Tag Archives: faithful presence

Church, in Australia, during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Yesterday I posted about some parenting stuff in the age of Corona Virus. Today we had our first Sunday service after the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic and the Australian Government brought in social distancing measures to limit large gatherings.

We aren’t a large gathering, but our congregation meets in a facility we share with multiple congregations, including one made up of a substantial number of people in high risk categories. It’s a building we don’t operate, so our ability to conduct appropriate cleaning measures between uses is limited.

I’m convinced churches need to participate in flattening the curve, even if our gatherings aren’t large, I think we have a responsibility to love our neighbours, especially the vulnerable. I’m struck by how wrong this can go — Patient 31 in South Korea was an individual responsible for a drastic uptick in Corona Virus infections because of her participation in church events.

I’m convinced that we should act ahead of government advice. The call from Jesus to “love our neighbours” comes with the caveat “as we love ourselves” — it’s important that we be healthy so that we can be in a position to provide good care to others. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to opt out of our service, to non-anxiously (or anxiously) self isolate, without judgment, from this point on. Even if the government doesn’t step in to limit interactions for weeks or months (probably until winter).

I found Andy Crouch’s piece on love in the time of Corona Virus profoundly helpful (I also linked to it yesterday). I’m convinced that we need to find ways not just to virtually connect as church, but to keep meeting together. But this requires careful management of physical spaces and personal hygiene, and our circumstances with our building and the other congregations that meet there mean we’ll probably be encouraging small groups to meet together during our church broadcasts, and to find ways to care for and support one another.

I’m convinced that we need to be prepared, and careful, so that we can love our neighbours well in this time of crisis as a faithful presence in the world — a people committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus. I’m struck by what’s happening in Italy, where hospitals are confronted with making treatment decisions that will determine who lives and who dies. Here’s a quote from a journal article I filed away once for a time such as this.

“Medicine involves faithful presence to those in pain, even—perhaps especially—when hopes for “cure” prove illusory and the provision of care throughout a longer or a shorter span of life becomes the sum of what medicine can offer. This is no easy task. Our helplessness to effect a hoped-for cure can too easily turn to hatred: hatred of sufferers for failing to get well and of ourselves for failing to make them better. In the face of this temptation to impotent rage and to the punitive abandonment of the sick and suffering, medicine needs the church, whose experience of the faithful presence of God in the midst of suffering undergirds its own willingness faithfully to be present to the sick. Only so can the hospital—and the practice of medicine more generally—be, in Hauerwas’ words, “a house of hospitality along the way of our journey with finitude . . . a sign that we will not abandon those who have become ill simply because they are currently suffering the sign of that finitude” (Hauerwas, 1986, 81–2). If anything, Hauerwas may have understated the dependence of the practice of medicine, thus defined, upon the moral community that is the church. In a recent monograph, historian Andrew Crislip (2005) links the emergence of the hospital in the late antique period to the health care system of Christian monasticism. According to Crislip, monastic health care stood in stark contrast to pagan health care in its commitment to care for the crippled, the infirm elderly, and the chronically and terminally ill (Crislip, 2005, 9). “It was standard among ancient physicians at all times to reject chronic or hopeless cases. To treat a patient he could not cure would only diminish the doctor’s reputation, even if it might enrich him somewhat” (Crislip, 2005, 114). Thus, where pagan medicine emphasized prognosis, which allowed the physician to identify hopeless cases and refuse to take them, monastic medicine emphasized diagnosis, which allowed for appropriate healing and caring measures to be taken on behalf of any sufferer (Crislip, 2005, 18–9). There is, in other words, no abstract discipline called “medicine” that offers nonstigmatizing, compassionate care throughout the life cycle. In the West, at least, such medicine originated in specifically Christian communities and was undergirded by specifically Christian moral commitments

M.K Peterson, ‘Salvation and Health: Why the Church Needs Psychotherapy,’ Christian Bioethics, 17.3, (2011), 277-298

Get that — before universal health care in western countries; in the Roman world; doctors would treat people based on who they’d boost their stats from, and who would make them the most money. Christianity turned that on its head because Christians kept caring for vulnerable people, and thus, the modern hospital was born. In the third century AD, a Roman emperor who hated the spread of Christianity, Julian, wrote a letter where he gave an account for the popularity of the religion of the ‘impious Galileans’ amongst the people of Rome. He gave instructions for the creation of something like the modern hospital.

“Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.”

Here are some steps we’re taking and the way we’re approaching decisions around Corona Virus. I’d love to hear what you’re doing.

  1. I’ve put together something of a crisis team, this team includes a few well positioned medical professionals, including one doctor in our congregation who is a medical advisor for a senator, and two GPs, but also our small group leaders, kids church coordinator, committee of management and elders. We’re discussing steps to take, and this group will allow us to make decisions quickly as information comes to hand. It’s really important that Christians, who are people of truth, build our decisions and our attempts to be wise, and to love our neighbours, from the truth. So good data and information is really key — both receiving it, making decisions from it, and sharing it — but doing so non-anxiously (again, see Crouch’s article). I’m also an asthmatic, which is a personal risk for me, but one our church leadership team needs to manage too. It’s probably a good thing for pastors of churches coordinating crisis management to make sure their own risk factors are known and that work arounds are possible.
  2. We’re communicating regularly to our congregation via our Facebook group, and looking at how to communicate to those not on Facebook.
  3. We’ve asked those who are sick or symptomatic, or potentially exposed, to self isolate, and to let us know so that we can care for them.
  4. We recognise that meeting together is vital for the Christian life, and loneliness is deadly, and social isolation has the potential to undermine our spiritual and emotional well being, so are working at solutions (in line with the Crouch article, and this useful document he linked). Our small groups, meeting in homes where some of the tips in that document will be easier to manage, will be part of continuity of community and care during this time. Even those groups can embrace technology — various members of our Growth Group have face timed in for weeks where they couldn’t make it already this year.
  5. We’ve been preaching through Luke’s Gospel, and today were reminded, as Peter denied Jesus, of Jesus’ call for his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. We broke up into small groups to talk about what this might look like during the pandemic. It’s interesting that the quote from the journal article above uses the phrase ‘faithful presence’ — this is common language for us as a church, the idea that this is our calling, along with the idea of a faithful presence being a non-anxious presence because our hope is secure.
  6. Meals together have been a feature of our gatherings since the beginning. We’re not catering for post-service community lunches during the pandemic, but are instead encouraging people to eat at nearby restaurants (or go home) to avoid handling food/cross contamination.
  7. We are providing soap and sanitiser on site for people to wash their hands as they arrive. Ideally, we’d be wiping down surfaces and equipment before and after use (we are doing that for our bits and pieces, but there’s uncertainty about which groups that use our facilities use what).
  8. We’re encouraging parents to make decisions about how to approach church with kids; whether they sit in family groups practicing some reasonable social distancing in our facility, or sending them to kids church and managing hand washing. Again, we want to make it as easy as possible for people to opt out to flatten the curve, while still belonging to and participating in our community.
  9. Today we ran our first ‘online’ service using Zoom. We’ve got access to a paid account, but like Zoom because should we move to totally online services we want multiple people to be able to contribute to the service. I sticky taped my phone to a mic stand. It worked.
  10. Presbyterians aren’t typically ‘every week’ communion/Lord’s Supper types here in Australia, but we’re changing our practices to minimise handling of the bread by those preparing it, and we don’t share a common cup (we have little cups of grape juice).
  11. On the home front, we’ve been doing some careful preparations, putting together a dry food supply that will last us through a period of isolation, but that will also allow us to meet the needs of others. We’ve started freezing meals in containers labelled with their ingredients (to manage intolerances) so that we can share these with those in need.
  12. Our street already has a thriving Facebook group, but people in our church liked the idea so I’ve knocked up this postcard template (pictured below) they can print off using a photo printing service (or their printer) to drop in to neighbour’s letterboxes. Feel free to shameless steal it. The text is (for those who might want to easily adapt/print using word:

    Hi neighbour,
    As we enter a pandemic where lots of us are predicted to catch Corona Virus, our church has encouraged us to love our neighbours and to find ways to care for those who are sick or isolated.
    We thought a Facebook Group for our street would be a good way for us to stay in touch with each other and offer support during these times (and grow our connection beyond this crisis). We have set up this group, you should be able to search for this name ______________.
    If you can’t find it with the search, please add me as a friend and I’ll invite you to the group. My name is _________. My profile picture looks like _____________. You can contact me by ______________. Our church is hoping to help with groceries or practical needs as they come up. Please let me know if we can help you.


