talking about the Coopers stuff hadn’t even watched the video that started it (from both sides). One of the pubs boycotting Coopers admitted that they hadn’t watched it, but they were still prepared to grab the metaphorical pitchfork and head towards the large burning beer bottle.

We love a good hot take. A call to arms. The idea that our words might make a difference. Social media and clicktivism feed this. We feel like we’ve done something by clicking a link, or a virtual petition. We especially love hot takes that come from people we trust; from our ‘camp’… that’s why fake news has become so powerful, it’s always aligned to an ideology, and people like to be fed stuff that tells us what we already think. Algorithm driven social media platforms like Facebook feed this because they calculate what to serve up to us based on a growing sense of what we’re interested in. They feed us according to our self-interest. And that becomes a bit of a shortcut. Talk isn’t just cheap online; it costs nothing once you’ve got an internet connection. Media has been ‘democratised’… you’re a publisher. And we don’t just love a good hot take, we love being the first to share it in our circles, we love the likes and the acclamation (like old media loves good circulation numbers)… We also have FOMO (the fear of missing out). If there’s a bandwagon and it’s rolling and turning into some sort of juggernaut, we don’t want to miss out. So we don’t really have time to read and digest things (even the stuff we agree with, let alone other opinions), we just share stuff that we think lines up with some fundamental convictions about the world.

Ironically, the verse from James (in the Bible) that was used in that video is a good circuit breaker for outrage (with additional principles for ‘civil society’ for Christians).

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. — James 1:19-20

Just a few verses later, James also says:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” — James 1:26-27

2/ Loving speech

It’s pretty self-evident that you can use free speech to be a total jerk. And a bunch of people doing that makes society uncivil, not civil. Some of the points that follow are expanding on the idea that our speech should be loving if we want it to be worthwhile. Indeed, many of them are expanding on this verse.

 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. — Ephesians 4:15

The literal sense of the Greek word translated  ‘speaking the truth’ is ‘truthing in love…’ — there’s more than just speech in view. It certainly includes speech, and where Paul goes next in his argument talks about the types of speech that lead to a civil community (at this point he’s looking at the church). He says:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. — Ephesians 4:29-32

It’s not good enough just to have free speech, if we want a civil society our speech also needs to be loving.

This is all well and good within a community where identity is shared, and reinforced, as we speak to one another. But it should also frame how we speak with people outside our communities. We’ve too often traded loving speech for malicious speech (and by we I mean everyone, not just Christians), and that is a vicious cycle. A cycle of vice. A reinforcing feedback loop.

3/ Understanding speech

The sort of speech a civil society requires involves understanding one another. This carries a few things with it… it involves listening to others, it involves interpreting with charity so that when you respond, you’re actually understanding what the other person is saying, thinking, desiring, and experiencing. This involves cultivating empathy, and listening hard to people who disagree with us. It involves speaking with clarity, when we do speak, so that we to are understood — even if when we are understood people disagree with us still.

It’s very possible that we will never be understood; that the people we are speaking to will not be committed to this idea. But that doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing this ideal.

I think Jesus models this over and over again, in every conversation. He understands the pharisees, and the traps they’re trying to catch him in, and the state of their hearts, and where the story is going. He also understands the people he heals, protects, calls, and saves. He understands the deep desires that the woman at the well has, and why she’s at the well by herself in the heat of the day, and what she’s looking for in her relationships with the men of the town. He understands why the prostitute who washes his feet with perfume, tears, and her hair, is doing what she is doing. He understands what is happening at his trial, and how Pilate wants an easy out, and he doesn’t give it to him.

But I’m not Jesus. Lots of his understanding comes from unspoken stuff and the ability to pierce the hearts and minds of others… I don’t have that. I think we can be a bit more like Paul, who observes the rhythms of a city, listens to its people, reads the philosophers and poets underpinning the society, and speaks in a way that shows he knows what is going down… he gets laughed at by most, but he has done the work of understanding Athens before he opens his mouth in Acts 17 (and in other moments like when he’s on trial).

4/ Space-giving speech

There’s been a whole lot of boycotting and no-platforming going on lately. Especially in universities. We’ve decided that one of the best ways to use free speech is to stop other people speaking as our own speech-act. And we’ve realised that it’s more efficient to simply close down opportunities for people to speak from platforms we control, than it is to shout over the top of them. To no platform someone is to make a statement about the value of what they say, as we perceive it. It’s an act of speech but not an act of understanding.

Churches have been doing this for years. We have a platform. It’s often called a pulpit. We also have buildings. Most churches I know have policies about who they’ll let into the pulpit, and most churches I know who own buildings have limitations on the sorts of people they’ll allow to hire the venue and the activities that happen there. This is free speech — and it’s fine for us when it’s stuff we control… so I’m not sure we are in a position to make loud angry noises when our access to spaces we don’t control is cut off.

People who have websites/blogs do this too. I have a comment policy. I limit spam (though that is a form of free speech), and once or twice I’ve blocked comments I thought were malicious or slanderous. We also, rightly, have censorship laws, defamation laws, and other ways that we limit free speech for the good of the general population.

If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to carving out space (physical and virtual) to speak from. It might be that it has been a bad strategic move for so many churches to now meet in space they do not own. One of the benefits of a freeish public square (especially a public square not controlled by the state) has been that the need for ‘temples’ for various ideas has dropped. We don’t need space for every club or society if they can hire a room at the library, or book the town hall… one of the costs of a fragmenting society will be a return to those sorts of ‘temples’ for different associations (including churches). That will be a financial cost, but it will also come at the cost of space being public and porous. People will have to decide to go into a ‘temple’ — a non-public space — and the people who are part of those temples will have to decide to leave and to listen to other ideas. Temples will become bunkers (except for polytheists). Churches could become bunkers too.

And when you get ‘bunkers’ you get stuff like fake news, and echo chambers, and a lack of empathy and understanding for the other. You stop getting a ‘civil society’ and start getting a tribal one.

I think we need to go further though. If we’re committed to free speech, we need to be committed to giving space to people who don’t share ideas, definitely in common places like universities and public venues (and arguably within laws and legal structures and how we define words like marriage). This is where the pluralism stuff really kicks in. We need ways to be different and clear in our speaking so that we might be understood, but we also need space for other people to speak too.This is why I loved this idea from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics guru Scott Stephens:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.”

And why I think we should stop spending so much time as Christians building web space (TGC, Thinking Of God, etc) and physical space (church buildings with exclusive use policies) that reinforce the bubble. And start being generous space givers to other ideas, confident that truth wins, and our truth is true. This doesn’t always work. The podcast from the US called The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea shows that when other people aren’t committed to the same sort of civil society they’ll do their best to shut you down. But you don’t fight incivility with more incivility. And you don’t go into public space as Christians expecting anything other than crucifixion.

5/ Ethical speech

For speech to contribute something valuable to civil society it has to have a more civil society as its end; not just the self-interest of the speaker. Back when people were figuring out the power of human speech to persuade, and what limits should be put on that power if unscrupulous speakers were running around manipulating people by being super-persuasive, there was lots of ink spilled by philosophers and orators like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian on how to control the power of free speech for the good of society. There were lots of speakers who were great with words and fancy arguments (logos), that stirred the emotions (pathos), and moved people through fine sounding arguments to hold positions that weren’t good for them (but usually beneficial for the orator or whoever was paying the orator). The pen — or word — really was mightier than the sword.

These philosophers valued integrity, character, and virtue — and the sense that ideal speech both comes out of an ideal, virtuous, person, and shapes an ideal, virtuous, society. They often also wrote books on politics, and ethics, and oratory was the path to their vision of the good, well-ordered, ethical society. This worked best if they embodied the picture of the good, well ordered, society, and that created a sort of obligation underpinning speech. Speech wasn’t just ‘free’ — it wasn’t enough just to use flashy words that excited people and evoked an emotional response (though that is part of oratory) the control was your ethics. You didn’t just need free speech and the free exchange of ideas to produce a civil society. You needed speech shaped by action that shaped actions. You needed ethos. Character. You speech needed to line up with your actions, or pull you towards certain future actions if you were talking about a wrong you had noticed in yourself or others.

We’ve always, as humans, hated hypocrisy. And a civil society is one where people’s actions and words line up. Where our words oblige us to a certain sort of action. Where we say ‘tolerance’ and mean it. The apostle John puts the relationship with words and actions like this (and, on the whole, in this letter is making the case that our actions, and the experience of God’s love in them reinforces our speaking about the Gospel so that we can believe).

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

6/ Costly speech

This ethical speech idea underpins the idea that speech should actually be costly. Talk should never be so cheap that it doesn’t also involve action. You are the medium for your message. If we are ‘worshippers’ you are actually the medium for the gods we worship (be it sex, or Jesus, or any other thing we love ultimately). We are the model ‘citizens’ of the civil society we hope to see our neighbours live in (whether or not they worship the same thing as us).

The catch is, for Christians, our God is a crucified God. The message we speak is one that says love looks like self-sacrifice, but also that this way of living, exclusively, is the path to the true God. And people aren’t always going to like that. And, just as they killed Jesus for saying that other gods and kings (and god-kings, like Caesar) were false and that belief in them is totally permissible, but foolish, people will probably want to crucify us, even if we get our approach to speaking totally right. Aiming for a civil society doesn’t guarantee one, cause the barbarian impulse is strong in all of us. We do want, as humans, to tear down other societies when they do threaten us, or when we feel like they do.

As Christians the cost of living out our message — incarnating it, even — is that we’ll probably end up like Jesus. Or, as this quote I love puts it:

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

I expect to be crucified — whether that’s laughed at, excluded, or anything up to execution, the goal of loving, costly, ethical, understanding speech for me is not just that in doing so I’ll definitely persuade everyone (though hopefully it’ll persuade some). My goal is that something like what happened at the cross will happen. That the person, or people, responsible for my pain, will, in inflicting it, see something true about what I’m saying and wrong about what they’re doing. That they’ll have a centurion moment.

My optimism is simply that God works through weakness and crucifixion. Which is the same optimism Paul brought to Corinth, a city obsessed with uncostly, unethical speech. Corinth loved flashy, substanceless, oratory that made them feel good about themselves and never questioned the status quo. Paul brought the message of the cross. In word, deed, and posture. And then wrote stuff to the Corinthians about their expectations (and his), stuff like:

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” — 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

And:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” — 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

His goal in doing this in Athens, where he was mocked (but some were saved), and in Corinth, where even people in the church thought he could’ve been a more impressive speaker, was that in ‘becoming all things to all people,’ even a slave, he might win some to the truth.

Society more generally would be better, I think, if people weren’t hypocrites but were committed to the idea that our words create obligation. It’d bring an end to clicktivism, and we might see Kony in chains, research for motoneuron disease fully funded, and a bunch of other substantial changes in the world around us.

 

7/ True speech

A civil society is built around a shared pursuit of truth. That’s why civil societies have libraries, universities, and education systems. These often become weaponised in ideological wars. But truth matters. Pursuing it matters. Listening for it is a good thing.

One of the biggest problems with the idea that free speech is what really matters is that it’s exactly the line used by perpetuators of fake news, or people who are spreading untruths who have that brought into question (think the anti-vax movement).

True speech is better than free speech, and more costly. It costs time, attention, energy, listening, wisdom, critical self-reflection, awareness of bias (and privilege), observations of structural, cultural, and individual power at work in our truth-seeking institutions, and a bunch of stuff most of us just can’t be bothered with.

