martyn iles

On venues and hospitality

I feel like I’ve written about this before somewhere… but…

This week the West Australian Government banned, and then unbanned, the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles’ roaming soapbox “The Truth of It” from two public venues it oversees; the Albany Entertainment Centre and Perth Concert Hall.

They should not have done this — and not just for commercial reasons (though that was the lever pulled, if I’ve understood correctly, by the venue partner to get the event back on — which, if true, just reveals that, as in almost all cases (see: woke capitalism), money is the actual idol at the heart of our culture, not sexual identity… sex sells, as it always has). They shouldn’t have done this because it is a power-hungry expression of something at odds with democracy and true secularism (plurality). They shouldn’t have done this because doing this reveals their own ‘state religion’ — the one they’ve replaced Christianity with.

Now. My take on the ACL is well-rehearsed in these parts — I’m not a fan.

So much so that Martyn has blocked me (or refused to host my views he finds troubling) on his Facebook page. That’s arguably a private space, and, sure, he’s quite welcome to block me if he doesn’t want to hear criticism of his brand of Christianity. That’s his right. I’ve also started limiting who can see and respond to my posts on Facebook too.

As much as I find the personality cult surrounding Martyn and his roadshow personally problematic, a government stepping in to cancel it is more personally problematic to me. This isn’t something to celebrate — especially if you are part of a minority group. This sort of government intervention around the use of public space — the demarcation of who acceptably belongs with a voice in ‘the public’ as recognised by the state — is dangerous.

In our first few years as a church plant, my church family met in a State-government owned theatre, many churches around the country meet in rented public school buildings. Public buildings that are available for hire to multiple faith groups and ideologies are an expression of pluralism and part of the bedrock of civility. We never had any pressure placed on us by our venue (we did, when we moved out due to renovations, get kicked out of a replacement venue because we aren’t an arts group and so were in breach of their leasing provisions). The hardening ‘secular frame’ in Australia which might mean these sorts of spaces become unavailable overnight, and my experience not having our own church property, means I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that church buildings are incredibly important (and we should probably stop selling them). They’re important for practical reasons — but as I’ll unpack below, I think they’re important for political, cultural, and theological reasons (and if we were good at architecture, on the whole, and didn’t just build multipurpose facilities that function as “non places“). Look. There’re going to be lots of generalisations in this post and they are just that… general observations.

My take on cancel culture is also well documented. I don’t like it (and it’s always religious). I don’t like this decision from the Labor Government in Western Australia. Governments, with strong majorities, banning voices who oppose “their views” isn’t just a slippery slope to totalitarianism, it’s an iron clad un-democratic use of power to disadvantage anybody who might challenge your grip on power.

I’m also, I think, on the treatment of public space as a religious contest for victory (toppling statues), rather than for a place where civility and a generous pluralism might play out — I’m not a fan.

I’m especially not a fan when Christians play, or enjoy, all these games ourselves. Toppling statues. Holding up Bibles outside churches after protestors have been tear-gassed. Only advocating for our own Christian freedoms (to the extent that, when we’re advocating for someone who denies the Trinity we’ll call them a Christian just to serve our broader project). Cancelling people whose views we don’t like… that stuff.

Now. Arguably the ACL both wants ‘religious freedom’ for Christians to participate in public spaces (and say whatever they want without consequences from their private employees), and to limit the ‘religious freedom’ of others participating in public spaces (like drag queen story times in public libraries, and gay couples calling their relationships marriage). They have been, I would argue, inconsistent on this principle of freedom in public spaces. Now, as an aside, I’m not saying I think drag queen story times are a public good, but I do think they are an expression of an essentially religious frame, and that anyone who says they’re ‘indoctrinating kids’ while running a Sunday School needs to be able to carefully explain what the difference is without imposing the Christian moral frame that doesn’t want kids grappling with adult content. They’re certainly an ideological use of public space that the ACL has opposed (and, surprise surprise, LGBTIQA+ political groups in Western Australia have supported an equal but opposite reaction against the ACL, celebrating the cancellation).

The secular governments in Australia at the same time have been increasingly treating public spaces as spaces to be free from religion, through an awkward definition of secularism that sees it as being ‘not religious’ rather than ‘not sectarian’, and through a weird secular-sacred divide that we religious people have also often enforced by pretending that religion does not affect every part of our life and being.