  13. There’ll be an economic impact of Corona Virus as well as a health one; people in church congregations will be facing uncertain employment situations or losing their jobs, in a bad economic climate. We need to risk manage that as churches with our own budgets, but also want to be in a position to be caring for those affected. This is tricky, but it’s something I’ve flagged with our management team and the crisis management group to be part of our conversation. Another church I follow online mentioned maintaining giving during lockdowns as a good way to care for church staff, and to sustain the church’s ability to serve the community. I thought they did this well.

Over to you — hit us up in the comments on this post, or discussion on Facebook, to let us know what your church is doing, or things we’ve missed.

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Talking to your kids about Corona Virus (as Christians)

We had ‘that talk’ with our kids this morning; and it turns out they’d already been talking about this a bit at school, and knew things already. Which is always awkward for parents…

Not ‘that talk’ — we’ve been having that one for a while, trying to help our kids understand how to approach sex and sexuality as Christians is something we wanted to kick off pretty early. No. The Corona Virus talk. It’s another one you should probably have early, as Christian parents, because our perspective on the virus should be a little different to the perspective offered by the world. Not because we want to go all ‘faith healer’ through the screens of people’s televisions, like one popular televangelist this week, or claim that Christians are immune because we are protected by God, but because we have a different perspective on life, and death, and a particular calling to love our neighbours — especially the vulnerable.

I’m keen for our family’s reaction to Corona Virus to look like:

  1. Prayerfulness
  2. Preparedness
  3. Playfulness
  4. Presence for the sake of our neighbours (loving, non-anxious, presence)

It’s possible ‘playfulness’ jumps out for you here as odd. Especially in such serious times. I’ll explain it first.

In an age of anxiety, I’m really keen to encourage our kids to be a non-anxious presence in the world, and part of that is modelling something different (Edwin Friedman’s A Failure Of Nerve is a good book for seeing how anxious systems (including families) are a self-replicating problem. Friedman coined the idea of the ‘non-anxious presence’ — people who can be emotionally differentiated from the anxiety around them, and appropriately challenge that, to respond better in crises than those losing their rational brains and switching to ‘reptile brains.’ I found this passage from the book quite profound for a bunch of reasons (one of which is that the Biblical paradigm of ‘beastliness’ — being transformed from the image of God into the image of the created things we worship — is ultimately a transformation into being like the serpent… It’s a long quote, but I think it’s important not just for parenting, and not just for in a crisis. Here’s Friedman:

“What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander (no matter how cute), or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.

Chronically anxious families (including institutions and whole societies) tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem-storming sessions. Indeed, in any family or organization, seriousness is so commonly an attribute of the most anxious (read “difficult”) members that they can quite appropriately be considered to be functioning out of a reptilian regression. Broadening the perspective, the relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression. In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops, as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective. When that circular process reaches unbearable thresholds, the chronically anxious family will not be able to contain its reactivity within its own boundaries, and some members will begin transmitting the family’s intensity beyond the family (acting out violently, combatively, or sexually) into a broad range of society’s other institutions, such as church choirs, synagogue religious schools, traffic, PTA meetings, a condominium association, or any office or place of business.

Kids play. That’s how they learn. It’s how they process the world. It’s the best way to teach serious stuff. When we talked about what a few weeks at home might look like, we focussed on how we would play well together. When we talked about hand washing we tried to encourage a bit of playfulness, our son Xavi is developing a “mega rub” method of hand washing. One thing our modern school systems do, when focusing on information and work as the key to formation, is eradicate play and fuel anxiety in these moments. Play and escape (and stories) are going to be a big part of combating that, and of not traumatising your kids or setting them up for anxious, reptile-brain, responses to the world around them. Just for the people who scan long bodies of text, I’m bolding the actual concrete steps we’re taking in case they’re helpful.

If you’re prepping for lockdown with your kids — prep to play. Buy an art and craft survival kit. Plan to be involved in play with your kids if you’re at home with them. Budget a moderate amount of screen time — but watch and play with your kids. Talk about the stories you watch, and the games you play. Help them regulate their emotions by being present with them, non-anxiously. Make sure they spend lots of time in fresh air outside (and think about physical contamination, so hand wash after, and use your backyard). I think we’ll be chucking their school work that gets sent home out the window (if it gets sent home at all).

Which brings me to the preparedness point. We’ve done a dry food shop so that we have a few weeks worth of food in our house, not just for us, but for others. We’ll keep stocking up on this front for a few weeks probably. We bought a standalone freezer (we’d tossed our old chest freezer in our recent move). I didn’t want to buy another one because of running costs, and how close our supermarkets are, but Robyn convinced me, and it might actually end up being useful in this preparedness thing. Our plan is to cook a bunch of frozen meals that will be available for us, should we get sick, and for our neighbours and community. We have a street Facebook group, with stacks of our neighbours in regular contact, which will put us in a good position to check in on each other in the event of a lockdown, but will also help us monitor those more elderly neighbours not on Facebook.

Part of preparedness for us, in talking to our kids, was finding out what they knew already. Kids listen to the radio in the car. They talk to each other. Schools are doing what they can to build hygiene practices. I’m on the executive committee for our daughter’s kindergarten so I know there are lots of conversations happening behind the scenes about risk management, and kids notice little changes in practices even if they don’t understand the why. When they don’t understand the ‘why’ they fill that gap with their own reasons. Xavi was telling us about a virus that can kill people in five minutes. Helping your kids have good information — like that this virus is very mild in children — will help them be better prepared emotionally. I’m an asthmatic, so is Xavi, so there’s a degree of risk for us, and we’ve talked about making sure we’re taking our preventers as prescribed (something I’ll have to start modelling). We spent a few minutes answering questions the kids had about the virus, and finding out what they’d heard. Part of helping your kids navigate this is making sure you’re considering expert advice — not just memes — so monitor advice from public health experts and government — and make informed decisions as a family, giving kids age appropriate information that will replace anxiety and fear with love.

Which is where we talked about how we’re going to respond as Christians. How it is particularly important for us to listen to Jesus, who tells us not to worry, and not to be afraid, and also tells us to love our neighbours. He showed us what that looked like in how he loved us. Part of figuring out what is loving in the face of this advice is figuring out how to not just act in ‘self-preservation’ but lovingly for the sake of others. So we talked about how while they’ll probably be very safe, lots of older people in our lives are going to be at risk, and part of loving them is looking after ourselves (washing our hands, coughing into our elbows, not touching our faces). We’ve talked about how preparing well, and looking after ourselves, will help us help people we know. We can only be present in community if we are looking after ourselves, and sometimes the best way to help our community will be to remove ourselves from contact with people if we feel sick — even if that is hard and sad for us (and BOOORING).

I loved Andy Crouch’s piece on how churches should respond to Corona Virus a lot. I like his take on culture, and on the importance of practices and symbols for ‘culture making’ (you should read his book on that front).

I thought his overarching aims dovetailed nicely with the non-anxious presence stuff — I think he is tapping into what it looks like to be a faithful presence in our community in times of crisis. Crouch says:

We need to redirect social energy from anxiety and panic to love and preparation. This crisis presents an extraordinary opportunity to fortify small communities of love and care for our neighbors. That will only happen if we lead in a way that reduces fear, increases faith, and reorients all of us from self-protection to serving others.

His advice on ‘what to communicate’ in a church setting to avoid it becoming an anxious system applies on a family level too.

In shaping culture, nothing matters as much as action that carries symbolic weight. Sometimes this symbolic action takes the form of concrete steps, but sometimes it is simply well-chosen words and images. It may seem like our most urgent need is to make decisions, and of course we cannot neglect the decisions that are ours to make. But just as important for moving the horizons of possibility are what we say, how we say it, and even how we appear to others as we say these things. The way we communicate will shape the choices others make, and how they approach their own decision-making.

This means that all of us have a primary responsibility as leaders, as far as it depends on us, to be well-rested, soaked in prayer and contemplation, and free of personal fear and anxiety. We need to start and end each day as children of our heavenly Father, friends of Jesus, and grateful recipients of the Holy Spirit. We need to pray for genuine spiritual authority, rooted in the love that casts out fear, to guard and govern our lives as we lead, and trust that God will make up what is lacking in our own frail hearts, minds, and bodies.