People like Augustine, ages ago, recognised that all truth is God’s truth, and his vision of a civil society, built from his confidence that the Gospel is true, meant he really valued education. And his writing, and practice, on education has shaped much of the way the church has been, historically, involved in providing a liberal arts (wide) education to as many people as possible, not just a theological education. Maybe it’s time we rediscovered this  — first the value of knowing about things beyond just what will get us a job and beyond the things we think simply because of our prior convictions (theological or a-theological), and then the value of getting the sort of education that threatens us and gets us to read beyond our circles.

Two types of speech for Christians within our society

These are all more important for a truly civil society than just free speech, free speech is like a gun. You can give it to people, but unless you model how to use it, it’s dangerous.

1/ Prayerful speech

It’s not just opening our mouths and speaking to the world that should create in us a sense of obligation, and reflect our ethic (how we live). Prayer does this too, but ‘vertically’ not just horizontally. Christians who are worried about our place in the world need to keep reminding ourselves whose world it really is, and whose we really are. And we do that through prayer. Prayer reminds us that God is real, and as we pray that his kingdom might come (because his king has come and the kingdom is launched in the church), that shapes a particular way of living for us. Prayer is a vital part of how we’re going to go about creating a more civil society in the church. A society that models something different and compelling to the world around us.

If we think we’ve got it bad, Paul says:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. — 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

And he says something similar reflecting on his situation where the state has put him in prison for his faith…

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” — Ephesians 6:18-20

Without ceasing… continually. We’d be better users of speech in the public square if we were doing more of this I reckon… Also. If we want to speak meaningfully into the public square, it pays to keep Paul’s advice at the front of our minds too. The government he’s asking for prayer for is a hostile government… ours isn’t that yet, but it could be, and even if it is… this is the sort of speech he urges us towards.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people —  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-4

2/ Gospel speech

Oh great, you’re thinking, here’s the Jesus bit. I’ve been banging this drum for a while, but the reason to do all nine types of ‘civil’ speech outlined here is that we are citizens of a very different kind of civil society; a society built by the good news of Jesus — a message we heard about God’s great love for us despite our unloveliness. A society that ‘truthing in loves’ that good news to the people around us; in word and deed. The Gospel is the thing that should be shaping our ethos and our logos and our pathos. The words we speak, the lives we live, and the things we feel (like how we deal with fear and the threat of a changing world) all display what we think the Gospel (the good news) is. We all become the medium for what we think is true about the world, God, and life in the world.

If we live and speak the Gospel coherently it encourages people who already believe the Gospel to keep on keeping on, even in the face of danger and adversity. This is part of why Paul’s life — and chains — are actually an encouragement, rather than a discouragement, to the church. We serve a crucified king, and God’s power is displayed in weakness and its critique of uncivil, barbarous, societies.

The Gospel is good news because the society it creates is not exclusive in the way all other ‘gospels’ are. Think about what the average Aussie thinks ‘the good life’ looks like, and then ask how accessible that vision is for the poor, the widowed, the oppressed, the refugee, the broken, the depressed, the fragile, the homeless, the uneducated, the addicted… the Gospel is actually good news for lots of people in our world, even if the elite in our society want to paint it as a terrible and oppressive thing. Their visions of the good life are terrible and depressing.We have the words of eternal life, that create a civil society that is life bringing and inclusive. Words that create love, forgiveness, and mercy for our neighbours, fellow Christians, and even our enemies; not words that create outrage, boycotts, hate speech and lynch mobs.

Things feel like they’re really bad… the sort of bad Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 3-4. And I’m just going to leave this here… because it has what Paul suggests is how we should respond to this sort of world; the sort of speech we should be exercising.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth… 

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. — 2 Timothy 3:1-7, 10-4:5

How to write to your MP and the relevant government minister about an issue (as a Christian) in 14 not-easy steps

writingtoapolitician

There are lots of good reasons to write to your local member of parliament or the appropriate government minister as a Christian; we have the incredible privilege of being part of a democracy; where each individual and community of individuals is viewed as having an equal say in how our nation is governed, and where individuals and communities should in principle be entitled to participate equally in public life. One way to participate in our democracy is to vote; but our participation shouldn’t end there (nor should we think that participating well in a democracy, or the public life of our nation is limited to the political sphere and how we influence our politicians and vote).

There are lots of issues where Christians are passionate about how our government makes decisions, and the decisions they make. In my pre-vocational-ministry life I worked for a not-for-profit advocacy group and one of my jobs was to come up with and coordinate public campaigns that involved getting people to contact politicians to ask for things (like V8 Supercars races, significant transport infrastructure, or various election commitments); I’ve put some thought into how the principles for that sort of letter or advocacy translates into how I participate in our democracy as a Christian; and here are my thoughts, please note, there are other ways to skin a cat, how you participate is up to you, and some of this advice is more oriented at what writing a letter should do to you, not just to the recipient, so it might actually end up not being the most effective way to secure a result because there are certain types of persuasion or argument that are no go areas for Christians (manipulation, and or power-grabs run counter to the Gospel).

Communication is always an act of some sort from a communicator to a recipient with the aim of achieving some outcome (understanding and action). It’s helpful to approach writing a letter thinking about each of the elements of this equation and how they relate.

If communication feels easy (as easy as belting out a letter when you’re angry about something, or signing a petition feels) then you’re probably doing it wrong. To make these steps as not easy as possible I’ve also linked to some interesting political theology stuff that you could grapple with if you want to make it even harder to write a letter that doesn’t cost you anything.

So here’s 14 difficult steps to take when writing to your local politician or the relevant minister.

1. Remember the humanity of the person you are writing to; our politicians should be afforded the same dignity that anyone made in God’s image is afforded, and are every bit as human as those we advocate for.

So be gracious and charitable.

Nobody wants to be berated, especially if they feel misunderstood or misrepresented. Don’t make the mistake of dehumanising the person you are writing to because what they’re doing —even if it is dehumanising other people — is making you angry. You’re also less likely to persuade someone if all you do is bang them on the head.

2. Remember to listen well so that you represent and are engaging with the best picture of the person you are writing to and their motivation. If you want to be understood, practice understanding.

So don’t engage with a caricature or simply put forward your own view of reality; take seriously the best and most loving explanation offered by the people you are engaging with and explain how you feel the reality might be different.

3. Remember the complexity of politics, and that you’re not always across all the factors in a decision. Don’t always assume a politician is operating out of self-interest, or a hunger for power, or for an evil ideology (but know that these might be factors in their heart as well as in your own).

So be wise and humble.

4. Remember that a politician is someone who has entered that complexity to ‘get their hands dirty’ and work to a particular vision of what life in our ‘public’ should look like.

So offer an alternative vision and be prepared to be part of the solution you offer.

It’s easy to tell politicians to fix our problems — especially complicated ones — if we stand apart from the solution. It’s easy to be idealistic if we stay pure and detached from the business of compromise and the necessity of governing for and representing people who aren’t exactly like us. Politics, especially democracy, involves the compromise of ideological purity; so we need to be prepared to give and take in order to work towards better outcomes; not in a way that stops us articulate the ‘best’ outcome, but in a way that shows we know change requires staying at the table with people we don’t agree with and working with them.

There’s certainly a time when we need to, as Christians, say we will not participate in evil simply because it is a way to work towards good outcomes; but we also need to realise that working towards good outcomes starts with our actions, but also includes the incremental progress that comes from co-operation and compromise with people we disagree with.

This is really tricky, and where political stuff requires wisdom and grace. There’s a great piece by Michael Walzer called Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands that is worth reading and grappling with; one of the implications of his piece might be that your action shouldn’t start and stop with letter writing, but include volunteering for your local MP, or joining a party, and working towards improving things from within the system. If you’re not going to do that, you should at least recognise that being part of the system brings a cost in itself.

5. Remember that politicians (and their staff who will probably have to read your letter and decide what to do with it) are busy.

So keep things short and to the point; don’t waste their time.

People who get these letters say anything over a page won’t really be read, and suggest around 500 words; it’s hard to get all this stuff into 500 words… but that’s ok, because I think part of the value of letter writing is about what it does to you as a sender as the act of communication shapes you and points you to a particular course of right action… but you don’t want to waste someone’s time, so keep things as short and punchy as you can, and put the important stuff first so they don’t have to get to the end to know what you are asking.

6. Remember who you are (as a Christian); an ‘exile’ who belongs to the kingdom of heaven but who is called to love your neighbours and use whatever power you have for the sake of others not yourself.

So don’t try to play a power game by lobbying or speaking out of self-interest.

It’s not our job to sell a decision based on the votes in it; but on the basis of its inherent goodness for our neighbours (including our politicians). We have a role to play by speaking with a ‘prophetic voice’ which I think is a voice that calls people back to the goodness of God and his design for humanity as we see it in Jesus.

7. Remember that the ultimate good you stand for, for both the politician and the public is tied up with the kingdom you belong to.

So articulate the virtues and values of this kingdom and offer them as a better alternative to the values and virtues put forward by whatever it is that has prompted you to write.

It’s ok to talk about Jesus in talking to the secular state; it’s a massive misfire not to because the ideal secular state provides space for all ‘religious’ or ‘political’ views as much as possible; it’s not our job to find common ground between religions, that in many respects, is the state’s job (though we do need to model what this looks like in our relationships with other religious views, including affording space and ‘representation’ in our laws to views that say religion is irrelevant to public life).

8. Remember that politicians make decisions based on what is best for other people; first the people they’re called to represent. Make your correspondence about (these) people (and you are one of them).

So show why what you’re saying — including the Gospel — is better for the people our pollies are representing.

We have to show our representatives why they should care about the people effected by their decisions, but also how their decisions will effect all of us in a positive or negative way. It’s a mistake to buy into the idea that the only goods for our people are security or economic prosperity. Virtue formation is a good end in itself.

It’s actually possible to argue that acting completely out of something other than self-interest is actually good for our society; we don’t need to frame our advocacy as being good for people in any way other than that it is a call for us to do good. Doing good is its own reward. My friend Luke Glanville wrote this great (journal) article called Self Interest and the Distant Vulnerable that is worth a read on this, I especially liked this bit of John Donne that he quotes:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

9. Remember that as a Christian you have a view of the state and its relationship to God’s plans and purposes (whether the state is an unwitting participant in God’s judgment or an agent of the common good who restrains evil), and that your ultimate calling is to love and pray for those in authority.

So don’t just write to our politicians. Pray for them and be a good neighbour to them.

And tell them you are not to make yourself look Holy (which almost inevitably would make you a hypocrite), but because this is what you are called to do by God. And ask them how you can pray for them; demonstrate a commitment to relationship, and also a belief that their role is one ordained by God so that you’ll respect and submit to them as an act of obedience to him. If letter writing isn’t part of some commitment to a relationship to your representative, and our shared public (our neighbours), then don’t do it; or at least search your heart as to why you are…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. — 1 Timothy 2:1-3

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor. — 1 Peter 2:13-17

10. Remember that every interaction is a Gospel opportunity and that ultimately it is the Gospel that shapes what you’re asking for and it’s ok to say that; that our democracy is best served by hearing a ‘Christian’ voice, not a ‘one size fits all natural morality’ voice.

So show how your position is a Gospel position and invite people, including the politician you are writing to, to adopt this position by adopting the Gospel; or at the very least to see how your position is part of the practice of your religion and occurs within a community or ‘social institution’ apart from the state.
Paul seemed pretty happy, when he was on trial, to attempt to convert those sitting in judgment over him (Read Acts 24-27).

“Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” — Acts 27:28-29

In a democracy every issue is, in some sense, a trial of competing ideas and our lawmakers are our judges. If you’re going to take an opportunity to speak truth to power, why not also speak the truth to power; part of belonging to God’s kingdom includes belief that the best thing for them (as our neighbour) and for our other neighbours whom they represent is that they come to know Jesus. It’s interesting, and not irrelevant, that almost all ‘prophetic ministry’ in the Old Testament involved God’s spokespeople calling foreign powers to repent by turning to God (eg Jonah); and that when a leader in a culture like this turned, it turned the whole country to God; our western individualism (and our reformed emphasis on salvation as an individual thing) makes this seem less significant; but, you know, read about the Emperor Constantine and the impact of his conversion and Paul doesn’t seem so silly (except that sometimes Christianity gets co-opted as a means to wield worldly power).

11. Remember that ethical speech isn’t free; it’s costly and obliges you to a particular sort of action.

So love with actions; not just words.

There’s a tendency to reduce our participation in the democracy to token activities – like voting (which for many years in many places involved putting your ‘token’ into a particular place to indicate your support), or signing a petition, or writing a letter, and worse, to showing that you’re much better and more ethical than the politician because you’ve done this token thing. This is a particular danger for the left; it seems, in part because often the left turns to the state to solve problems and be an ethical guide, so it is their job to fix stuff. Tokenism is perhaps better than nothing, but it certainly isn’t better than getting your hands dirty and trying to change the situation by acting.

When people were writing textbooks about ethical persuasion in the early years of democracy (in the Roman Republic, or in an attempt to take the Empire back to the Republic) they’d often (think Plato, Cicero, etc) write big books on the ideal politics (eg Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics), on the ideal orator or person (eg ‘Rhetoric’ or Cicero’s De Oratore); these guys almost universally connected the character or ethos of a persuasive participant in the political realm with the arguments they’d need to make to persuade people. Words don’t exist apart from actions in the ethical and persuasive political life. This is certainly true for Christians; Paul’s life, suffering, and chains, were part of his persuasive presentation of the Gospel, and there’s this bit from John which I think should guide how we seek to love our neighbours:

 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” — 1 John 3:16-18

12. Remember that not all solutions to complex issues are political, and if you want your letter to be more than empty tokenism you need to be acting already, or committed to public action apart from the political solution you are seeking.

Before you write, ask yourself ‘is there anything I could already be doing, apart from this politician to address this problem and bring about the change I’m looking for’… then if you’re not doing that, start doing it before you write.

If there is something you could be doing, and you’re doing it, that’ll also make your voice worth hearing because of the logos-ethos nexus; true persuasion starts with your character and actions, not your words… but true participation in the public starts in the public realm and with what is already possible, not just in what you would like to make possible.

Laws provide a floor, ethics provide a ceiling; sometimes the law gets in the way of good solutions, and that’s where I think we should be particularly engaged as ethical agents in a democracy. This will also keep you from the tokenism of the left, and from the weird assumption that it’s your representative’s job to fix things, not yours, or ours together.

It’s a mistake of modern life to assume that every issue is the state’s issue to solve; and that political solutions are the ones we should devote our energy to… Christians buy into this often when we assume our real fight begins and ends with the law’s approach to something like gay marriage or abortion, such that we’ve lost if the law doesn’t represent our view, or that winning looks like overturning a law. This is a failure to really imagine what we can do in the world apart from politics, and an accepting of a status quo view that only really serves the interests of the ‘ruling class’ or the political establishment. It’s also boring and depressing.

James Davison Hunter has some really good stuff for how we should think about this politicisation of everything as Christians in his book To Change The World, while this article ‘Killing For The Telephone Company‘ by William Cavanaugh explores the issue further and includes this cracker of a quote from Alisdair MacIntyre about the danger of having no institutions but the state, and having the state be in control of all aspects of public life (and so deciding what is ethical or what the good and flourishing life looks like).

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” — Alisdair MacIntyre

 

13. Remember politics, and the job of the politician, is about more than the issues you disagree on, and about more than crisis management.

Why not sometimes write encouraging and thankful things to politicians; perhaps especially to those you are most inclined to disagree with or oppose.

14. Remember that the Gospel — the story of God drawing near and becoming flesh — is one that values face to face relationships over the distance. The best communication breaks down distance to bring people together.

So work towards that in your writing… seek to meet with your local MP in person and work towards a longer term relationship.

Our communication often reinforces the distance between us and the people we are trying to communicate with; physical presence breaks that down. All communication between two separate people is ‘mediated’ but some mediums are more distant (in terms of both time and space) than others; and this distance in space and time makes the distance between us feel bigger… when we’re face to face our communication is immediate, proximate, and personal. Face to face communication with all its non-verbal goodness helps you do communication better and to listen to, love and understand the person you are speaking to better.

Slaying the dragon: Video games, fairy tales, and seeing life in this world as it really is

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton

“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind”  — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We are, throughout, in another world. What makes the world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvellous either for cosmic effect… or for mere astonishment, but its quality, its flavour. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience. Hence the difficulty of discussing them at all with those who refuse to be taken out of what they call ‘real life’ — which means, perhaps, the groove through some far wider area of possible experience to which our senses and our biological, social, or economic interests usually confine us — or, if taken, can see nothing outside it but aching boredom or sickening monstrosity. They shudder and ask to go home.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

“Most people think of games as power fantasies—escapism that makes people feel heroic and accomplished. That Dragon, Cancer has the opposite effect.” — Drew Dixon, That Dragon, Cancer teaches players to long for renewal amidst defeat

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A video game made me cry.

I cry at the drop of a hat these days; well; I feel like crying at the drop of a hat. But this game pulled me in and then kicked me in the feels. It’s called Fallout 4. You might have heard of it. But. Be warned. There be spoilers.

Actually. Two video games made me cry. The one that really had the tears flowing — that didn’t just kick me in the feels, but headlocked me and threw me into some sort of MMA style submission hold — is an independent release called That Dragon, Cancer.

Why did these games make me cry? They have a couple of things in common — both games take place in beautifully rendered, coherent, worlds. These environments are the product of the sort of mythopoeic world-creation that’d have both C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien feeling pretty excited about the capacity for video games to get us in touch with the enchanted reality we really live in. Both games rely heavily on story-telling; we’re carried along on a journey that pulls on the heart strings quite deliberately — even though Fallout 4 is in a sandboxy open world where you’ve got some freedom, while That Dragon, Cancer requires you to click your way from A to B in a very linear manner. Both games — and here’s the rub — hit me in the feels because of what they do with parenting, and loss. Though there’s also a stark difference here which made the impact of That Dragon, Cancer longer lasting for me; in that it is the real story of creator Ryan Green, and his wife Amy, and the loss of their beautiful son Joel. It’s an enchanting story because even amidst the clinical science and the very raw, real, emotions on display from the Green family, and others who’ve battled the dragon, there is a sense that Joel’s story plays out against a transcendent backdrop. This life, this cancer, is not all there is — it’s a dragon to be fought as part of a bigger, spiritual, narrative that is much bigger than simply the Greens versus a horrible and confronting bunch of aggressive cells.

Fallout 4 is pure post-apocalyptic fiction told in a completely ‘immanent’ frame. There’s no real ‘enchantment’ here. Just the ability to explore and craft your way to recovery, building villages for survivors of the nuclear apocalypse while hunting for your abducted son, Shaun. Everything is very ‘tactile’ in a sort of digital way. You scrounge through debris looking for duct tape so that you can upgrade a weapon; you can salvage components from just about anything to use it to build your settlements or upgrade your mechanical armour. I can’t walk into Bunnings or the hardware aisle of a department store now without subliminally thinking ‘jackpot.’  Everything is subject to the laws of cause and effect, and you’re the author of your own destiny. You’re, as you play, in control of your story. The one spanner in the works is that it turns out Shaun was pulled from the grasp of your murdered wife a significant number of years before you’re cryogenically defrosted, many more than you thought, and he’s much older than you. He’s the game’s ‘father’ figure; and now the head of the potentially nefarious ‘Institute,’ the organisation responsible for his abduction and your wife’s death. What you do with this information, and with Shaun, changes the course of the game.

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Image: “I, Father, am your son” — an awkward reunion in Fallout 4

My virtual self was convinced of the evils of The Institute, and pretty upset that Shaun wasn’t the little kid I’d been searching for; so I shot my son. For the greater good. My finger hovered over the trigger button for quite a while. This was the sort of ethical dilemma that video games now confront us with as they draw us into their worlds — into their ‘narrative frames’ — I shot ‘father’ because any relationship I thought I had with the character was based on lies. He was a manipulator, and his organisation was a threat to the better vision of the future that I was building in the Fallout 4 world. But I felt conflicted doing it.

It helped that the Fallout world is both purely digital, with no real world crossover, and purely immanent — the consequences of my actions were going to change that world, but the flow on effects would only be in the chain of causality in the ‘immanent’ world, there was no cost to my digital soul because in the post-apocalyptic rubble there’s very little room for faith. Those of faith were members of strange post-doomsday doomsday cults. The landscape is littered with abandoned churches that at best are home to a few post-human irradiated ghouls. I wore a clerical robe for much of my time wandering through the landscape, but the hope I brought came from slaying mutant cockroaches and liberating civilians from the grasp of some over-sized mutants. With a custom-made automatic shotgun.

Fallout’s world is our ‘disenchanted’ reality on steroids. This little paragraph from Dreyfuss and Kelly’s All Things Shining a philosophical treatise on the evacuation of ‘meaning’ and lustre from post-modern life, could easily describe the sort of world you inhabit as your character. There’s nothing remotely shiny — physical or metaphorical — about the Fallout world.

“The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s Medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.” — Hubert Dreyfuss & Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining

Fallout didn’t end up teaching me much about myself; I enjoyed the scavenging and building of settlements for others more than I enjoyed picking which faction to side with in the bid for some sort of restorative revolution. I felt things about the loss of my son — while pursuing him — but when confronted with the reality, I made a very ‘immanent’ decision; one that benefited my digital minions and my wasteland idealism. One that fit my nobel cleric’s vision of the end times best. I just wanted my people to live another day… so when that happened, I was happy. Happy enough to hang up the shotgun, which I named THE DELIVERER, and start pottering around in my settlement with a robotic barman.

That was Fallout 4. Perhaps the perfect story — or at least ‘a’ story — for the disenchanted ‘secular’ age; where transcendent questions are secondary. That Dragon, Cancer is the reverse. The ‘sciency’ immanent questions are very much the present reality, but there’s something bigger at play. A dragon that needs killing. A dragon we’d like to see killed, as fellow citizens of this world.

“Fear is cancer’s preservative. Cancer’s embalming oil. You’re a snake. A serpent. A dragon with snuffed out coal on his breath. Melting.”

“Whenever I ask sciency questions I nod my head. Digesting every Latin word, hoping it will stick to my ribs, become part of me. That if I ask enough questions, that maybe I could get my brains around this cancer.”

If only cancer could be killed simply by understanding it. If only we could think it gone.