In ‘secular Australia,’ Religion is what happens in private places, like our hearts, our religious spaces like our Cathedrals, our Temples, or our Mosques. Or. You know. The prayer room in Parliament House. This decision from the West Australian Government is utterly consistent with other state governments, and the Federal Government, who want to restrict ‘religious freedoms’ to ‘religious spaces’ — because our governments, like most Christians in Australia, operate with this secular/sacred divide. So, we’ll protect (legally) a minister (like me) from conducting weddings outside our theology and “sacred” rites, or churches from employing non-religious people (or employing according to statements of belief and codes of conduct), and some people will even extend those protections to church run institutions (like schools), but we won’t protect a photographer or baker who, through religious convictions, won’t supply a service to a same sex couple (now, again, I think there are principles of hospitality and neighbour-love that mean Christians should feel free to offer those services without feeling like to do so means they suddenly adopt another person’s moral frame). The photographer and baker aren’t offered the protections afforded by ‘religious space’ because they are operating in public (even as private enterprises… it’s confusing). I do wonder what might happen if more churches had on-site bakeries…

The prevailing cultural narrative is that religion happens in private religious spaces, and that it doesn’t belong in public spaces. And we religious people have been part of creating that narrative in a bunch of ways. I’ll pick two. Firstly, “secularism” — including this divide — is a product of Christianity, and secondly, in the way we’ve used our own spaces as private rather than public.

Secularism is a product of the western world, which is for good and ill, a product of Christianity. They aren’t having these debates in Muslim countries. Secularism, depending on which ‘subtraction story’ you believe (those are stories that explain how we got from Christendom (where the vast majority of people and the architecture of society were built on shared religious beliefs) to where we are now (a pluralistic, fragmented nation with contested public space) is a product of explicitly religious movements before it becomes a product of the rejection of religion itself (that’s a bad modern ‘subtraction story’). Tensions between Protestants and Catholics about public space like who gets to build a Cathedral in a public square, or run a school, or influence the King and so win victory over the other are pretty similar to tensions around who gets to read stories in the local public library. It’s just our religious options have massively expanded (in what Charles Taylor calls “the Nova”). This expansion in religious options is also a product of The Reformation, which opened up the possibility of questioning traditional dogma.

Now. None of those historical changes are necessarily bad; as a Protestant, I’m glad we’re not all Catholic. I’m also glad that, for the most part, Protestants and Catholics have stopped killing each other (or even cancelling each other) because of religious differences and that now there’s even civility and dialogue.

What is bad, I think, is that with the disenchantment of space brought about by the Reformation, and the emergence of ‘the public square’ in the west, brought about (at least according to Jurgen Habermas) by the end of Feudalism (a divinely endorsed ‘order’ where space was given to people by divine birthright and there was no public or private, only land ruled by a sovereign monarch and ruled according to their will) and the birth of democracy (where you need space for ideas to be thrashed out and debated). There had, of course, been public squares in Greece, but its version of democracy was less universal than the democracies brought about in the west by the universalisation of the concept of the “image of God”.

Anyway. I digress.

See. The thing is.

Churches have always run their physical spaces as private spaces, as sacred spaces even — only opening the doors (in many cases) one day a week. Reinforcing, perhaps, the secular/sacred divide. Church space is here for you on the sacred day, but the rest of the time, all the other hours of your life, and on all other issues of communal life — wherever other discussions occur, the performing arts take place, or cultural artefacts are presented — that can all happen in secular space, and probably public space at that.

We haven’t been fantastic at bringing our own vision of beauty and culture and truth to the public square in part because we haven’t anticipated and reacted to change around us, in part because we’ve been busy reinforcing the secular-sacred divide in our practices, not only because we haven’t done ‘public Christianity’ well, but also because we just haven’t been using our own spaces well. There are, of course, groups committed to public Christianity — the ACL is one (and if Martyn’s the best we’ve got… then…), but also City Bible Forum, the Centre for Public Christianity, and a bunch of other organisations out there are doing this… but my point is that we haven’t seen the church (our local community, but also the visible church in Australia) as a public institution meeting in public sacred spaces, but private institutions (and often we ‘desecrate’ the places we meet by emphatically saying ‘they aren’t sacred’, rather than saying ‘these teach us how to view all space’).

We haven’t been great guests in the public spaces post-nova, in the secular age, where multiple religious views are brought to market for performance, recognition, and even debate. But, nor have we been great hosts.