What he says here of leaders is true for parents. This is why prayerfulness, not just privately, but with your kids, is going to be important in a crisis (and, you know, we also believe prayer works). Prayerfulness matched with preparedness, playfulness, and presence.

While there are lots of 20 second songs you might sing while handwashing with your kids (and some of them will be fun… we use a 2 minute podcast called “Brushy” to add some fun to nightly toothbrushing routines — there’s a gap in the market for a 20 second podcast maybe)… We’re encouraging our kids to use the 20 seconds to pray for people we care about, and for those we don’t know. We’ll check in on their anxiety levels, and one of the things we’ll do as we sit with them and talk about what is happening is pray together.

Also, there’s a whole other conversation to be having with your kids if Corona Virus is threatening your economic wellbeing (possibly your employment). Those four elements are going to be practices that might stand you in good stead as we face these anxious economic times together too.

So that’s what we’ve done — would love to know how you’re navigating this with your families?

Live and let die: why leaving ‘private’ convictions behind in public health is a terribly disintegrating idea

When you were young and your heart
Was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(You know you did)
(You know you did)
(You know you did)

But if this ever changin’ world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
Live and let die — Paul and Linda McCartney

There’s a piece in the ABC’s Religion and Ethics this week about an abortion doctor who’s a Christian who checks her private religious convictions in at the door of the public hospital and so participates in abortion procedures. Doctor Carol Portmann is also appearing on an SBS show that brings a bunch of Christians with different convictions together in one house as an experiment. She’s been lauded in some quarters as an exemplary figure because what she’s doing is being the ultimate picture of a certain sort of secularism — the type where religion is only, and absolutely, a private matter — a conviction in the heart to be kept at home, or in religious space — never to be brought into the common life of our nation. It’s the same sort of secularism that saw questions raised about whether or not kids in public schools should be able to talk about religion in the playground — the secularism where our common life defaults to atheism (and where Christians wanting to pursue civic goods are left making religion-free natural law arguments rather than saying what we really believe which assumes and then reinforces the idea that religion is private not public and so leads to the disintegration of religious persons).

Doctor Portmann says:

 

“The way I look at it is: I have a job to do as a doctor, regardless of my personal feelings about something. It’s not my decision, because it’s not my pregnancy or my body. Ultimately, the one thing God really granted us above anything else is free will.
Early on in medical school, we were not given opportunities to speak with people considering termination of pregnancy. So, as a student, you tend to start off with just your own personal beliefs.

But the more that you interact through your job with these women, the more you recognise it’s just as important to provide people with support and openness, information and guidance, and being Christian shouldn’t stop me from doing that.”

I can understand Doctor Portmann’s position — she has a job to do, and an employer (ultimately the state), who are employing her to do a job; her employer sets the parameters, and, at one level, a Christian wanting to participate in the secular state and its institutions might have to make compromise (that’s my position on why Christians should join the Labor Party rather than abandoning it after Labor changed its abortion policy recently). But there’s ‘compromise’ that looks like working in an institution that conducts abortions while not conducting them yourself, and there’s compromise that is conducting the abortions yourself — the difference to joining the Labor Party is you’d be joining, as a Christian, to give voice to your personal religious convictions, seeing them as a view that must inevitably shape the ‘public’ life of a person, not just as a private matter. We need to be better at making the distinction between participating in institutions that involve sin and participating in sinful actions. So I can understand Doctor Portmann’s position, I just think it is wrong, and I think it would be wrong for our approach to public health to be built from a belief that you can separate private personal beliefs from public action.

Firstly, I think it’s wrong for Christians to adopt a position like this — to think you can have personal convictions that do not shape your public life. The New Testament approaches public ethical quandaries like this one on the issue of food sacrificed to idols. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, draws the ethical line when it comes to eating such food at the point at which the people around you see that your public actions (even if they’re in a private home) as necessarily participating in idol worship. So he’ll say ‘eat idol food that is sold in the public market’ and ‘eat with your friends’ until the point comes where your friends believe that by eating it you are participating in the public actions of idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:23-33); and he’ll say ‘don’t share at the altar in an idol temple’ because that is inevitably participating in idol worship (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:14-22). Abortion is a question of idolatry, or theology, because all beliefs about the nature of human life or personhood are implicitly linked to a belief about the nature of God or gods. Our anthropology comes from our theology.

I admit that it’s also hard for me to see a case where a Christian doctor working in a public hospital and conducting abortions is able to make the case that they are doing so according to Paul’s overarching ethical paradigm in 1 Corinthians: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). But I can see, further, that for some Christians even working in a public health setting where abortions are conducted and referring people to others, to protect one’s own conscience, is also to be complicit in some process that is not glorifying God, or that is idolatrous. I can see an argument that a public hospital could be analogous to an idol temple on the issue of abortion, if there was a very clear policy that every doctor working there must participate in abortions, and I can see, then, a case for Christian doctors withdrawing into parallel institutions (private hospitals); but so long as a Christian (or Muslim) doctor might be present in that public, common, space, holding and acting according to their own religious convictions about the public good, then we should be able to make the distinction between ‘working in a contested space’ and ‘compromising one’s integrity and so disintegrating one’s self’. Because we see the good of a faithful Christian presence in those public institutions, for the common good (in much the same way that Paul thinks it is a good thing that his friend Erastus is part of the government in idol-worshipping Corinth, Romans 16:23). The danger of creating parallel institutions that just service Christians, or that allow us to operate as Christians without compromise, is that they tend to stop us participating in the world in ways that allow us to bring the sort of change that adorns the Gospel — the sort of change that led Christians to build hospitals where there were none. Hospitals that treated everyone, not just the rich or those likely to get healthy again — that did this because of the dignity of all people, and because our story teaches us that sickness and death are marks of a deep brokenness in the world.

Now, if this position Doctor Portmann arrives at — being a “Christian doctor who helps people have abortions” — is her personal conviction about how faith and public life intersect, that’s fine. If it actually reflects a personal view where she somehow reconciles her faith with the dehumanisation of an unborn child, then it’s her right to arrive at that position and to participate in public accordingly… that’s pluralism. A pluralist approach to abortion recognises that people will come to different (theological) convictions about the nature of human life and that my own personal conviction should not necessarily be imposed on others; there’s a different between imposition and accommodation. A Christian approach to the question of abortion might be one that seeks to impose a view of the personhood of an unborn child on the public, via legislation and persuasion about what is good and true and should be a commonly held and loving position for all in our ‘public’ — but that’s not the only possible approach to a contested public space, nor is it the issue arising from Doctor Portmann’s position. It seems to me that she’s arguing that you can have your own private, personal, conviction about the morality of abortion (and the personhood of the unborn child) and not bring that to the public space or conversation, or your performance of your work, or life, in public. And I’m not sure that is ‘fine’. It’s certainly not pluralism. It’s the eradication of difference in public.

Speaking as a Christian, using theological categories, it seems she has embraced a particular view of God, and the world, that places ‘free will’ over and above any other moral categories. I believe she is wrong to adopt this particular hierarchy, and this particular approach to her participation in public life, and her example is a terrible pattern for Christian medical professionals, or any medical professionals, because it’s a terrible approach to shared, common, public, space for anybody with moral convictions.

Speaking as an Australian, using political categories, I think flattening out personal conscience in pursuit of public consensus, and making no space for objection and participation in public is a shortcut to very bad things. At risk of breaking Godwin’s Law, there’s not a huge jump from acting as though unborn children are not persons, even if you’re personally convinced they are, because the system tells you to, and participating in other systemic evil that revolves around depersonalising or dehumanising other categories of human. It seems more likely to me, at this point, that it’s not so much that Portmann has personal convictions that compete with her public role, but that her personal convictions or personal beliefs are a bit more malleable around the question of whether or not an unborn child is a person.

Now, I’m on the record as not believing abortion is a good thing; because I think it cheapens how we as a society view life, and because, ultimately, I believe it involves taking the life of a person. I would like to persuade our legislators and society to see things my way, but I also recognise that there are competing human rights at play and that the current legislative status quo is more likely to protect the conscience of religious doctors than to enshrine the views or religious people as widespread social norms… but, I hope the argument I make here is one that people of any faith conviction can agree with, and one that doesn’t actually rest on the moral status of abortion, but rather how we as a society allow people to bring their moral convictions into the public square so that each of us is free to act with integrity (within certain limits, for example, to prevent individuals doing harm to others according to common objects of love or broadly shared beliefs about ‘the good’).