It’s unclear to me still whether That Dragon, Cancer has a happy ending. Joel dies. You know that from the beginning. From the marketing. You’ve got to be prepared to ride that rollercoaster with the family before investing yourself. Joel dies. And yet. He lives. And not just in digital form — though it’s beautiful that Ryan and Amy were able to ‘incarnate’ and preserve Joel’s memory in the bits and bytes of his story in a lasting way. Joel lives because Joel’s family put their faith in Jesus. Joel lives, waiting for that time when Jesus returns to slay the dragon once and for all.

I can’t remember the first time I fell apart while playing. Joel’s polygonal face in game play very readily blurred into the visage of my son. I was destroyed by empathy with every click, as I moved through the journey from early stages, to treatment, to diagnosis, to prognosis, to desparate fight, to Joels’ death. One of the big moments for me was the moment you see Ryan’s immanent world collapse. The moment where asking all the great science questions in the world isn’t going to cut it. The moment where the immanent world collapses, or can’t support us, and we’re left grasping towards the transcendent, and really asking “where are you God?”, “where are you when kids like his, maybe like mine, are getting cancer?”

Does God really care? Or as Ryan asks at one point:

“If Joel does die, will Jesus even care? Will he weep for him? Or for me? I think greater than my fear of death, is my fear of insignificance.”

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Ryan and Amy ask those questions. And carry us with sensitivity and beauty and grace through their journey towards answering them. They don’t find all the answers, but they find reason to hope. They find meaning in faith — not just in the latin names of Joel’s dragon-like cells, or in the treatment. They find beauty in moments of pain, and things to be thankful for. They are amazing, and though they’re a world away I love them for it; and I long to spend at least some of my eternity with them and their pancake-loving son. Their story enchanted me. Here are some of the closing words from Amy to Ryan. I know I lost it at this point — I know it made me confront the ‘dragon’ and shake my fist at it, and its master death and Satan. I know it made me place more of my hope and trust in the one who will end the dragon’s grip on this world.

 

“So here we are. And the air is emptier without his laugh, and yet our hearts are still full, though with a different drink. And this ride we’ve been on for so long is silent. And so also is the Lord. And so we sit here in this new silence. And long for the noise to start again. And long for the music to start again, and for the disc to spin again. Even if it means going round and round for many more years. For at least we would be moving and Joel would be laughing, here on earth. And not only in heaven. I sense that his silence is only because he is drawing his breath. And now we know love and longing, empty and full, all in one moment. And I am grateful that we loved him well. And that we miss him well.” — Amy Green, That Dragon, Cancer

 

We’re waiting, with Ryan and Amy, Joel’s parents. Waiting amidst pain. Waiting in longing. Waiting in hope. Waiting for that day when Joel’s ‘words’ at the end of the game become reality — “you made it too“… Waiting for our faith to become sight.

And I’m glad they’ve shared some of their waiting with us, and all of their faith, and hope, and love for Joel, and their abiding trust in Jesus through the pain. I’m glad I ‘played’ my way through their story, and that my world was expanded by their experience — by Joel’s love for water, and ducks, and dogs, and pancakes, and by his family’s love for him. I love the final scene of the game — an imagination of reunion. Final reunion. A picture of Joel in the new creation. Cancer dead. Family restored. It’s more compelling than the reunion in Fallout, and ultimately, despite the multi-million dollar difference in budgets for rendering the world — and despite the pain being real — I’d rather live in Ryan and Amy’s world, which is more vivid and real, than in Fallout’s post-apocalyptic flatness and grey. I’d rather face these real questions — real pain, real mess, than that moment — real or virtual — of indecision about what preferred immanent solution I want to pursue with the pull of a lever, or a trigger, as I seek an effect I might cause. I’d rather live in an enchanted world than a disenchanted world where only ‘scientific’ questions have any bearing on the future of my family. I’d rather not feel like I’m in control — because I have no answer in the face of tragedy if I am. I can’t slay the dragons in this world on my own.

So why does this matter? Why overthink video games — no matter how profound — in this way? Stories matter. The worlds our stories occupy matters. Because we’re shaped, profoundly, by story. Especially stories we participate in — which gives video games incredible power. This quote from James Smith could well be contrasting the approach to the world found in Fallout 4 and in That Dragon, Cancer.

“Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.” — James K.A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

Fallout 4 relies on the premise that you can be totally in control of everything — put the right machines together, make the right choices, control the world and your environment just right — and you’ll live, not just you, but the society you’re building. That Dragon, Cancer makes it clear this promise is a baldfaced lie. It doesn’t matter how good you are at pulling levers, or knowing stuff — the monster will take down the machines every time. Hope is found somewhere beyond the machine. These games and their questions of loss, and children, and control, are interesting examples of the two ways of seeing the world and ourselves that Charles Taylor talks about in A Secular Age and James K.A Smith summarises for us in How (Not) To Be Secular:

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter. But Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally… Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency; only once meaning is located in minds can we worry that someone or something could completely dupe us about the meaning of the world by manipulating our brains… There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power Things can do stuff.” — How (Not) To Be Secular

Fallout 4 and its world of things and control — even its ‘hauntedness’ — is set in a secular world. Even the disease — and the very visible scarring of people and ghouls — is the result of the nuclear apocalypse. That Dragon, Cancer presents us with the reality that the world is broken, and asks ‘is there more to this disease than we might grapple with via science’… these stories, these worlds, leave us with a very different understanding of ourselves, and our limits.

At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous. Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment”… So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”  — How (Not) To Be Secular

My character in Fallout was most definitely buffered — protected by his isolation, never getting too close to those in the settlements, separated from the world by my mech-suit, totally and symbolically insulated and isolated from the nuclear affects of the world. Even my pet dog was called ‘Dogmeat’ — perhaps to prevent any sort of attachment. Totally buffered. Totally autonomous. Totally in control — which is, ultimately, why I shot my son. Because I preferred my own ‘ordering’ of the world to his proposal, and wasn’t going to sign up. While the Greens, in That Dragon, Cancer couldn’t be buffered even if they tried. They didn’t just have to be completely open to some sort of transcendent blessing amidst their vulnerability, in making the game and consciously ‘unbuffering’ — both seeking contributions from other affected families, and involving ‘players’ like me in their story — they’ve remained vulnerable and connected. There’s a real path towards healing for them. Not in terms of tackling the dragon — Jesus will ultimately do that, and science might help along the way. The path to healing is one consistent with a transcendent world, and the picture of the enchanted, and enchanting, future we see in Revelation. What I’ve really learned in these games, as I’ve played, is that when you’re being beaten and buffeted about by what life in this world throws at you, an unbuffered self actually, counter-intuitively, has more to protect it than the buffered self. We aren’t in control. We need others. We need hope. We need transcendence. We need more than what ‘is’ in this material world. More than Dogmeat, or friendmeat. We need a dragon slayer.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City,the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5

The ‘disgusting’ Ashley Madison exposed: The impossibility of secrecy, and the promise of forgiveness

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I can’t imagine the sorts of conversations that might be happening in households around the world this week after a group of hacktivists unleashed a public sort of hell on millions of cheaters, and would be cheaters, by naming and shaming them as members of an online infidelity service. Well. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it, except that some commercial radio hosts in Australia told a caller on air that her husband was an account holder. And her response:

“Disgusting”

I don’t listen to commercial radio, because I’m old. And lame. I listen to the ABC. On the radio this morning the consensus on talkback on the Ashley Madison data dump is that it’s not so much the sex that matters when it comes to infidelity, it’s the lying.

“Disgusting”

We’ve tangled and contorted ourselves into a weird sort of moral knot if we somehow think that the problem here is not more complicated than lying. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure my wife would appreciate me honestly telling her that I seriously wanted to sleep with other people if only she’d give her blessing. I think that desire, itself, is a problem for one’s marriage vows. But maybe that’s where the dishonesty rests… in those vows.

This breach of security and privacy does throw a bunch of interesting ideologies into the mix. It invites us to consider just how coherent a view of morality based on ‘harm’ and individual liberty really is in the scheme of deeply enmeshed human relationships. It’s easy enough to ask “where’s the harm in a bit of consensual sex between adults” but much harder to ask that question so flippantly when one or both of those adults is already enmeshed in a relationship where their actions are not simply their own, but actions of a person-in-relationship. It’s interesting to consider what privacy really is, and whether its something to protect and pursue, or at least whether its something you can ever assume. Someone called this the “wikileaks of personal data.” There are some who feel the really egregious sin here is the breach of privacy. Others have asked about the place of vigilante justice for moral, not criminal, failings (the whole vigilante thing makes me uncomfortable, be it wikileaks, or Anonymous). The company behind Ashley Madison released a statement on the breach that says:

“The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”

The question of competing visions of personal virtue and what this looks like in a society where some aspect of life is shared is interesting. I think. I’m not sure you can speak of concepts of ‘society’ and ‘citizenship’ without trying to establish a sense of virtue, or some parameters, tht hold people in a society, or people group, together.

It also invites us to ask what is really private, and whether the thoughts, desires, and private acts of one’s ‘inner-man’ or ‘inner-woman’ are morally distinct from public acts. There’s a whole bunch of modern moral theory that says its only what you do that matters, what you think is private and its your own little kingdom with your own rules. That you can’t be morally culpable for thought crime. But doesn’t this just invite us to extend our private kingdoms as far as we can? To get away with as much as we can short of actually doing something? And where do we then draw the line? What’s the moral difference between fantasy and pornography? Between signing up for a cheating account with every intention of using it, and actually using it? What difference does it make if you are in a relationship and the private ‘inner world’ denies, dishonestly, your changed status?

If an Ashley Madison account exists but nobody is there to see it, is it still ‘cheating’?

“Disgusting.”

It’s pretty easy to jump up and down and point the finger at these exposed men (and women, though nobody can really tell what percentage of Ashley Madison accounts were really real, and really women). Lots of people are doing it. We love it when some horrible person gets EXPOSED. Imagine that text as a rubber stamp graphic being thumped onto your TV screen in one of those Current Affair exposé episodes. We love a good finger point. Somehow a crass commercial exercise like exposing a cheating husband on radio is something to delight in or be fascinated by, even as a family’s life potentially disintegrates in the voyeuristic ear shot of hundreds of thousands of listeners.

But what if it were me, and my inner man in the spot light?

What if my thoughts were projected on a screen, captured, hijacked, and released to millions of voyeuristic ears and eyes baying for blood?

It’s a horrible thought. Isn’t it. My hidden desires. The stuff that I would consider doing if I thought there was any chance that nobody would ever know. That nobody could ever find out. That my privacy was guaranteed… What is it for you? Where would you go given the cover of darkness? What would you do if you had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? I know I’d be dangerous with that sort of power… and that sort of opportunity.

“Disgusting.”

I hope I’m not alone in acknowledging that if the very worst of my thoughts were captured, catalogued, and released online I would be terrified that anyone could download a database and search for my name. Least of all that my inner thoughts would be exposed to my wife, and the nation, in a radio interview.

“Disgusting.”

I feel like most of us would be destroyed if this happened, most of our relationships — at least those built on the assumption of total honesty rather than love, grace, mercy and forgiveness — would disintegrate with the voyeuristic eye of the public turned on us. I don’t want to give the guys on this database a free pass. Signing up for a terrible website offering a terrible product is a terrible and disgusting thing to do. I’m not interested so much in excusing them, but in remembering to number myself amongst the transgressors. Not because I have an Ashley Madison account, but because the account that I do have, in terms of my desires and thoughts, is not clear. My guess is neither is yours, nor any of those jumping in to condemn the cheats. We’ve all got some sort of ‘account,’ a record that if revealed to the world would cause that sort of visceral response (so long as we’re prepared to forget our account when we judge others).