We haven’t treated church buildings as public spaces — either as hosts who hold events for the public (outside of Sundays — and here I’m not talking about the way that churches use buildings to funnel people in to a Sunday service, that’s a ‘private use’) but events that use church buildings as a “public square” where other voices can be heard, or by inviting other people to use our facilities (where we might disagree with them). This isn’t universal, there are plenty of church buildings being used as community hubs out there… and plenty of church buildings that lose the Gospel and the call to be different from the world as they seek to play host, and so end up just as secular community spaces.

Churches are (typically) rightly careful about who gets to preach and teach in order to continue passing on the good news of the Gospel of Jesus (and maintain our distinctives), but we also have to figure out how to steward our spaces — whether our buildings will be public or private, or used in a way that reinforces the narrow view of the sacred, or in ways that break the secular-sacred divide.

But I reckon it’s worth asking the question — perhaps especially those in the West at the moment — would your church host a branch meeting of the Labor Party mid week (I’m not even asking about the pulpit)? And if the answer is no, and it’s about values, then we can’t jump straight to “but public space is different” — because we haven’t got a reputation for treating it differently (especially the ACL). Why should we ask the government to act as arbiters of a public square, when we don’t treat it as a truly public square ourselves (in excluding others), and when we aren’t using our own spaces as we’d want the government to use theirs? Why are we assuming that government is ‘secular’ and so ‘neutral’ (again buying in to the secular/sacred divide) rather than religious (and not Christian)?

We have a reputation for trying to exclude visions of human flourishing we disagree with from public life (again, think drag queen story time, or the same sex marriage debate). Public space isn’t different, public space has always been religious. Sometimes overtly, sometimes just because we have a theological frame, as Christians, that means we can recognise that every social political ideology is fundamentally religious, and every public act is liturgical. Because we are worshipping beings (and that’s the heart of being made to image God).

We also have plenty of religious spaces that we can start using to challenge the insidious secular/sacred divide that is so often at the heart of modern political problems; spaces that we can use (even architecturally) to proclaim that Jesus is Lord over every inch and every moment of life, but also spaces where we can make the truth public, and show that this means fearlessly inviting voices we disagree with to the table with us. Rather than silencing the voices of those who disagree.

#QandA is more like Pokemon than Poker: a review of Martyn Iles’ appearance

Martyn Iles did well on Q&A last night. He articulated some deep Christian truths, the Gospel even, with his feet held to the metaphorical fire. And he did it with a degree of grace.
Here’s a snippet from the transcript:
“Alain, thank you for the question, and it’s important, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to answer it in front of you and others who are watching. There was a word in the question which I’d like to address first, and then I’ll address Israel Folau, if that’s OK. The first word I’d like to address is the word ‘hate’. ‘Hate’ is a word that is thrown around a lot. I see it every day thrown at me. It’s a very, very serious word. It refers to somebody’s motive. It’s an attitude of heart that would like to see someone else come into harm. Jesus said, effectively, that if you hate your brother, then you’ve murdered him in your heart. It’s a very serious thing. For a Christian to hate is a bad sin. The reality is this – a Christian never looks fundamentally at another person as an enemy to be destroyed. And that’s the danger of politics – that we can get sucked into that. We never look at the other person as somebody who we would like harm to befall. We only ever… And I cannot say this strongly enough. We only ever look at people as souls to be saved, and that includes me, and so…”
Now. I’d say Christians see people as people to be saved, and that this includes bodily life both now and into eternity, not just souls, but I’m not sure Martyn was espousing a sort of platonic dualism in that last bit… But this was helpful. So was his presentation of Jesus’ universal call to repent.
I have some quibbles around his defence of antivaxxers (because nobody asked him to do that), and his ongoing conflation of trans/gender diverse people with a political agenda (ie an approach to the people and questions that is political rather than pastoral).
But he played a tough hand well.
The thing is, Q&A is not poker. It’s more like Pokémon. You bring your deck with you. And Martyn’s deck is stacked, by Martyn.
The tough hand is a hand of his making.
Imagine a Christian at that table with a different hand.
Imagine a Christian, even one with conservative sexual ethics, who represents an organisation that had invested time and energy into loving the LGBTIQA+ community and seeking their inclusion and representation in our democracy, from an organisation known for love and service. Imagine a call to repent in a relational context of love rather than one of perceived self-interest.
Imagine an organisation with a track record of advocating for First Nations peoples, around deaths in custody (last night’s most powerful segment). Imagine if that organisation was known for pushing for the application of the recommendations of a 30 year old Royal Commission, rather than to extend the playing career of a 32 year old millionaire footballer (with heretical views on the Trinity… only Biblical sexual orthodoxy counts).
We shouldn’t have to imagine this. Churches, church run institutions, and church members — Christians — navigate issues across the political spectrum/divide all the time.
Martyn’s statement last night that there are lots of Christian charities addressing poverty and inequality is true.
They are not called ‘Australian Christians against poverty’ though. If it is true that the ACL is focused on the political realm on behalf of Christians then surely racial reconciliation and poverty are issues that have structural and political changes that need making and the ACL, like the church, could walk and chew gum here.
Here’s what Martyn said on this:

“I think everybody would love it if the ACL did exactly what they wanted us to do. The fact is that the top 25 charities in this country, I think 23 of them actually had a faith basis and they work on alleviating poverty. And I say, wonderful work. More power to them. I myself was involved in youth work for a period of six years with disadvantaged kids. There is a huge wealth of Christian charity in that regard.ACL has a certain area that we focus on, which is the political realm, and the reason… I mean, we spent that much money on that ad. I’m here to tell you, we spend many times that on defending Margaret from Blacktown, Patricia from Sydney, Jason from Perth, Byron and Keira from Perth, who are no longer foster-parents, who are no longer medical professionals…”

The issue is that the ACL serves a constituency; it has a narrow political agenda, and that’s fine, but a broad name, and that’s not so fine.
So long as the ACL serves a narrow political agenda, and one that alienated many Christians in its narrowness, when Martyn goes on TV and preaches the Gospel he will align the Gospel with that narrow agenda in the minds of the audience (or public).
And that’s great for those who share his politics, but not so great for those who share his Gospel.

A question for Martyn about #lethimplay

Israel Folau is a multimillionaire footballer who secured a multimillion dollar settlement from the Australian Rugby Union after a dispute around his sharing of a meme that targeted homosexuals and other sinners with a hatefully twisted quote from the Bible.

Israel Folau is on the record rejecting the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Israel Folau is unwanted by any NRL club, there are no attempts to register him as a player.

It’s quite possible to believe that Folau was hard done by, that religious freedom should be extended to non-Christian cult-like members who use social media to preach hate; no matter the commercial risks involved. It is possible, even, to believe that at least some part of the response to Folau’s tweet was not only religiously intolerant and confused, but a little racist. It is possible to believe those things and be horrified by the ACL’s #lethimplay campaign.

The ACL is spending donor dollars, and resources, to run a campaign that literally nobody is asking for — Folau hasn’t asked (according to the ACL), no club is asking (according to the NRL). But, the ACL in its wisdom, is running this campaign despite Martyn Iles, in the past, suggesting that a lack of resources is what keeps the organisation from broadening its platform beyond pleasing a conservative/right-wing constituency. Iles said:

“When these issues come up, somebody’s got to address it and ACL is the go-to group on some of these things. With limited budget and limited resources … you know, you are depleted in terms of what you can do.

“The reality is I am spent in my abilities and capacity to do what we are doing. My staff are spent and we are doing the best [we] can.

“I make absolutely no apology. No apology for focussing on life, for focussing on the gospel, focusing on the issue around LGBT stuff because that is an ideology that is moving actively and viciously against the Christian faith.

“The niche we’ve found ourselves in is one where we talk about a lot of things that other people don’t necessarily want to talk about. They’re the harder subjects and we’re sort of the lightning rod from time to time. Someone’s got to do the job because, if we are silent on issues of gravity and importance, we will be silenced.”

He said something similar in a recent interview on the podcast The Political Animals. This is his go to excuse for a small platform — limited resources.

Now, to justify spending dollars on this campaign:

“The purpose of the ads is to connect more people with the campaign, and anybody who wants to have a say has the opportunity to do so.”

It turns out their niche now extends to getting jobs for millionaire footballers past their prime, with clubs that don’t want him.

It turns out you don’t need extensive ‘resources’ for political lobbying; you just need a platform and a team of willing voices who’ll use it. It shouldn’t be that hard for the ACL to set up similar campaigns for all those issues they are too stretched to pursue. Maybe they could help people — passionate Christian people — have a say about these other issues too?

Next time the ACL says they don’t have the resources to pursue an issue remember they spent dollars on a full page advertisement in a News Ltd paper to get a multi-millionaire a job that nobody wants to give him.

Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter V’Landys said:

“This Christian Lobby with their full-page ads basically are wasting their resources and money because there is no application. There are a lot more things in life that they could be lobbying for, like [an end to] poverty and inequality and all those sort of things, rather than this.”

Martyn is on Q&A this week. Someone might care to ask him about this. They might also ask how getting a non-Christian millionaire a job in a sporting competition is remotely Christian, and whether they might consider becoming registered sports agents and leaving public Christianity to people not committed to playing culture war games. Here’s the question I sent to Q&A:

I am a Presbyterian minister in Queensland. I have long been puzzled by the ACL’s approach — but have found Martyn’s leadership increasingly baffling in terms of both the policy platform and the approach to politics as a ‘culture war’ — which seems inconsistent with the teaching and example of Jesus.

Martyn. You have said the ACL’s policy platform is limited by resources — that you don’t lobby on issues like refugees, racial justice, and poverty because the ACL is limited in what it can focus on. This week you’re campaigning to secure employment for a multimillionaire footballer no NRL team wants to employ, who publicly denies the essential Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Would these resources not be better offered somewhere like ARL chairman Peter V’landys suggested — to dealing with poverty or inequality, would that not be more consistent with the way of Jesus?

Cancelled (by Martyn)

“Those who hate the truth must censor” — Martyn Iles

I’m still trying to navigate that tension of not being sucked into the culture war vortex that some Christian leaders from the hard right want to call us into (and look, I suspect there’s some bias in this Fairfax report about a recent conference here in Brisbane, but probably not that much…), but also calling such leaders who claim to represent Christ to account. Not because I think this is my job in particular — but if a group is going to claim to represent Christians, then I do think they should be prepared to listen to their constituency; and the nature of lots of these movements is that they are a law unto themselves and disconnected from institutions who provide accountability and discipline (so, for example, if I’m out of line, you’re welcome to take that up with the Presbyterian Church, who I am accountable to for my words and actions).

So while I’m trying to avoid ungodly and combative interactions with the likes of Martyn Iles and Lyle Shelton on social media, I do see a whole lot of other leaders in the church sit idly by, and talk to many of them in private about shared concerns about the direction these men and their organisations are pulling the church, or at least the public perception of Christians.

So last night when Martyn Iles posted a long (by his standards) rant about the irreverence of just referring to Jesus by his name, Jesus, rather than a host of divine titles also due to him as Lord and Christ, I responded. I suggested he might go to a theological institution and get some training before putting himself in the position of teacher and judge. Accountability is a good thing after all; so is expertise. Then I tagged a prominent Christian social commentator and historian asking for his talks, and that commentator responded by pointing out that young Martyn’s hypothesis seemed misguided when weighed up in the Gospels.

This is the same Martyn Iles who hates cancel culture and who just recently posted this about censorship:

But now, dear reader, after some very mediocre analysis of Martyn’s truth claim; analysis made public, but counter to the view Martyn would have his readers hear, my comments have been censored (removed) — and my ability to comment on Martyn’s wall has been revoked. Or one might say I’ve been “cancelled”…

Now. I’m not a victim here. I am not playing the victim card by making this observation. I’m sure Martyn and whoever gets roped in to run his socials sees my contributions as generally against the mission of the organisation or platform, and I have plenty of platforms where I can exercise my own free speech, and speak both my own mind, legitimate criticism of Martyn and the ACL and the direction they seek to take the church, and even against this sort of censorship. I have plenty of privilege and this isn’t, ultimately, a restriction of my voice. It’s not like Martyn’s wall is a news service (he and the ACL kept posting things through Facebook’s news ban).

I’m also known to block people infrequently on social media, for my own headspace, and, because, at some point I am not obliged to provide a platform for views I don’t agree with. I’m really reluctant to do this, and so comment threads on things I write can get messy and ugly (especially on Facebook). I am not a ‘public square’ — my Facebook presence is a private square that I, in various ways, rent from Facebook (by providing content and getting people to spend time on their site), and my blog is utterly ‘privately owned’ — it receives no funding beyond the dollars I pour into keeping it running. How I choose to use this space, or my ‘rented’ space on Facebook, is up to me as host. That’s fine.

People not wanting to respect the ‘house rules’ is a thing that makes me think more censorship would be a good thing, not to prevent analysis, but because hospitality might sometimes require kicking out guests who want to make everyone else feel unwelcome. This is a thing called the ‘paradox of tolerance’ — and I tend not to pull that lever to censor ideas, but rather to protect relationships.