I’m arguing that the ultimate good here is not ‘unlimited freedom’ that co-opts the ‘public life’ of all, causing people to act against their private convictions, but ‘integrity’ — encouraging people to live and act with their public and private (or secular and sacred) convictions integrated and aligned; I’m suggesting that forcing people to split ourselves and our convictions into ‘public’ and ‘private’ is actually not a good thing for our secular democracy because we do not want people operating in public against their private convictions. I’d suggest at least three universal reasons this is bad, and two reasons it’s a bad position for Christians to adopt. In the ‘universal’ space I’d suggest it’s bad:

First, because to do so ‘disintegrates’ people, forcing them to act without integrity in order to participate in our common life. We actually want people to be acting with integrity as much as possible rather than harbouring private disagreement that leads to resentment or builds towards a corrective ‘revolution’.

Second, because it turns moral and political issues into zero sum games and creates ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and an enslaved populace (the minority) who are forced or manipulated into acting against their personal moral convictions — and that’s a pathway to a certain sort of tyranny, or to a totalitarian state where an ideological vision of life, death and morality is imposed from the top down in a way that brooks no opposition, and refuses to make space for any public behaviour outside that norm.

Third, this also forces people who wish to act with integrity, according to their ‘private’ beliefs into ‘private’ practice, fragmenting the ‘commons’ and sending people into ghettoes, which robs us of the benefit of their skills and contribution to life together, and also serves to reinforce the views that keep us apart, and so the polarising division of groups and identities within our community. The choice to retreat into Christian, or religious, enclaves and parallel institutions is not a great one for Christians, or religious people, to make for the sake of the world nor is it a good one for the world if those enclaves are places that foster resentment and disunity where an alternative is a true commons where public life is richer because moral visions are contested and we allow people the space to act with integrity. Our public space becomes poorer if, in order to participate in it, one must adopt the positions or will of the majority against one’s own conscience. This is the sort of social engineering that makes tyranny possible because it makes tyrannical positions unquestionable, and forces people to conform and adapt until they lose their distinctives.

In terms of reasons for Christians not to follow Doctor Portmann’s lead, I’d suggest, firstly, that to adopt her position one is not choosing a ‘live and let live’ approach to public life and difference, but a ‘live and let die’ approach where it’s not just the unborn child, but the ability to believe and maintain that an unborn child is a person that dies with such a capitulation. This is not pluralism, where the public is contested, but capitulation, where the public is ideologically shaped by a particular view of personhood; a view that like all “private views” is inherently theological. Portmann is accepting a division or distinction between the secular (public) and the sacred (private) that is ultimately incoherent, because all public life expresses some view of the ‘sacred’ that is, frankly, both unChristian and unhuman — if we do not publicly embody our private convictions then either we are disintegrated hypocrites or those private convictions aren’t actually convictions at all. This also buys into the idea that there is ‘sacred’ work — that done by clergy in religious spaces, and ‘secular work’ that done by ordinary Christians in public or private enterprise. Her position is the sort of position that will force religious people of moral conviction out of contested public space — into ‘sacred’ or ‘private’ space, and so make that public space uncontested. There’s already a ‘contest’ to do this, without Christian doctors adopting Doctor Portmann’s position (and not just in public hospitals, though this is a particular battleground for a particular ideological ‘culture war’). To force Christian doctors to conduct abortions if they want to work in public hospitals, or even to argue that they should keep their personal convictions out of the job (even if they’re convinced of this stance as a personal conviction) is not a case of ‘live and let live’ but ‘conform or die’. To, act, as a Christian doctor, as though your personal convictions have no place in your public life is to disintegrate your faith from your practice; it’s to buy into a certain sort of secularism that evacuates anything substantial from religious belief.  For the Christian, convinced of the moral absolute of the pro-life position, who operates in public as a doctor there are better solutions than adopting a ‘live and let die’ posture; there should, instead, be freedom to clearly articulate one’s convictions, act according to them, and for public patients with different convictions to seek treatment from a doctor who is not acting against their personal convictions.

Second, I’d suggest that her model of public practice is not faithful presence in that while she remains present in the public space, she is not, if she does hold personal religious convictions about the personhood of the unborn child, essentially faithful; her public actions are not her expression of her own faith (as articulated in the piece), but a giving over of herself and her body to the faith, or will, of others (be it the patients or the system). In James Davison Hunter’s work To Change The World, where he makes the case for ‘faithful presence’ as our paradigm for engaging, participating in, and changing the world for the good, Hunter says that while there’s much in the world we can participate in and affirm without question, we Christians — the church — must always remember we are a ‘community of resistance’ — people who act in public in order to subvert and challenge theological or political views of ‘the good life’ that we disagree with; that our job is not to evacuate the commons or the ‘public’ but to participate in it, and in its institutions in ways that are not just negative but creative and constructive. He says:

 

“…the church, as it exists within the wide range of individual vocations in every sphere of social life (commerce, philanthropy, education, etc.), must be present in the world in ways that work toward the constructive subversion of all frameworks of social life that are incompatible with the shalom for which we were made and to which we are called. As a natural expression of its passion to honour God in all things and to love our neighbour as ourselves, the church and its people will challenge all structures that dishonour God, dehumanise people, and neglect or do harm to the creation. In our present historical circumstances, this means that the church and its people must stand in a position of critical resistance to late modernity and its dominant institutions and carriers; institutions like modern capitalism, liberalism, social theory, health care, urban planning, architecture, art, moral formation, family, and so on. But here again, let me emphasise that antithesis is not simply negational. Subversion is not nihilistic but creative and constructive. Thus, the church—as a community, within individual vocations, and through both existing and alternative social institutions—stands antithetical to modernity and its dominant institutions in order to offer an alternative vision and direction for them. Antithesis, then, does not require a stance that is antimodern or premodern but rather a commitment to the modern world in that it envisions it differently. Such a task begins with a critical assessment of the metaphysical, epistemological, and anthropological assumptions that undergird modern institutions and ideologies. But the objective is to retrieve the good to which modern institutions and ideas implicitly or explicitly aspire; to oppose those ideals and structures that undermine human flourishing, and to offer constructive alternatives for the realization of a better way.” — James Davison Hunter,  To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, 235-236.

The tragedy of Portmann’s position, from a Christian perspective (apart from the question of the social cost of abortion), is that it gives up the chance for Christians to be subversive and different — to bring our personal convictions about what is good, true, and beautiful — about what the nature and kingdom of God looks like — into the public domain as we embody it, to settle for some ideal of ‘individual freedom’ as a greater good than the restoration of all things. We Christians have a chance to be different and to model something different to our world, to bring life into our public institutions, but we won’t do this if we don’t act with integrity, acknowledging that our personal beliefs have a public dimension such that they must shape our actions.

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10 Lessons the church could hope-fully learn from the same sex marriage fight

It’s fair to say the leaders of politically conservative Christianity here in Australia have been soundly defeated this week. We were told that the best way to secure religious freedom was to fight robustly against same sex marriage (even to make the fight against same sex marriage a fight against religious freedom) and it turns out, at least this week, that this was a terrible strategy. If these leaders led in a secular environment where results matter then they should be lining up for new employment tomorrow… but Christians don’t operate this way; we learn from mistakes, we grow, and we forgive… we focus on character or virtue (means) rather than results (ends) at least when we’re at our best.

Now. Unlike many things I’ve read this week I remain hopeful about the future of Christianity in Australia; and even about our religious freedoms, though I do think there are significant challenges that would require us to learn big lessons from the last few years.

Now. Before we go on down the path of thinking ‘here’s a political (or theological) liberal telling conservatives to suck lemons’ or whatever; I reckon I’m still a conservative theologically, and I struggle to pin myself down politically; the best articulation I’ve found of my dilemma politically is one from a Christian in the US, despairing about the evangelical church throwing its lot in with Donald Trump and arguing for a different conservative political vision.

I wrote a short piece for Eternity’s latest print edition as a bit of a post-mortem of the postal survey; some of the points here are duplicated ideas from there.

 

1. Hope is found in the Cross of Jesus. Political hope is found in a politics of the Cross.

Politics is not restricted to the corridors of power (or even to power).

Elections are now won or lost at the grass roots; social media is all the rage. Politics is ultimately about people. There was a clear sense that the No campaign understood this (I’ve never been urged to doorknock by church and mission agencies so much in my life). But what we’re missing is that there’s actually more to shaping our shared life together than the law and the courts. There’s a politics of institution building apart from the government; of faithful presence in our communities; of loving those at the margins who we might sit across from in the power struggles that we’ve mostly missed.