“Disgusting.”

For the record, just so we’re clear, Ashley Madison is destructive, its destruction would be terrific if it didn’t involve so much collateral damage, and if the collateral damage wasn’t the result of an outraged mob baying for the blood of these “disgusting” clients. Cheating, or attempting to cheat is disgusting.

But so am I.

“DISGUSTING”

And I don’t want my disgustingness exposed. The thought profoundly terrifies me. The cost would be excruciating.

And so. I empathise with these guys who have been exposed.

I understand the desire to keep our desires private. Uncovered. Hidden in darkness. Held in encrypted digital vaults rather than published for all to see. I wish I had that sort of control. The ability to keep things hidden. But I don’t. I can’t.

What’s perhaps most shocking is that while I may never be accountable to other people for the workings and perversions of my inner-man (so long as I keep them in check and don’t sign up for, or use, web services where I can be exposed), I will certainly be accountable to God.

The God of the Bible who has a little something to say about adultery that should put all of us on notice, and invite us to not be so quick to point fingers of judgment at those ‘disgusting’ folks who have been caught out using a disgusting ‘service’ (to call it a ‘service’ as though it provides some sort of beneficial act for its customer is to be a little too generous). Jesus says the life of the inner person counts. The stuff that you think is private, and secret, isn’t. And it’ll be exposed.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. — Matthew 5:27-28

In another passage, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns against hypocrisy because nothing ‘hidden’ stays hidden.

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. — Luke 12:2-3

When it comes to God, I don’t have secrecy. But I do have grace, love and forgiveness. I might try to keep the worst of my thoughts and desires from the people around me, this desire for secrecy and darkness to get away with stuff is fundamental to our humanity — it’s exactly what Adam and Eve do when they hide from God in the garden, and its what people do over an over again in the Bible. But I should be able to trust the people who love me with this part of me, and trust their ability to love and forgive me, just as God does — often its the desire not to hurt others that rightly prevents people from oversharing the depths of their brokenness. I hope that this love and forgiveness would be offered in my marriage (I’m not seeking to test the limits), but ultimately, I know and have a promise from the one who intimately and completely knows my “inner man” that the disgusting stuff has been seen, but the record, the account, is as good as destroyed because Jesus took on the cost of my disgust, the shame, the public humiliation, and the punishment, for himself. He wore it. He owned it. He took it.

 

That’s good news for me, and perhaps it might be good news for the hundreds of thousands of Ashley Madison account holders in Australia, or the millions around the world, facing an uncertain future at home this week. Your account can be wiped. You can start again. Trying to hide behind ‘privacy’ and secrecy is something that should decrease over time as you follow Jesus, both because shameful behaviours should decrease, because hiding is a path to hypocrisy, and because you simply realise that Jesus bringing us into the light we no longer need darkness to feel loved and secure. That pattern of our humanity is broken because guilt, shame, and their cause — our disgusting behaviour — are taken away.

King David was an adulterer — not just in the ‘inner man’ sense — he committed adultery and like an Ashley Madison customer tried to get away with the ‘perfect’ secret ‘leave no trace of lipstick’ act. He tried to cover up his actions (and used murder to do it).

Disgusting.

And God exposed his heart, and his ‘hidden’ actions. David, more than anyone in the Bible, knows the ins and outs of the experience a bunch of blokes around the world are going through as the nightmare of having their ‘disgusting’ hearts exposed. A prophet is pretty much the equivalent of an Old Testament wikileaks, or a group of hacktivists, and David’s sin was brought out into public and recorded in the books that went on to become the Bible. A book that has been read for thousands of years. EXPOSED. You don’t get much more exposed than this. And yet, David found forgiveness and love and mercy in God, a taste of what was to come through the Cross. He wrote:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us. — Psalm 103:8-12

I’m praying some of the Ashley Madison customers thrown into the emotional abyss by this exposé find comfort in this picture of forgiveness, and find this sort of forgiveness in God through Jesus, and expressed by his people, the Church.

The invitation you’re extended, by Jesus, is to step out of darkness and secrecy, and to come into the light. You have nothing to fear when it comes to being exposed if you’re absolutely prepared to be exposed, and to point to Jesus, the one who is not disgusting, and was free from guilt and shame, as the basis of your security.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-20

What the Church gets wrong, but Jesus makes right

This term at church we’re tackling nine big issues. Issues we think are something like belief blockers for our friends and neighbours. Issues where the Church gets things wrong, but issues that the good news of Jesus transforms (where we, the Church, need to keep transforming). You can read more about the series and the title here. We’ve put together a massive resource for people to tackle these issues in the form of our Growth Group booklets — if you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been posting much here, this is why. These booklets are available online as a PDF, and there’ll be extended versions of each topic available online in coming weeks.

The topics we’re tackling (starting this Sunday) are:

  1. Judging Others
  2. Gay Marriage
  3. Abortion & Euthanasia
  4. Abuse
  5. Feminism
  6. Asylum Seekers
  7. Climate Change
  8. Human Trafficking
  9. Greed

If you’re in Brisbane and you’re suspicious about the Church, or any of these issues stop you investigating Jesus, I’d love to invite you to join us at church in South Bank, at the Queensland Theatre Company (Montague Road). We have services at 10:30am and 5pm. If you come in the evening we can grab a beer (or wine) in the bar afterwards and have a chat.

On Gay Marriage, Kevin Rudd, the ACL, and “taking up your cross.”

It feels like a long time since I’ve written about gay marriage. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about Kevin Rudd. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about the ACL. It feels like a long time since I’ve written about anything much. But here goes…

The “Current” Background

The gay marriage debate is firing up again because the Australian Greens are going to introduce a bill to parliament. The bill is, at this point, destined to fail, because while the Labor party has given its members a conscience vote, the opposition is keeping their members in lock-step with their pre-election commitments on marriage. Kevin Rudd, a Christian politician, has decided to vote in favour of an amendment to the marriage act. The Australian Christian Lobby has said something dumb and inflammatory in response.

The Background on K-Rudd

Kevin Rudd is Australia’s former Prime Minister. He was knifed and unceremoniously dumped from the job by his deputy and a bunch of “faceless men”… Though he sits on the political left he’s been something of a darling to the Christian Right, because he is a politician who takes his faith seriously. Read his Bonhoeffer Essay published in Australia’s high brow “intellectual” mag, The Monthly in October 2006. Before he was Prime Minister.

I’m not a huge fan of Rudd’s. He often seems robotic and calculated. But I respect him – his approach to political campaigning was positive and refreshing, and he is a man of principle – sticking to his word in a recent leadership coup even though it cost him hugely. But I do like the thoughtfulness he applies to the question of the relationship between church and state. This is from the Bonhoeffer essay linked above:

“For its first three centuries, Christianity had represented an active counterculture, but what was to be Christianity’s message in a new age in which the church had become culturally dominant? This became the continuing challenge of Christianity in the Christian West for the subsequent 1500 years.

Over the last 200 years, however, we have seen an entirely different debate arise, as Christianity has sought to come to terms with a rising and increasingly rampant secularism. The impact of independent scientific enquiry, the increasing impact of secular humanism itself, combined with the pervasive influence of modernism and postmodernism, have had the cumulative effect of undermining the influence of the mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches across the West.

Where this will lead, as Christianity enters its third millennium, remains to be seen. But there are signs of Christianity seeing itself, and being seen by others, as a counterculture operating within what some have called a post-Christian world. In some respects, therefore, Christianity, at least within the West, may be returning to the minority position it occupied in the earliest centuries of its existence. But whether or not we conclude that Christianity holds a minority or a majority position within Western societies, that still leaves unanswered the question of how any informed individual Christian (or Christians combined in the form of an organised church) should relate to the state.”

Here’s Rudd’s conclusion for how Christians should engage in the political process:

“I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer’s critique in the ’30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.”

He says, a bit later:

“The function of the church in all these areas of social, economic and security policy is to speak directly to the state: to give power to the powerless, voice to those who have none, and to point to the great silences in our national discourse where otherwise there are no natural advocates.”

He identifies five approaches that Christians take to politics.

1. Vote for me because I’m a Christian.

“This is the model that is most repugnant. It is the model which says that, simply on the basis of my external profession of the Christian faith, those of similar persuasion should vote for me.”

2. Vote for me because I’m a morally conservative Christian and tick the right boxes on your sexual morality tests.

These tests tend to emphasise questions of sexuality and sexual behaviour. I see very little evidence that this pre-occupation with sexual morality is consistent with the spirit and content of the Gospels. For example, there is no evidence of Jesus of Nazareth expressly preaching against homosexuality. In contrast, there is considerable evidence of the Nazarene preaching against poverty and the indifference of the rich.

3. Vote for me because I’m a morally conservative Christian and I’m into family values.

4. Combine all of these, but then respond negatively when someone suggests there might be a political position to be taken on economic policy, not just moral policy.

5. Believe the gospel is both a political and social gospel.

In other words, the Gospel is as much concerned with the decisions I make about my own life as it is with the way I act in society. It is therefore also concerned with how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the state’s power. This view derives from the simple principle that the Gospel which tells humankind that they must be born again is the same Gospel which says that at the time of the Great Judgement, Christians will be asked not how pious they have been but instead whether they helped to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely. In this respect, the Gospel is an exhortation to social action. Does this mean that the fundamental ethical principles provide us with an automatic mathematical formula for determining every item of social, economic, environmental, national-security and international-relations policy before government? Of course not. What it means is that these matters should be debated by Christians within an informed Christian ethical framework.

K-Rudd and I share a vehement rejection of approaches 1-4. We both think there’s a roll for Christians to play in advocating for the voiceless, not lobbying for our own special interests. There’s a pretty obvious dig at the approach the Australian Christian Lobby (not to be confused with the Australian Cat Ladies) takes to politics in this article.

But fundamentally, though I will agree with our former Prime Minister on the wide ranging implications for the gospel on how we conceive of politics, ethics, and society, I don’t think he’s really grasped the magnitude of how the Gospel’s content –  the crucified Lord who calls us to take up our cross, follow him, and die to self – the qualities he so admires in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the gospel at a social and political level – applies to the moral and sexual sphere of the Christian life. Jesus is Lord over sexual morality, just as he is Lord over workplace relations policy.

Which leads me to the current situation…

Kevin Rudd’s changing opinion on Gay Marriage

Kevin Rudd has applied this rubric for the relationship between church and state to the question of gay marriage, and arrived at this conclusion (posted on his blog overnight):

I have come to the conclusion that church and state can have different positions and practices on the question of same sex marriage. I believe the secular Australian state should be able to recognise same sex marriage. I also believe that this change should legally exempt religious institutions from any requirement to change their historic position and practice that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. For me, this change in position has come about as a result of a lot of reflection, over a long period of time, including conversations with good people grappling with deep questions of life, sexuality and faith.

I’ve suggested in the past that this is, I think, the way forward in a secular democracy (short of the government simply legislating civil unions for everybody). I’m sure there are good natural arguments (ie non-Christian arguments) against gay marriage. I’m not sure those arguments are “marriage is for making children”… That would seem to rule out a greater purpose for marriage for people who know they are infertile, or people who are elderly. Which will, no doubt, bring me to the ACL. Shortly.