There’s a whole element of our engagement with politics missing; we’ve outsourced the professional stuff so that there are only a handful of MPs who grasp how religious faith operates, and we’re too focused on other concerns to join the rank and file of party membership to start civil conversations and disagreeing well at a local level; we’re also too enamoured by the idea that political change happens top down rather than from the community up; yesterday’s decision was the government catching up with the will of the people, not shaping it. If we want to be effective we might practice a different shaping of people’s vision of the good life for our nation by doing grass roots politics differently; it might be more holding barbecues than doorknocking. It’s too easy to outsource our politics to denominational leaders and professional lobby groups (and then to rely on those politicians of faith to get the job done when all else has been lost).

Here’s James Davison Hunter in his book To Change The World; it’s worth slogging through this because of his diagnosis of modern life, and what he says about public life, public space, and politics without actually giving a way forward.

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them…

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics… Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life. In this turn, we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and the political process…

This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.

Imagine if we took up our cross, and let that shape our politics. If it wasn’t about winning but about following the example of Jesus whose very public faith was an act of publicly being put to death by those wielding political power; but ironically, it was at this point that he was claiming the crown and the throne of the kingdom of heaven. Imagine if we saw building that kingdom and having it accommodated in our nation as our public, political, priority.

2. Hope is found in a secular, pluralistic, politics of generous compromise

We’ve created the rod for our own back by playing politics as a zero sum game.

A zero sum game is a game where there is one winner and one loser; which is how a debate framed around securing a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote operates. Imagine if we’d sought to be peacemakers. The people now asking for religious freedoms are (largely) the same people who campaigned against the freedom for same sex couples to describe their relationships according to conscience and deeply held convictions about the world. As soon as this issue became about winners and losers we Christians were going to lose; and because we aimed to ‘win’ (to have our will and God’s design shape the nation’s laws), there is nothing for us now that we’ve lost. We’re left relying on the goodwill of the victors, and just as we weren’t interested in protecting their freedoms, en masse, they’re seemingly not particularly inclined to protect ours.

It might be too late to play ‘what if’ here; but what if we’d recognised the goodness of religious freedom for a shared life in our diverse community and taken the first step towards compromise. For too many Christians compromise is a dirty word; but we’re talking about how non-Christians live, so compromises might actually be steps towards virtue rather than away from it; and we might view compromise as a dirty word and lose that simply by playing power-politics or seeking to win via worldly power we’re already compromised.

This is probably the best point to address this — but one thing I hope never to see again is us embracing populism on the off chance it will deliver the best result for us; rather than working towards the best result for the unpopular in order for them to live well in community with those who disagree with their lifestyle. It’s pretty clear we’re not the popular ones any more but this would be a pragmatic reason to jump; the virtuous reason is that it’s just the right thing to do in a system of government built on the belief that all people are made in the image of God and so of equal value in a society. Populism is a form of power politics; when we play power politics for our own interest, or against the interest of a marginalised group in society, we undermine the message of the Gospel; that God’s power is present in weakness — the cross, not the sword.

3. Hope is found in a public faith

We’ve got a problem with the secular/sacred divide and how it operates and is understood here in Australia; it cuts both ways. Acknowledging that everything is sacred for everybody is more theologically honest (and has greater explanatory power).

Now. I’m not totally freaked out by the religious freedom stuff from this week — the failed amendments — the way same sex marriage has been introduced has been via the amending of existing acts (especially The Marriage Act); the Smith bill, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, which sought to protect religious freedom while changing the definition of marriage, included amendments to an existing framework which explicitly deals with clergy in their function as celebrants.

But the discussion around the issue has been revealing. One way it has been revealing is that it has exposed our inability to grapple with some of the basic expediencies of governing and that these grey areas will be used by people with agendas… had we listened better (see point 5) we wouldn’t (yet) be feeling like the sky is falling in; but I reckon as we do listen it becomes clear that there’ll be a problem when the government does set about dealing with religious freedom.

When Labor front-bencher Brendan O’Connor, speaking on Q&A after the result of the postal survey was announced, said “the religious freedoms and protections are contained within the bill” he was using this to dismiss the concerns of religious people that marriage re-definition has particular and direct religious freedom ramifications (beyond celebrants); Labor’s position (and that of the Greens, and members of the Liberal Party) seems to be that protecting clergy and protecting sacred space is enough. The Smith Bill says its objects are:

(a)  to allow civil celebrants to solemnise marriage, understood as the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life; and

(b)  to allow ministers of religion to solemnise marriage, respecting the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of their religion, the views of their religious community or their own religious beliefs; and

(c)  to allow equal access to marriage while protecting religious freedom in relation to marriage.

When it comes to protecting religious freedoms it is rightly focused on religious celebrants because those are the people explicitly included in and affected by changes to the original Marriage Act. The amendment does provide robust protection for religious celebrants, and also for “bodies established for religious purposes” who “may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services.” The act protects sacred people and sacred space; and if these were the limits of religious life then the act does a fine job of achieving its end.

Only. There’s a problem.

One of our founding democractic principles; oft-cited in this debate is the ‘separation of church and state’ — how that is now understood, if James Davison Hunter is right about the current landscape, is that the state is responsible for the public life of a citizen, and religion is an entirely private matter. More; because Christians throughout the ages have bought into an anemic, Platonic (literally) vision of Christianity where belief is enough, and the salvation of the soul is the purpose of the Christian life, we’ve got rampant nominalism in Australia shaping our understanding of what Christianity is, and a thin Christianity being practiced within the church. We don’t just buy the secular/sacred divide. We sell it.

Until we’re a florist or a baker who doesn’t want to participate in a same sex marriage, or medical professional who doesn’t want to participate in abortion or euthanasia, or the myriad other ways the secular/sacred divide is demonstrably falsified in the throes of real life.

Here’s the problem.

There’s a certain secular agenda who want to keep religion private if it is going to exist at all… and a certain predisposition of religious people in Australia to live according to those rules anyway, coupled with a “secular” political strategy being adopted by Christian lobbyists and institutions (which further reinforces the perception that explicitly religious beliefs don’t belong in the political realm.

There’s another problem.

There’s no such thing as a place that isn’t sacred for Christians (or, as I’ll suggest, for anybody). It’s a noble act on the government’s part to consider space and how it is weaponised, and to seek to protect church property becoming a political battleground; but bizarrely, Jacqui Lambie, on a recent Q&A episode, nailed the problem with a scenario:

“You know, I had a bloke ring me back two weeks ago saying, “Jacqui, I want to know what my rights are right now because I only want to marry a man and wife in my garden.” And I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you out with that.” He’s now going to sit in limbo for months. What should he do? He has a freedom in this country. He has a right to say, “You know what? Because of my religious freedom…my religious beliefs, I cannot marry you in my backyard.” And this is what you are doing to people because you’re going out there, bull at a bloody gate, as politicians do, and yet they haven’t filled in the gaps. How long are these people going to have to go through more pain? They’ve lost. They’re feeling the pain. How much longer do they have to feel more pain?”

Is your backyard sacred space?

For Christians all space is sacred because there is no square millimetre that is not in reality created by God and under the Lordship of Jesus. But all public space is capable of being sacred for any of us; some space is more malleable and contested, so, for example, we rent a space used by the Opera to run church on Sundays.

The thing is it’s not just that there is no secular/sacred divide for Christians, there is no secular sacred divide for anyone; and we’d have a much richer pluralism if we just acknowledged that all public space is “sacred” and contested; and that governments either have to pick what the majority believes is right or accommodate different parties in the contest, or both. We can’t pretend the ‘secular’ methodology is neutral if it excludes the sacred reality of mundane life. We don’t expect others to check their beliefs at the door and make a public/private distinction in this way — especially the non-religious — and this is why we should have approached changing the Marriage act as a chance to offer religious freedom to others; not as a contest about the ontological definition of marriage (which is inevitably shaped by one’s sacred sense of how life works), or even the ‘common good’ without understanding all goods as ‘secular and sacred’. We saw evidence in the lead up to the legislation changing (both before and during the postal survey) that the change was being pursued with a religious fervour (often with religious language), where ‘heretics’ were anathematised (Coopers Light anybody), and where ‘priestly actors’ in the religion of sex and the free market made both public pronouncements (corporate advertising for a yes vote) and cleaned up their temple infrastructure (changing employee policies and in extreme cases, dismissing staff). These are pretty much the same freedoms the church is asking for as ‘sacred acts’ being conducted by actors who hold to a different sacred view.