Lets parse the problems with Rudd’s statement from the Christian side of the ledger – rather than the political side. He’s making a potentially correct political decision, given the system he operates in, from incorrect theology. Incorrect theology that is there in the Bonhoeffer thing. If Jesus can’t make claims over our sexuality – our “natural” state – then he’s no Lord at all. He calls us to come and die in every area of our life. Including our natural, hard-wired, sexual urges.

Here’s Rudd’s narrative.

“One Saturday morning in Canberra, some weeks ago, a former political staffer asked to have a coffee. This bloke, who shall remain nameless, is one of those rare finds among political staffers who combines intelligence, integrity, a prodigious work ethic, and, importantly, an unfailing sense of humour in the various positions he has worked in around Parliament House. Necessary in contemporary politics, otherwise you simply go stark raving mad.

And like myself, this bloke is a bit of a god-botherer (aka Christian). Although a little unlike myself, he is more of a capital G God-Botherer. In fact, he’s long been active in his local Pentecostal Church.

Over coffee, and after the mandatory depressing discussion about the state of politics, he tells me that he’s gay, he’s told his pastor (who he says is pretty cool with it all, although the same cannot be said of the rest of the church leadership team) and he then tells me that one day he’d like to get married to another bloke. And by the way, “had my views on same sex marriage changed?”.”

So, to recap, for those who skip over quotes, a staffer Rudd respects, a Christian, is gay and wants to marry a man. So Rudd has had a rethink on his opposition to gay marriage.

Very few things surprise me in life and politics anymore. But I must confess the Pentecostal staffer guy threw me a bit. And so the re-think began, once again taking me back to first principles. First, given that I profess to be a Christian (albeit not a particularly virtuous one) and given that this belief informs a number of my basic views; and given that I am given a conscience vote on these issues; then what constitutes for me a credible Christian view of same sex marriage, and is such a view amenable to change? Second, irrespective of what that view might be, do such views have a proper place in a secular state, in a secular definition of marriage, or in a country where the census tells us that while 70% of the population profess a religious belief, some 70% of marriages no longer occur in religious institutions, Christian or otherwise.

These are the two questions.

He starts to move the goalposts a little on the “Christian view” thing by playing the “literalist” card. Now. I’m a Biblical Literalist. I do not think it means what Rudd think it means, or what many extreme Biblical Literalists think it means. I think Biblical literalism means reading a text in its context, trying to understand what the author literally meant, and in part that comes from understanding what the original audience would understand something to literally mean.

“In fact if we were today to adhere to a literalist rendition of the Christian scriptures, the 21st century would be a deeply troubling place, and the list of legitimized social oppressions would be disturbingly long.”

This is a purely speculative begged question – and it ignores the contribution to the 21st century made by Bonhoeffer’s contribution to the 20th century. He also throws Wilberforce under a bus. It’ll surprise Wilberforce to one day learn that people considered he was ignoring the plain meaning of the Bible when he opposed slavery.

Here’s Rudd’s guide to reading the Bible.

The Bible also teaches us that people should be stoned to death for adultery (which would lead to a veritable boom in the quarrying industry were that still the practice today). The same for homosexuals. And the biblical conditions for divorce are so strict that a woman could be beaten within an inch of her life and still not be allowed to legally separate.

The point is that nobody in the mainstream Christian Church today would argue any of these propositions. A hundred years ago, that was not necessarily the case. In other words, the definition of Christian ethics is subject to change, based on analysis of the historical context into which the biblical writers were speaking at the time, and separating historical context from timeless moral principles, such as the injunction to “love your neighbour as yourself”.

Nobody in the mainstream church has argued for stoning adulterers, with any credibility, since Jesus stopped the angry mob stoning an adulteress, or since Jesus met a divorced, adulterous, Samaritan woman at the well. The very model of the oppressed whom Bonhoeffer says we should be looking out for – and Jesus claims to be the promised king of the Old Testament and doesn’t stone her. Clearly the plain reading of the Old Testament, so far as Jesus was concerned – and he’s better positioned to read it than we are, as a Jew, and as God.

Christian ethics aren’t subject to change. Christian ethics are the ethics of the cross. It’s not just “love your neighbour” – Christian ethics are a call to deny yourself and to love your enemy.

Rudd presents such an anaemic view of Christian ethics here that it’s not surprising his conclusion is theologically incoherent.

The call for all people who follow Jesus is that we die to self, die to our desire to base our identity on our sexual orientation – gay, straight, bi, or otherwise – there is no unbroken sexual orientation – and if we do want to pursue sexual intimacy, regardless of orientation, Jesus affirms the traditional view of marriage.

Here’s a thing Jesus says when he also shows that K-Rudd is wrong about divorce.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Some people won’t have sex because being part of the Kingdom of God calls them to that. We’re really bad at acknowledging that category, culturally, and in our church.  I suspect singleness would be much easier if we were better at looking out for those who are single. So that it’s not a cross they bear alone.

Anyway.

It’s hard not to read this following bit in the light of his conversation with his friend – and suspect that it underpins his theological move.

“Which brings us back to same sex marriage. I for one have never accepted the argument from some Christians that homosexuality is an abnormality. People do not choose to be gay. The near universal findings of biological and psychological research for most of the post war period is that irrespective of race, religion or culture, a certain proportion of the community is born gay, whether they like it or not. Given this relatively uncontested scientific fact, then the following question that arises is should our brothers and sisters who happen to be gay be fully embraced as full members of our wider society? The answer to that is unequivocally yes, given that the suppression of a person’s sexuality inevitably creates far greater social and behavioural abnormalities, as opposed to its free and lawful expression. “

Rudd’s statement would be heaps better if he just said: “We are a secular democracy, and people in our secular democracy desire something, and the only good reason not to appears to come from a religious understanding of the thing.” By trying to play theologian he has left himself a little open to criticism.

The Bible says that humanity is born sinful. That we’re born with a natural propensity to sin. It shouldn’t be a huge jump for Christian theology to acknowledge that homosexuality is natural – it’s only a problem if we think our nature is a pristine, untainted, God honouring canvas. The image we bear of God in Genesis 1 is broken in Genesis 3.

Jesus is the image of God (Colossians 1:15), and calls people to come and die. Like he did. But if you’re not coming and dying then I am not so sure you can be called not to base your identity on anything you want – including your sexuality. Including defining your relationships using the word “marriage.” That’s why Rudd should have left the theology alone and just gone with the politics. He’s better at that.

Rudd moves from the theological point to the argument from nature about children needing a mother and father. I believe that in the ideal circumstances this is true (though I’m sympathetic to the idea that an emotionally healthy child needs much more than just a mother and a father – who love them sacrificially, they need a “village”). But I also, like Rudd, believe that we’re a long way from the ideal.

“Which brings us to what for some time has been the sole remaining obstacle in my mind on same sex marriage – namely any unforeseen consequences for children who would be brought up by parents in a same sex married relationship, as against those brought up by parents in married or de-facto heterosexual relationships, by single parents, or by adoptive or foster parents, or other legally recognised parent or guardian relationships. The care, nurture and protection of children in loving relationships must be our fundamental concern. And this question cannot be clinically detached from questions of marriage – same sex or opposite sex. The truth is that in modern Australia approximately 43 per cent of marriages end in divorce, 27 per cent of Australian children are raised in one parent, blended or step-family situations, and in 2011-12 nearly 50,000 cases of child abuse were substantiated by the authorities of more than 250,000 notifications registered. In other words, we have a few problems out there.

That does not mean, by some automatic corollary, that children raised in same sex relationships are destined to experience some sort of nirvana by comparison. But scientific surveys offer important indications. One of the most comprehensive surveys of children raised in same sex relationships is the US National Longitudinal Survey conducted since 1986 – 1992 (and still ongoing) on adolescents raised by same sex partners. This survey, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics in 2010, concluded that there were no Child Behaviour Checklist differences for these kids as against the rest of the country”

These longitudinal studies are interesting. I do wonder what the results would look like if you reverse engineered the ideal parenting situation from the outcome of parenting. If you asked a bunch of successful and emotionally healthy adults about their background – if you didn’t take a broad cross section to measure against the average, but selected some sort of high achievement criterion. Maybe that study is out there somewhere. But anyway, Rudd makes the point that the horse has already bolted on this front…

“Either as a result of previous opposite-sex relationships, or through existing state and territory laws making assisted reproduction, surrogacy, adoption and fostering legally possible for same sex couples or individuals in the majority of Australian states and territories. Furthermore, Commonwealth legislation has already recognised the legal rights of children being brought up in such relationships under the terms of Australian family law.”

One thing I do appreciate is the tone Rudd has brought to the debate – he acknowledges that this is his opinion, and that people, like Julia Gillard, will use their own consciences and reasons to develop their own convictions. This is what life in a democracy is about.

So good on him for that.

Which brings me to the ACL.

The ACL is apparently indignant that a back bench MP would dare exercise his right to conscience. They’ve taken a leaf from the Greens, their political nemesis, in comparing this policy decision to the stolen generation.

Here’s Christine Milne’s impassioned statement about a recent asylum seeker decision.

“In 10, 15, 20 years when there is a national apology to the children detained indefinitely in detention for the sole, supposed crime of seeking a better life in our country because they are running away for persecution with their families, not one of you will be able to stand up and say “Oh we didn’t, oh, it was the culture of the period.”

That’s a nice piece of rhetoric – but it’ll only take so long before this becomes the Australian equivalent of Godwin’s Law. The ACL is working on it…

Here’s the title of their Media Release.

Rudd’s change on marriage sets up a new stolen generation

Really?

Do go on.

The Prime Minister who rightly gave an apology to the stolen generation has sadly not thought through the fact that his new position on redefining marriage will create another.

Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Lyle Shelton said Kevin Rudd’s overnight change of mind on redefining marriage ignored the consequence of robbing children of their biological identity through same-sex surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies.

“What Kevin Rudd has failed to consider is that marriage is a compound right to form a family. Marriage is not just an affectionate relationship between two people regardless of gender.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. I’m just not sure it’s a particularly Christian argument. It’s a politically conservative argument based on concepts of personhood that admittedly come from the Christian tradition. But it doesn’t seem particularly informed by the person of Jesus. The Jews could own this position.

This is a nice call to take the question of the raising of children away from selfishness:

“What Mr Rudd has not considered is whether or not it is right for children to be taken through technology from their biological parent so that ‘married’ same-sex couples can fulfil their desires.”

This objection is just weird. I would hope that given the sexual health issues in the homosexual community we would want some sort of education to happen to prevent these issues (oh wait, the ACL has form in this area on sexual health billboards, and with those smoking claims).

Mr Shelton said Mr Rudd had also ignored the fact that this inevitably means parents will have their children taught the mechanics of homosexual sex in school sex education classes, something that would surely follow the redefinition of marriage.

Here’s a little case of adopting the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mantra while trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. Read the heading of this media release again, and then read this rebuke…

“The so-called ‘marriage equality’ debate has been conducted by slogans without proper consideration of the consequences. Kevin Rudd is the latest to fall victim to shallow thinking on this issue,” Mr Shelton said.

The ACL is disappointed in Rudd – not primarily because his theological account of sexuality misrepresents the Gospel. But because. Umm. Marriage.

“Mr Rudd’s announcement that he supports same sex marriage will be a huge disappointment for Christians and leaves their hopes for the preservation of marriage clearly with the Coalition and Christian-based minor parties.

Oh. And because it’s bad politics because it doesn’t protect the bigger minority from the smaller…

“No government has the right to create these vulnerabilities for the church-going twenty per cent of the population in order to allow the point two per cent who will take advantage of this to redefine marriage,” he said.