David Foster Wallace once said “everybody worships”; and elsewhere (in Infinite Jest) that worship is what you would lay down your life for, or what you love ultimately. He also said that the term ‘fanatic’ comes from ‘worshipper at a temple’ and that we all have a temple; we just have to choose it carefully. He’s right. We all get our identity from somewhere —ultimately from what we worship — and if that is now wrapped up with politics (and political ideology) then everybody is basically operating with no separation between church and state… everybody but us Christians. This is what Romans 1 teaches too; as part of the theology of the Bible that starts with us being made as the living idols (images) of the living God, who, in worshipping other things, start to represent/be the image of those gods. There’s no secular/sacred divide because worship is enacted love (and belief) and shapes who we are.

We’ve got a problem. The secular world we live in believes faith is private and politics is public. And so do most Christians, most of the time. We need to recapture the idea that our faith is public; which means our faith is also inherently political.

 

4. Hope is found in listening better

I think this one operates on a few levels; one, we could have listened to the voices and desires of others better so as to understand them, two, we could’ve listened to the decision makers better about how they understood exactly what is and isn’t on the table in this process, and three, I personally think we could’ve listened to God better (and his explanation for departures from his design for life, and what the way back is (the Spirit via the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1-2, Romans 1, Romans 8).

As evidence for the first point, I sat in a room of Presbyterian ministers from around the country who specifically resolved to participate in the Coalition for Marriage, and resolved (minuted) against being on the record as seeking to understand the concerns of the LGBTI community. The thing about minutes isn’t just that they’re public and so can be appealed to to account for how we ended up where we got; they’re also public and so help shape how we act. This was shaping we didn’t believe we needed, apparently, but the Coalition for Marriage campaign lacked both grace (in tone and content) and understanding. We just didn’t care about the other; we cared about truth and winning.

As for the second point; in seeking to make the issue being discussed the secondary impact without actually demonstrating a link between same sex marriage and safe schools (already taught in schools) or same sex marriage and same sex parenting (which already happens in our community), and about religious freedom, we also failed to listen to the way the postal survey was being framed and being understood. We assumed we were in a position to shape the form of the debate; or hosts of the table, and not just participants simply by shouting over the top of the host (the parliamentarians) and the other guests (the yes campaign) who mostly agreed on what was being discussed.

The view of the government was that the postal survey was specifically about whether or not the definition of marriage should change; it was a discussion about what marriage is according to the law of Australia so when we made it about all these other things we were understood not to be listening. It’s still possible we aren’t listening on the religious freedom front when we’ve made it all about the secondary issues and then pinned our hope on amendments to a bill about marriage law. The government has promised a more widespread review on religious freedom. Perhaps that’s where our energy should be, post-postal survey (though I wonder if our energy is better spent showing how religious freedom is a good thing for our society by exercising it in how we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… how we live and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Here’s the attorney general, George Brandis, on the post-postal survey episode of Q&A in November:

“What the Prime Minister and I, as two of the Government’s principal advocates for the Yes vote, have always said is that there is no inconsistency whatsoever between recognising the right of same-sex couples to marry, which this prime minister has worked for in a way that no other Australian prime minister has ever done, and at the same time respecting traditional religious freedoms.”

Now. A little back and forth on that same question reveals the problem with secular/sacred thinking as it operates in our community and how these two issues are actually linked, and that the failure to listen goes both ways… but we don’t compound not being heard well by not listening well ourselves. Here’s a question that assumes no secular sacred divide. The bold bits are telling.

GEOFFREY JONES
My question is to Brendan O’Connor. Regarding the recent plebiscite result, the diverse Western Sydney will want strong conscience provisions when the Marriage Act is changed. Muslim bakers from Bankstown will want the right to opt out of baking cakes for gay weddings, and Maronite families from Punchbowl will want the freedom to establish schools that teach the Maronite ethos, and Christian Samoan preachers won’t want to be dragged before any hate speech tribunals. Can you see why promises to protect these people’s rights at a later unspecified date might sound insincere?

TONY JONES
OK, we’ll go to Brendan O’Connor first, and we’ll hear from Janet as well.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR
Clearly, there are protections afforded to religious institutions insofar as who they choose to marry. That’s contained within the Dean Smith bill. However, it’s also critical to ensure that we do not go backwards when it comes to anti-discrimination laws. I mean, it would be absurd, offensive and ironic that we would find ourselves going backwards in discriminating against same-sex couples in order to reintroduce and indeed qualify anti-discrimination laws that exist already in this country. So, I don’t accept the proposition that religious pastors or religious preachers or others who choose to marry only heterosexual couples are discriminated against insofar as the bill that’s been proposed by Senator Smith. And for that reason, I think… And that’s the thing I’m worried about – that people will attempt to create a scare campaign to misrepresent the actual bill that’s before the Parliament, which we’ve been debating, I might add, certainly in the case of the House of Representatives, for over 40 hours. It wasn’t like we haven’t thought these things through. And there’s been hundreds and hundreds of hours, of course, that has led to the outcome of that bill. And it’s one of the very few decisions… Whilst we didn’t support the survey and we’ve said it was an expensive waste of time, I have to say the result of the survey certainly endorsed the view that overwhelmingly Australians want to see the end of discrimination against same-sex couples, and their right to marry should be enshrined in law. And I don’t think it should be…

Let’s pause for a second; for Labor’s Brendan O’Connor, religious freedoms are about pastors and institutions, but what is at stake here is framed by the limits of the conversation and the bill… who gets married in ‘sacred’ spaces by ‘sacred’ people, (not how marriage is understood, recognised and practiced in public — which was at the heart of the question).

Green senator Janet Rice is in same sex relationship and has been a passionate advocate for marriage equality. She was also on the Q&A panel, and here was her response to that same question.

 

“Yes, I mean, Geoffrey, you’ve got some serious concerns, but I think largely they are unfounded, because religious organisations and ministers will continue to have the right to choose who they marry. And nobody is going to be forced to marry… If you’re a church or another religious institution, you’re not going to be forced to marry people that you don’t want to marry.”

Again, for her, religious freedom concerns are all about sacred people and spaces, which are protected, but she doesn’t actually listen to the question either to see how the sacred extends beyond the question of who someone marries to how we recognise and practice marriage (and the recognition of marriage) in public. But for these two politicians that issue isn’t on the table even if it was the heart of Geoffrey’s question (and the no campaign).

Here’s how George Brandis responded to this same question:

“… let’s be very plain about this. What the Australian people voted for overwhelmingly last week was a very simple proposition – should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? That was the question that was put to them and it was the only question that was put to them.”

There’s a really interesting back and forth in this discussion in that Q&A transcript that I think gel with what I’ve said above (and a great contribution from broadcaster Stephen O’Doherty who gets it), and George Brandis who says these issues (marriage and freedom) are related but not the same so shouldn’t be dealt with at the same time… But here’s something that should give us hope, that parliamentarians are willing to do the hard work of figuring out religious freedom; just not at the same time as they redefine marriage, here’s Labor’s Brendan O’Connor:

“It’s a debate we should have separate to the bill that’s before the Parliament in a couple of weeks. And it should be something we can look at in the New Year, because we should be focusing on the question of enacting marriage equality.”

By getting angsty about the failure for amendments to be carried when the vast majority of participants understood the amendments as being about a totally separate issue, we’ve failed to listen. There is still hope. It’s always been awkward to me that the same people who say that the government should uphold Christian goods as communal goods are also the most cynical about the likelihood that they might eventually do that. It’s that awkward part of reformed theology where we paradoxically believe that all people are broken by sin, but also that the government will a mechanism for the provision of common grace.

By trying to make this conversation about something else we haven’t been great participants in the dialogue; but by not listening to these genuine concerns (and not understanding the public nature of faith) this hasn’t been a particularly civil, generous, or pluralistic dialogue. The right response to that is for us to practice the virtue of civic dialogue, built on listening well, not simply to speak without seeking to understand.

5. Hope is found in the imagination; in imagining and publicly striving for the goodness, truth, and beauty of the kingdom of God.

Imagine a politics shaped by the imagination; and that sought to present the goodness, truth, and beauty of life in the kingdom of God, where Christians truly saw themselves as ambassadors for Jesus, and happily proclaimed his rule (and relevance) for life in Australia.

What if we’d approached this debate as ambassadors for Jesus; as an opportunity to present the compelling vision of a marriage shaped by the Gospel that so many of us are motivated by in our own public and private lives?

Or, to flog something from Wesley Hill who flogged it from someone else:

“What the pagans need on this matter [of same-sex marriage] is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage… until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.”

What if we’d told stories about the goodness of male/female marriage for kids and communities, and stories of same sex attracted Christians who chose Jesus over the pursuit of marriage? We’d score less political points (and results), but we’d be cultivating virtue. And politics doesn’t have to be a results game; not in an eternal perspective. If Jesus played the results game Caesar would have faced a flaming sword and an army of angels, instead, Jesus faced humiliating death on the cross.

Our entire political paradigm is about winning results, not persuading people. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says since we know what good it is to follow Jesus, to be new creations, to ‘fear the Lord, “we try to persuade others”… that we do this as new creations — a taste of God’s eternal kingdom — and as new creations we are ambassadors for Jesus. This changes our approach to public life, and politics, because it changes the win.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  — 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

6. Hope is found in stories.

Imagine if we’d told better stories; rather than campaigning on fear, loathing, and logic. Their stories trumped our facts.

Being more imaginative and aiming at the imagination would mean a shift from ‘reason’ to ‘reason and emotion’ and from ‘facts’ to ‘true stories’…

Have you been watching the speeches in parliament this last week? The ones in favour of changing the act? They’ve almost universally been stories of people whose lives will be improved by this decision — or from parents of same sex attracted children who wish to marry, or from a mother whose son tragically took his own life. These stories resonate because they speak to our hearts; to our emotions and desires. They continue the trajectory established by the ‘yes’ campaign.

The ‘No’ campaign, on the other hand, traded on facts and logic, and when it did veer into emotions, on fear rather than joy; and by trading on fear (and stoking fear) around the issue of a marginalised people group who feel ostracised from the mainstream, the no campaign added a dash of loathing.

This was bad marketing and a product of a bad anthropology; people aren’t thinking things, or computers, or rational decision makers. We are storied creatures; virtue is cultivated by the participation in a community that is deliberately living out a story (see Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue); the Bible is a story not just a collection of facts… God is a story teller who both in the Bible, and in history, orchestrated the story of the universe to centre on Jesus. But when it came to politics we played the game like we were addressing modernist, 1950s Australia, and so, obscured the story we should be on about — the one that does answer the same desires for love, intimacy, commitment and being known that the yes campaign was promising marriage would deliver on.

7. Hope is found in adorning the Gospel and seeking to win the person, not the political point

Imagine if we adorned the Gospel with our religion such that it won goodwill from those who would most naturally be opposed to us. If that was the win (the adorning the Gospel bit) and the desired outcome wasn’t the zero sum political win, but winning the person.

This one flows from the last. Imagine if we did this ambassador thing, but went to those who think of us as enemies, and those who are marginalised, oppressed, and downtrodden by public life (not just politicians)?

Playing to win the political argument didn’t win people to Jesus; if the conversations I have with people are anything to go by, these conversations turned people away from Jesus.

I’ve written too much already, so these last three can stand without explanation for now.

8. Hope is found in the rejection of cynicism.

Imagine if we exchanged cynicism for hope; we might get taken advantage of, but we’d lose well. Nothing kills hope faster than habitual cynicism, even if real life seems like something we should be cynical about. Real life is life where every morning is one morning closer to the return of Jesus and heaven and earth merging together (Revelation 21-22). Cynicism is for schmucks. Being hopeful is, itself, a virtue.

9. Hope is found in prayer and through complexity.

Governing isn’t easy. Nobody who believes in any ideology sets out to compromise; and sin and the cursed frustration of life and death in a living and dying planet is difficult to navigate. That’s why the Bible makes such a big deal of wisdom as a virtue. Imagine if we listened to and assumed the best of our politicians who are doing difficult work; and were known for prayerfully carrying the cost of some of that complexity. The Bible also says we should pray for those in government.

10. Hope is found in the pursuit of virtue, not the securing of self interest

Imagine if we were really more interested in virtue than outcomes. For Christians virtue formation comes from living in our story — a story of God being creator and redeemer (and judge). A story that has an ending that we already know, secured through a means (the cross) that brings a certain sort of character formation that happens through politics. Imagine if that meant we could lose well and not be seen to be scrambling to secure our own interests. Imagine if instead of pushing for religious freedom for ourselves, we’d been big on freedom for communities to form around the pursuit of virtue around a story; confident that as we live in one of those communities in public that would be persuasive and see God’s kingdom grow, and more virtue formed… Imagine if instead of seeing religious freedom as an ends, we used the freedom we have as a means to a different ends… seeking to persuade people to be reconciled to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worried about how Christianity gets treated in the political realm? Join a party for God’s sake (and your neighbour’s).

Do you ever feel like Christianity is profoundly misunderstood by those outside the fold? Do you feel maligned by the way the church is spoken about by the ‘left-wing media’ and by those with ‘progressive’ political agendas?

Are you worried about religious freedom, or that Australian culture is falling apart, in part because it is ignoring the Christian framework and heritage underpinning many of the good things and institutions that keep our society together?

Are you a Victorian Christian feeling like the state Labor government has some pernicious agenda to wipe you out of public life?

Are you at the point of wondering whether the approach of ‘lobbying’ is actually working, or even an approach to worldly power that Christians should be adopting?

Are you perhaps frustrated by the fruit borne by the approach to the political sphere that looks like starting a ‘Christian’ party, or ‘Christian lobbying’ that seems to get its agenda from the ‘political right’ or some sort of moralistic framework that seems far too interested in sex or Christian self-interest?

Are you a total Mike Baird fan boy, or fan girl?

It’s possible you answered yes to one or more of these questions; if so, might I humbly submit a solution.

Join a political party, for God’s sake, and the sake of your neighbour. 

Get involved. Not because political solutions are solutions for every problem of modern life. Not to build some sort of Christian empire or the kingdom of God via the political process, but because some political problems actually require political solutions.

You know the thing about political parties in Australia… they’re democratic. They’re also, by lots of reports, struggling for numbers; and perhaps a chance for you to have a disproportionate influence on policy for the sake of your neighbours. You might even get to run for office; and so stand in the tradition of a long line of Christians who have been actively involved in government as a way to love and serve both God and country.

Perhaps the way to no longer be misunderstood is to make ourselves known by being part of the process (maybe we need Christians who pursue journalistic excellence in the mainstream press, so take their place in newsrooms and editorial meetings around the country too). Perhaps our tendency to build Christian cultural ghettos is coming back to roost; ironically as the state steps in to make those ghettos ‘less Christian’ (via legislation about employment discrimination); maybe the ironic and irenic response would be for Christians to stop blasting our politicians with screeds and lobbying campaigns, and rather, to go to where they are.

If regular church attendance in Victoria is in line with the national average (8%) then there are 456,800 church goers in Victoria. In the midst of a membership push and a reworking of the party’s framework a couple of years ago designed to give members more power, Kevin Rudd revealed the Labor Party has about 40,000 members nationally… Makes you wonder, doesn’t it… what it would look like if some of those 456,800 church attendees signed up and just started faithfully turning up to branch meetings?

The church needs both clean hands and dirty hands when it comes to politics

 

I’d like to propose three ways for us to think about being political citizens of God’s kingdom in the modern world. Three ways that don’t necessarily overlap, but that we need to make space for in our conversations about politics within, and outside, the church.

  1. Clean hands: There’s certainly a role for Christians to have a prophetic voice from outside the political system; where we keep our hands ‘clean’ (and non-partisan) in order to call our leaders (and public) to an idealised vision of life together as global citizens. This voice might call for ‘political’ solutions via government, but it might also invite imaginative solutions from the ‘public’ (and Christians in the public) apart from professional politics. This is the sort of approach that recent posts on voting as a Christian and letter writing as a Christian have explored (though they’ve also worked on the assumption that the following two options are legitimate and important).
  2. Busy hands: Which leads to the second sort of ‘political’ work; the work that involves creating institutions that work for ‘political’ change in the broadest sense — ie meaningful change for the good of citizens of the ‘polis’ (be that local, state, national, or global). Christians have a great track record in starting these ‘institutions’ (including schools, charities, welfare agencies, hospitals, and more recently social enterprises that tackle particular problems. I believe we’ve dropped this from our thinking a little recently because we’ve been conditioned to see this third model as the way to make ‘real change’ happen.
  3. Dirty hands: The assumption in the modern west is that real change happens through policy-making. This is the trend that gave birth to the religious right, but that also underpins the progressive movement and its attempt to create a secular utopia via legislation. There’s also a need for other Christians to take up the challenge of getting our hands ‘dirty’ through involvement in the political process, in established political institutions (our political parties) in a manner that will ultimately involve the ‘suffering’ of compromise. The ‘dirty hands’ label comes from a talk I heard from Julia Gillard’s speechwriter/advisor Michael Cooney (mentioned here) on being a partisan political actor with an active faith; it draws on a political ethics essay by Michael Walzer that compares partisan actors who are willing to compromise in hard and messy political situations (and so dirty their hands) to achieve slightly more righteous ends to the ‘suffering servant’ from Isaiah.