And now Christians won’t vote for him. Because the ACL speaks for Christians.

“Mr Rudd seems intent on burning bridges not only with colleagues, but with a constituency which had long given him the benefit of the doubt,” Mr Shelton said.

Something is either true and demands our support, or not. The truth doesn’t change with popular opinion, to which he is now saying he seems to be responding.”

“If this is an attempt to wedge Julia Gillard, it will cost Mr Rudd the last of his following in the Christian Constituency,” Mr Shelton said.

And finally. When it comes to the question of the theological stuff, where you might expect something related to the gospel, we get another statement that the Australian Sharia Law Lobby would be happy to sign up to if we changed “Christian teaching” to “God’s Law”.

His views on homosexuality and changing the definition of marriage are not in line with orthodox Christian teaching.

“All major Australian church denominations officially oppose same sex marriage and over 50 of Australia’s most prominent church and denominational leaders signed a statement against it in August 2011.”

The ACL is playing the game that K-Rudd pointed out is a problematic game for Christians in his Monthly article. Jesus calls us to come and die. He calls us to die to our sexual desires in order to submit to his Lordship. That’s where Kevin goes wrong. The ACL goes wrong not because they think Jesus is only interested in our sexuality – they’re trying to speak out for children too. Clearly. Or they wouldn’t use such dumb headings. They go wrong when they try to make Jesus the Lord of petty politics. On the one hand the ACL’s Lyle Shelton says “things are either true or they aren’t” and on the other he argues against certain courses of action because the political numbers are bad. Their whole model is broken.

Christians don’t take up our cross by railing against the political empire from a position of power – for starters, the political empire put Jesus to death. Or by playing the political game as though might makes right. There’s not much of a theology of the cross being displayed in the ACL’s statement.

K-Rudd should have left the theology and focused on the politics. The ACL should have left out the politics and focused on the theology (Jesus). Church and state should listen to each other. Especially when everyone is claiming they’re trying to follow Jesus. If you want to do politics like Jesus you’ve got to do politics shaped by the cross. If you want to speak theology about politics you’ve got to show how your theology relates to the cross. If you want to speak as Christians about politics why would you not speak of politics in the light of the cross?

Jesus’ pitch is the same for everybody. It’s not just about the poor, or about social justice – we’re all oppressed. We’re all broken. We all need intervention.

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matt 16).

Gay Marriage, Christians, and Sunrise: A better way

This morning Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, Jim Wallace, and Bishop Julian Porteous were interviewed about Gay Marriage on Sunrise. It wasn’t a train wreck. For which we can all be thankful. Sunrise should stick to this balanced format rather than stoking the fires of controversy with stupid debates featuring people who are clearly intellectually outmatched. Having an informed presenter who is (though slightly misguided when it came to polygamy and the Bible) asking the right sort of questions is also helpful. And by the right sort of questions I mean questions that get to the heart of Christian objections, rather than questions intended to be confrontational and stupid.

The Catholic guy hits the nail on the head in the way Jim Wallace doesn’t. Peter Jensen completely agrees. They talk about Jesus. They talk about the Bible. They talk about marriage being a worthwhile institution. They do it in a much more coherent way than the host, and in a much more winsome way than Jim Wallace did earlier in the week, and than he does today.

They argue that this issue is simply an issue of definition, and redefining marriage.

I like Peter Jensen’s “God has a great deal of interest in what goes on in the community” response to the idea that marriage is a “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s argument.” And his distinction between respecting the law and being forced to take part in conducting gay marriages.

And they do a good job of suggesting that their arguments are natural law arguments. It would’ve been nice to see something about how following Jesus means transforming your views on sex and sexuality as part of the argument about protecting Christianity from having to teach positive things about homosexuality. But you can’t win them all. And this is simply a much better Christian showing than the disaster from this week.

I love that Andrew O’Keefe called out the number of form letters (rather than thought out letters), and vitriolic letters, they’re getting from ACL supporters. And Jim’s funny “no true Christian” response:

“We have people coming onto our website and posing as Christians and proving themselves not, usually by the language.”

Just like we have people going on TV and making stupid and ignorant comparisons to the Nazi regime.

I don’t understand the ACL’s objection to Sunrise openly being part of the campaign – surely they’re better off being open about their bias than pretending to be objective and favouring the cause.

I do like the tone in this interview – it’s much more productive than the debate format where people are yelling at each other and trying to score cheap points. But good on the two churchmen for showing how some winsome, Christ-centred, public engagement works.

While I’m on the subject – it would be remiss, and somewhat non even-handed of me not to gently rebuke this offering on the Sydney Anglican’s website this week. Andrew Cameron does a much better job of essentially presenting the “children” argument Jim Wallace used earlier this week in a winsome, engaging, and empathetic way. And its context is different to the Sunrise interview in that it’s on a denominational website, and for Christians, rather than a nationally televised program. But a good article would have been a better article for sharing with non-Christians if it started with the same argument used by Archbishop Jensen and Bishop Porteous. Christian objections to same sex marriage are ultimately based on Jesus’ affirmation of marriage and the created order, and subsequently Paul’s use of the same argument in Romans 1-2. If Jesus had overturned the created order in his ministry then the “love wins” debate would have merit, but he didn’t. He affirmed it. It’d be nice if more of our arguments started with the centrality of Jesus to Christian belief on social issues – it’d also do away with people who want to raise the eating of shellfish and tattoos as other issues that Leviticus forbids, as though we’re being selective.

I like these paragraphs from Andrew’s piece:

“What we’ve seen is a shift in our society’s ‘common objects of love’ – those matters a society gathers itself to defend, and which help to make it a society. What matters about marriage has shifted over the decades. Our society now loves the idea of love; it loves freedom of expression; it loves eradicating differences. It doesn’t love permanence; it’s ambivalent about children; it’s less convinced that biological parenthood is significant to children; it abhors any notion that each gender might offer something particular and different to the other, and to children. These changes-of-loves are what make it seem that marriage can be renegotiated.

In the middle of these changing loves, Christians can ask helpful questions (there’s not much point being polemical when so little thought has been given to the nature of marriage). We can ask our neighbours: ‘Are you sure that you are not missing something? Do you really want to abandon those older loves? Will that actually help us as a community?’.”

I probably should make it clearer, lest people have questions, that I completely agree with both Peter Jensen and Andrew Cameron – that marriage between a man and a woman is good for society, and better for children, because it matches God’s intention. What I think we need to figure out is how we continue to present that in a way that affirms that Jesus is better for people than marriage (which might mean not getting married in certain cases), and protects our ability to keep saying that once the legislative horse bolts. I think basing the argument on Jesus, the created order, and questioning why it is that we think sexuality is the defining characteristic of human identity is a better way than encouraging our supporters to spam media outlets and politicians, and then comparing them to the Nazis when they disagree with us.

When slippery slopes attack: why abortion is intellectually untenable

I’m not a single issue voter. And I recognise that abortion is a hot-button issue where different worldviews can produce divergent results.

Maybe I feel more strongly about this now that I’m a father, and that I’ve had the experience of watching, via ultrasound, and feeling, via my hands, the development of a baby in the womb. Maybe it’s the experience of watching my daughter’s eyes take in the world around her for the first time… but some recent Australian developments around the issue of terminating pregnancies just makes me sick about the callous nature of modern life.

It makes me despair about the kind of world my daughter will grow up in – where the implications of moving away from a Christian view of human life will start to be truly felt. If we are just a sack of cells, with nothing to distinguish us from the animals, then everything is fair game. There are no checks and balances. No cohesive account of why life is important. Harm based accounts of ethical behaviour are so very arbitrary and will always be decided by the subjective interests of the powerful, or the majority.

As it currently stand there’s such a mish-mash of values being thrown into the moral/ethical/legal pot that something’s got to give. Holding a consistent position beyond valuing all life (or seeing all human life as representing God’s image) just throws multiple spanners into the works. I’ll get to a solution, of sorts, later. Well. I’ll rehash a solution that I’ve posted once before…

Anyway. Here’s a selection of situations in Australia that have prompted my ire.

First, Western Australia is set to join Queensland, in affirming that a wanted fetus is a human.

“Attorney-General Christian Porter is drafting the new laws and will introduce them into State Parliament later this year.

Under present laws, an unborn baby has no legal status and is not recognised by the courts.

But Mr Porter said the new fetal homicide laws would create a new criminal code offence of causing death or grievous bodily harm to an unborn child.

Based on a law already in force in Queensland, it would carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Offenders who kill or intend to kill an unborn baby by assaulting a mother will face mandatory life imprisonment – the same as a murder charge in all but exceptional circumstances.”

But here’s the kicker.

“He said he intended to consult further with the groups about the Government’s reforms in the coming weeks, but confirmed the legislation would not in any way affect the law relating to abortion in WA.

“The proposed legislation will be drafted to require an unlawful act to be done to the mother before any penalty can apply,” Mr Porter said. “This ensures these changes will not affect a mother’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy.”

There would be no limit on when an unborn baby was considered to be a human life.”

Here’s the story.

So that’s clearly a little inconsistent. And elevates wantedness to incredible significance when it comes to personhood. Which is just bizarre.

But there’s a precedent at play here in recent Australian history – there was a massive public outcry, which highlighted this inconsistency, when a Melbourne hospital terminated the wrong twin in a bungled abortion last year. Again – the unwanted twin was disabled, and would most likely have not lived long, or have been a burden, on the parents. So “wantedness” became the factor by which a decision about the personhood of this twin was essentially made.

Now here’s the icing on the cake. For years. Pro-life, or anti-abortion, activists have been employing a potentially fallacious slippery slope argument against allowing any abortion. Suggesting that once you allow abortion, to be consistent, you should allow the termination of a newborn baby. Because drawing the line at birth is arbitrary. It’s becoming increasingly arbitrary as the miracles of modern medicine mean the viability date for fetus outside the womb is an increasingly early thing.

Most reasonable thinkers have cautioned this kind of argument as being logically incoherent. In the absence of actual evidence of a slippery slope, these arguments are basically setting up a straw man position and not engaging with your opponents with respect.

But now. The slippery slope has been pointed to by a couple of Australian academics. Ethicists. Who recognise that it is incredibly inconsistent to draw a line under a person’s personhood at birth. They’ve argued, in an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics (PDF), that post birth problem children, who represent an unwanted burden for their parents, should also be terminated. Because they are not morally sentient beings, so therefore not people.

After arguing that children with certain pathologies that would limit a normal life, a reason that would normally constitute grounds for abortion, should also be legitimately terminated after birth, these ethicists go on to suggest that though children with conditions like Down Syndrome can be said to be “happy” – they may present an unfair burden on the parents (the idea that life is to be “fair” is based on some questionable presuppositions).

“Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion.

Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.”

This seems like a horrible satire. But it’s published in a legitimate journal.

Lest we be mistaken about what they’re arguing for:

“Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where
abortion would be”

It goes down hill from there…

“Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia.”

Here’s where they try to draw a line to define personhood.

“Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this
existence represents a loss to her.”

Now. I’m no published ethicist. But having a newborn baby in the house gives me a little bit of perspective on this. My baby, who is two months old, cries when she is hungry. She has done since birth. She stops crying when she is fed. At this point I would argue that her cries are indicative of a desire to keep on living, via being fed. I don’t know how one could establish a definitive sense of loss short of asking the person – which would rule out personhood until a baby is old enough to comprehend his or her existence.