Here’s some interesting analysis from a McCrindle Research post on some National Church Life Survey data (it is a few years old now).

The NCLS data (2011) shows that most Christians believe that Christians should be active in public policy through making public comment on policy issues (80% support this), advocating and lobbying governments (75%), and almost two-thirds (63%) believe that the church should publically advocate on policy issues, and more than two-thirds (68.5%) believe that church goers should campaign for global poverty and injustice issues.

It’s interesting that the questioning behind these results assumes the role of the church (institutionally) looks like the ‘clean hands’ option. It’s hard to make a distinction between the institution of ‘church’ and what members of the church do in the world if you’re a fan of the ‘priesthood of all believers’… and these categories obviously overlap a little because I’d expect politicians who are Christians to be politicians driven by convictions that their primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, but an awareness that their role will involve some compromise, and I’d also expect them to be more open to hearing the voices of those with ‘clean hands’ (even if sometimes those idealised voices might be frustratingly detached from the real world of politics).

Personally I’ve figured out that I have a strong preference towards 2, with some parts of my job meaning that 1 (particularly being non-partisan) is important… But I would be incredibly supportive of people in my congregation joining (almost) any political party; from the Greens to the Libs, with a vision for being a faithful Christian voice in the policy discussions of those parties. I’m not suggesting engaging in the democratic party by stealth or takeover; but rather becoming part of established community institutions in order to offer a faithful presentation of what Christians believe, and policy solutions that come from a Christian imagination about what a good life in secular community might look like. We Christians have something to offer when it comes to inter-faith relations because the very nature of the history of the church is that we’ve emerged from other faiths and defined ourselves against those faiths while also being called to love our neighbours who disagree with us. Christians have long thought of themselves as ‘exiles’ living amongst people we’re called to love as part of our ‘citizenship’; and that has led Christians, historically, to all three positions outlined above.

… Hands shaped by the cross of our King

If you want a precedent for getting involved in the political process (apart from Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, who managed to work in two of the Bible’s most anti-God regimes while being commended as ‘righteous’); look no further than Erastus, who Paul mentions in Romans 16. Erastus managed to rise to a form of political prominence in the Roman imperial regime in Corinth (then, of course, there’s Constantine).

Part of the more recent secularistion or ‘church in exile’ narrative acknowledges how hard it is to be a Christian in a post-Christian age; but lots of our collective handwringing seems to forget that we’ve still got small bits of social capital to spend on the way out, and also that we were part of setting up lots of these institutions and still have some ability to ‘game the system’… we’ve just been too focused on other stuff. The nature of the sort of democratic approach to politics born out of Christian convictions about the inherent dignity of all people is that politics is still fundamentally (as much as it is influenced by other forces like lobbyists) a ‘numbers game’… and it’s the people who are in the meetings who get to set the policy agenda. This isn’t an invitation to grab power and to use it to beat up our enemies; that would be to make the mistake of the Christian right. It’s an invitation to consider what faithful presence in our civic institutions looks like in a way that makes space for different views and communities in our polis. It’s not about taking up the ‘sword’ of Government (as Romans describes civic rule), but figuring out how the cross of Jesus shapes an approach to the ‘sword’… The cross-shaped approach to politics isn’t about domination or wielding power and influence, but serving; it’s about knowing the limits of human political power, but also about offering oneself as a sacrifice, in this way, for the sake of our neighbours. That, incidentally, is the approach we see modelled in the Old Testament by exiles-in-political office.

I’d love to see Christians joining all our parties; from personal conviction, not simply to win a legislative bunfight out of self-interest (or group-interest). There’s not a policy platform out there that wouldn’t benefit from a Christian imagination being incorporated via the presence of more Christians. A Christian imagination shaped by the message of the Gospel and the understanding that Jesus is both true king and example; this sort of transformed imagination brings both:

a) a particular sort of altruism born from the recognition of the inherent, created, dignity and value of the marginalised or ‘less productive’ person, and
b) a particular vision of what a flourishing secular human society could be, where space is made to see individuals and communities with different convictions about life as neighbours to be loved, rather than enemies to be defeated (and even if people are ‘enemies’ we’re called to love them too).

These would be of benefit to the Liberal/National Coalition, to the Labor Party, to the Greens, to the Nick Xenophon Team, and you know, to One Nation as well. While I don’t want to totally outsource solutions to public life in Australia to the political realm, I’d love to see more Christians join these parties; rather than just sniping from the sidelines, or seeing our democratic participation exhausted at the ballot box or via a few letters here and there. I love the idea too, that Christians in partisan politics might model a better way of operating across the partisan divide (and this is where I think model 2 from the 3 above has real benefit in that it might create the sort of spaces that can unify people across this divide).

There are those writing about the situation for Christians in Victoria who seem to assume that ‘progressive politics’ (or the left) is, in itself, the enemy. I’d want to suggest that we all, as Christians, want some sort of ‘progress’ as a civilisation; we all want to be always reforming, or always transforming; and as Christians we have a particular kingdom shaped view of what progress looks like (and sometimes people in the past got it right, so real ‘progress’ for humanity might lie in conserving certain things). All our parties have ‘messy’ platforms and ideologies that are ‘anti-Christian’ or ‘anti-Christian-values’; so to do the broader ‘right’ and the ‘left’…  but there are also opportunities to bring goodness and truth to our neighbours within the parameters of each platform/ideology. The left tends to see the world ‘systematically’; where problems (like systemic injustice) need systemic solutions (like big government, and legislation that impacts ‘institutions’ or systems); and this does fit with a Christian understanding of sin (when sinful people get together it shouldn’t surprise us that they build systems marred by sin); the right tends to see problems and solutions resting with individuals. There’s a paradox here where the problems in our world are both… Perhaps it is to our detriment that reformedish or evangelical Christians have been so fixated on the individual nature of humanity (and salvation and stuff), that we’ve become suspicious of the progressive left and considered it part of the problem.

Some words of caution from James Davison Hunter

A lot of this ‘faithful presence’ thinking comes as I work my way through James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World; and I’m a bit worried that this proposal runs the risk of reinforcing a problem he’s diagnosed in how we westerners think of public, civic or political life. There are, as option 2 above suggests, other ways to tackle social problems that also benefit from the presence of Christians.

It’s important not to buy into the modern view of politics, and to recognise the limits of political solutions, which, as he puts it:

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them…

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics… Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life. In this turn, we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and the political process…

This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.

Hunter warns Christians in politics (on the right or left) against using the state as a vehicle for a ‘Christian’ agenda; or to ‘aspire to a righteous empire’  (he uses this common criticism of the Christian right to critique the Christian left), and he also wants us to avoid political participation being the ‘easy way out’… he sees a role for the church as an alternative, autonomous, political framework (our first citizenship even), suggesting that Christian engagement in politics needs to avoid reducing the role of the church to just another political party.

“… in the Christian faith, one has the possibility of relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could—in both judgment and affirmation—be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power. But the consequence of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups.”

And here’s two specific warnings on the particular advice at the heart of this post… first, for us not to avoid the difficulty of costly non-political solutions, and second, to work to undo the common view that politics is the solution to all our social problems (it is, however, a solution to political problems), and it would be amazing to have more politicians buying in to a view of the world that doesn’t see politics as where all the action is.

“Christians are urged to vote and become involved in politics as an expression of their civic duty and public responsibility. This is a credible argument and good advice up to a point. Yet in our day, given the size of the state and the expectations that people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.”

“Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression… Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations… To decouple the public from the political will open up other options for engaging the world and addressing its problems in ways that do not require the state, the law, or a political party. There are innumerable opportunities not only in art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better.”

I’ve reached out to a few friends who are members of various political parties to share their thoughts in a follow up post; and if you are a Christian, and a member of a party, I’d love to hear from you about your experience.