At this point we start to see the problem with a general social shift away from a Christian anthropology. A view that people are special because they are created different to the rest of the animals.

“This means that many nonhuman animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal.”

So you can’t kill a functional monkey. But you can kill a disabled baby. The logic here is so thoroughly inconsistent it is staggering.

In applying the logic to themselves – the authors of this study suggest that potentiality is not a valid consideration. You can’t say “well that baby or fetus would have become like us” – because once the decision is made, it’s a moot point.

“If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred.”

This is where harm based metaethics fall apart. Who decides and defines harm if not the powerful?

The worst bit, I think, is that they rule out adoption as an option – because adoption may cause future psychological harm to the mother, where the decision to coldly and callously end the life of the child will not. In their logic. This is “potential harm” based on some studies done somewhere. Somehow that is more legitimate than speculating about the effect of terminating a living baby on the mother’s emotional well being.

“Accordingly, healthy and potentially happy people should be given up for adoption if the family cannot raise them up. Why should we kill a healthy newborn when giving it up for adoption would not breach anyone’s right but possibly increase the happiness of people involved (adopters and adoptee)?

Our reply is the following. We have previously discussed the argument from potentiality, showing that it is not strong enough to outweigh the consideration of the interests of actual people. Indeed, however weak the interests of actual people can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest…

…On this perspective, the interests of the actual people involved matter, and among these interests, we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption. Birthmothers are often reported to experience serious psychological problems due to the inability to elaborate their loss and to cope with their grief.

It is true that grief and sense of loss may accompany both abortion and after-birth abortion as well as adoption, but we cannot assume that for the birthmother the latter is the least traumatic. For example, ‘those who grieve a death must accept the irreversibility of the loss, but natural mothers often dream that their child will return to them. This makes it difficult to accept the reality of the loss because they can never be quite sure whether or not it is irreversible.”

One thing you can be sure of is that terminating the life of a child is irreversible. Another thing you can be sure of is that this article won’t be all that palatable with doctors who have to consider the prospect of ending a viable baby’s life (the Hypocratic Oath would seem to prevent such action). But really – the foundational truth here is that once you move away from viewing all human life as carrying the image of God – which is one of the fundamentally important points of Genesis 1 and 2, ignoring questions of science, you don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to coherently describing why human life is a good thing, and why it should be protected.

While this will be a minority voice at the table when it comes to setting of policies regarding the rights of a fetus – legislation that is very much on the table particularly in the case of Western Australia… one of the things we, as a church, can and should be doing in Australia is speaking out and saying that we do want these children.

Adoption is a policy solution. Especially if we, as Christians who believe in reconciliation, offer mothers the chance to be involved in their children’s lives – a form of reversible adoption. I think what we should be campaigning for, every time we open our mouths about abortion, is a changing of Australia’s horrendously complex adoption laws. This means being radically prepared to add additional mouths at the table in our family homes. But wow. If infanticide is the alternative – which is a label the authors of this ethics paper tried hard to avoid. Then it is part of the Christian witness to step in and uphold the value of life. Doing that was a driver of change in the Roman Empire – where infanticide was a common practice. Unwanted babies were exposed. Left to die. And the church started collecting them. Caring for them. And challenging the established practice.

Here’s a letter from a travelling father to a mother:

“”Know that I am still in Alexandria…. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it.””

Here’s Justin Martyr on the practice of discarding, or exposing, children and the church’s rejection of it (which often took the form of rescuing exposed children lest they end up in lives of prostitution.:

“But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution…

And again [we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers.”

And perhaps my favourite, Tertullian, responding to claims that Christian rites involved child sacrifice (which they didn’t).

“But in regard to child murder, as it does not matter whether it is committed for a sacred object, or merely at one’s own self-impulse—although there is a great difference, as we have said, between parricide and homicide—I shall turn to the people generally. How many, think you, of those crowding around and gaping for Christian blood,—how many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their severe measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death? As to any difference in the kind of murder, it is certainly the more cruel way to kill by drowning, or by exposure to cold and hunger and dogs. A maturer age has always preferred death by the sword. In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth…

You first of all expose your children, that they may be taken up by any compassionate passer-by, to whom they are quite unknown; or you give them away, to be adopted by those who will do better to them the part of parents.”

There’s nothing new under the sun. This sort of callous disregard for human life was something best left in the past, and part of the church’s heritage it should be proud of. And embrace. A cursory glance at Wikipedia’s infanticide article demonstrates the pivotal role we played, through embracing unwanted children, in changing the way western society viewed life. We can do it again. And we should.

The other compelling Christian factor in this argument is that the gospel brings a message of wantedness not just to the discarded or “unwanted” child, but to the mother as well. We value people because Jesus valued us. And because God not only implanted his image in humanity, but calls humans to be his people. We’re adopted into his family. We are wanted by God. That’s the essence of a Biblical anthropology, and its a reality which is heightened for the Christian. Which gives us a precedent to follow, and provides a mandate for us to love and seek the unwanted. This, I think, is the most compelling anthropology going round, and it makes sense of life from conception to death. It only really competes with the view put forward by these ethicists – because they’re right. This is the natural outcome of viewing humanity as a fleshy sack of bones and organs. Only these two options have any sense of cohesion.

That is all.

Pacifism, Christianity, and the Machine Gun Preacher

A friend of mine, who seems to be convinced that Christianity necessitates pacifism, doesn’t think very highly of the movie Machine Gun Preacher (featured here yesterday). Because I like this particular guy a lot, and hold his abilities and mind in high regard, I’m going to take his position as representative of pacifist Christianity broadly, and in the main, this should be read as a response to the movement rather than the individual.

The movie tells the true story of a former bikie turned Christian, turned missionary orphanage builder, turned child rescuer (with an AK-47 – hence the movie title).

It sounds like a great mainstream movie that will get people watching (it’s by the director of the Kite Runner). I’ve been fairly vocally critical of Christian movies and Christian art in the past. But this ticks a lot of cinematic boxes, and will portray a Christian doing something positive in a good light. It will raise awareness about the activities of a pseudo-Christian terrorist movement and demonstrate that their deeds aren’t particularly Christian. It will raise awareness about human rights issues in a country that all too often fails to register in Christian circles, let alone in the mainstream media (Sudan). And it will do all of this in, based on the preview, a pretty compelling way.

But it involves violence. And so. Pacifist Christians are dismissive of it. Which to me demonstrates the incredible inconsistency of pacifist doctrine in a fallen world. Sure, the ideal world doesn’t involve violence. Violence didn’t exist before the fall, nor will it exist in the new creation. But violence is not necessarily evil, nor a necessary evil. Violence is a means, not an ends, and it can be a means to a good end – ie the liberation of people from oppressors who are drunk with power. It will produce negative results at times, and may not be the only means to an outcome. But to frame the issue in a not too unrealistic hypothetical – how many hostages have to die while the hostage takers are talked out of their actions before that course of action is a failure?

Now, I don’t think the email I got from my pacifist friend was meant for publication. I don’t think it is up for me to put this guy’s position or words (which essentially committed the Christian equivalent of Godwin’s Law by bringing up Anders Breivik) in the spotlight for criticism. But the jibes made me angry so not putting them out there is a matter of self-control and my personal blogging ethics alone. Opponents of pacifism, within a Christian framework, aren’t necessarily endorsing violence as the only option. That should almost not need to be said. The difference seems to be that normal Christians see violence as a last resort, pacifists don’t see it as a resort at all. It’s almost impossible to argue that Sam Childers, the machine gun preacher, would be doing the right thing if it were within his power to stop child abduction, slavery and prostitution (which clearly it is) and he chose not to, because the only solution involves violence, or a peaceful solution involves being shot as he approaches the gate of the Lord’s Resistance Army Compound.

Pacifism is beautiful, but the world is fallen. It takes a special sort of over-realised eschatology to suggest that rescuing children from the clutches of evil men is not something that should be celebrated. Which is why I think this movie is a triumph, even if it glories in scenes involving exploding cars.

If he wants to repeat his comments in the comments on this post for all to discuss I’m sure the debate would be richer for it (though also more heated), and would serve my purposes in making the pacifist position a matter for something that looks a little bit like ridicule. Because, frankly, it’s Biblically ridiculous to suggest that there is no place for violence in redressing injustice.

The bigger question, and possibly the only grounds where I agree with this criticism of the machine gun preacher, is what place there is in the world view of the Christian for vigilante justice. I’m not sure how state-sanctioned the machine gun preacher’s actions are, they certainly don’t appear to be being conducted as secret, except that he doesn’t tell the terrorist group he’s coming. But if the state is failing there are precedents where Christians have stepped in to conduct what, in retrospect, look like justifiable vigilante actions. Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler would be such an example.

So, over to you – is this movie designed for Christian teenagers to get excited about explosions in a sanctified way? Is taking an AK-47 to liberate abducted children the moral equivalent of becoming a call girl to tell your customers about Jesus? Does the Machine Gun Preacher’s one man crusade reflect badly on Christianity, or demonstrate an incredible capacity to act for the powerless?

Ethics at QTC

We’ve got an Ethics intensive this week. I’m pretty excited. I’ll be blogging some stuff at Venn Theology. We’re being lectured by a British guy named Jonathon Burnside he has been in Dr Who. So he’s cool. This is his website.

He’s a “reader in law” who specialises in OT law. And he’s big on basing our Christian ethics on the OT. Which should be fun.

“We should feel free to draw on the whole of Scripture in forming our ethics”

The basis for not applying laws about shrimp is:

“There is ethical continuity but there is ethnic discontinuity.”

I was thinking about this yesterday. I was thinking about the very literal way the New Atheists read Old Testament laws. It doesn’t match the way we read any laws in a modern setting. We don’t apply the laws literally, the courts interpret the laws. And they do so via an Acts Interpretation Act (there’s the entire benefit of my 2.5 years as a law student).

I’m thinking that Deuteronomy 6:5 acts as a paradigmatic “Acts Interpretation Act”… and thus, the need to know the law involves being able to interpret it properly.

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Which makes it extra interesting that Jesus then refers back to that as the most important commandment in all three synoptic gospels.

What do you reckon? I’m going to try to get into an argument with an atheist and see how that line flies.

Check out Venn Theology for Ethics posts.

No “pet” names, it’s insulting

In the latest case of dumb things dumb people do because they are dumb and think dumb… ethicists have suggested that calling animals “pets” is demeaning and dehumanising.

“Despite its prevalence, ‘pets’ is surely a derogatory term both of the animals concerned and their human carers…”

Domestic dogs, cats, hamsters or budgerigars should be rebranded as “companion animals” while owners should be known as “human carers”, they insist.

Even terms such as wildlife are dismissed as insulting to the animals concerned – who should instead be known as “free-living”, the academics including an Oxford professor suggest.

The worst thing about the findings of this pro-animal journal:

“It is edited by the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey, a theologian and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, who once received an honorary degree from the Archbishop of Canterbury for his work promoting the rights of “God’s sentient creatures”.”

That’s some great theology right there. Because animals have sensitive egos.

Also. We can’t talk about bad human actions in terms of animal behaviour:

“Phrases such as “sly as a fox, “eat like a pig” or “drunk as a skunk” are all unfair to animals.”

It’s this sort of thinking that leads to the development of stupid weasel words. I mean. Vacuous and empty phrases that lack any grace or clarity.