But it does strike me as interesting. The people who bang on about censorship and cancel culture are so quick to employ it.

And there’s a silver lining here — because I spent most of my morning chatting to people who’d only come across Martyn’s stuff on Facebook because I couldn’t help but comment on it… And now. Well.

On politics, partisanship, and Christianity

Today I read a post from the ACL’s Martyn Iles, and a piece on Christianity Today about the ‘fight for the soul’ of the Southern Baptist Church in the United States (where a group feel that a broader-than-hard-right political stance is a sign of theological liberalism). I responded to the Iles thread. I often do. But I’m conscious that my responses calling for ‘less polarisation’ are often interpreted as being politically partisan, so, for example, when I commented on a post by former CEO of the ACL, Lyle Shelton, people responded by calling me a leftist.

I’d like to think politics is more complicated than this; and, that, while Christians can (and maybe some should) be partisan, we run into trouble when we think our party platform is the only expression of Christian politics.

Politics isn’t optional for Christians. The belief or affirmation at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord and King of heaven and earth. Jesus taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” and to give our lives to follow and serve him. The church itself is a ‘polis’ and a political actor in the world as an alternative kingdom, with an alternative king and an alternative way of life (an ethic) to those held by different political structures or empires.

The western world is politically fascinating for Christians because so much of it is shaped by Christianity and its values after the Roman empire was Christianised; so much we take for granted like hospitals, education, and human rights can be traced back to Christian roots in the west. So much of our vision of progress is shaped by Christian conceptions of humanity and goodness and the dangers of power held and systematised by self-interested groups. So much of our vision of what we’d like to conserve in the west is not just the fruit of Christianity but its roots and branches. We can’t conserve those roots and branches by throwing out the fruit, or the fruit by throwing out the roots and branches. One quick picture of the ‘fruit’ of Christianity comes in what the Bible calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, and self control. So little of modern western politics exhibits these fruit; in fact it often feels like the opposite, and we Christians obscure both the fruit and the root of Christianity when we embrace other ways of being political.

Partisanship is optional for Christians. You can choose to be an ambassador for Jesus aligned with either the conservative side, the progressive side of the political contest for the good, and do so from genuine convictions, or be ‘centrist,’ you can even, as a Christian, repudiate state based power as a form of violence and dominion and critique all sides of an increasingly bitter culture war. Those who resonate with the progressive side have to be careful to hold onto the goodness of the roots of Christianity, in order to participate in those systems or parties as a Christian presence, those who resonate with the conservative side have to keep looking to the fruit — the nature and shape of the kingdom of God — and a desire for transformation, to participate in conservative politics as a Christian presence. We need both, or to try to be both (which might limit our presence), those in the centre need to avoid false compromises where one or both sides are embracing, or systematising sin; centrism can’t simply be about synthesis, but about trying to hold truths from the progressive and conservative ‘sides’ in tension. Centrism, ultimately, becomes its own side. Neutrality, or being apolitical, isn’t actually an option; the challenge for all Christians is to be ‘Christ centred’ in our participation in politics. This means we can’t demonise the other.

Our communities — our polis — the church — should be a place where those engaged in politics from the right and left can be corrected, refreshed, and renewed for the task of Christian politics; where we can be re-centred on the call to serve King Jesus and produce the fruit of the Spirit in our relationships and our presence in the politics of the world. If you feel like your politics make you unwelcome in the church, because the church is either ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ and there is no place for you, we, the church, are doing something wrong.

I slip, too often, into demonising those who wed ‘Christian politics’ with one partisan outlook; who make no space for the other. You’ll find me trolling leaders of the ‘Christian Right’ and speaking out against Trumpism and its various international forms. I’m aware that even speaking against polarisation is, itself, polarising… But this is not because I think Christians can’t be ‘right’ or ‘left’, it is because totalising partisanship that goes to war with the political other ends up undermining the unity of political mission and purpose we are to have in Jesus; the work of seeing his kingdom come in the world. It’s also because, while there are lots of progressive ideas I embrace, and lots of progressive voices I value and listen to, I’m actually more inclined to a certain form of conservatism (I am an office bearer in a conservative institution, after all), or centrism.

That said, my ‘politics’ is in no way limited to a vote for ‘a’ party or ideology, politics is the business of shaping a ‘polis,’ my volunteering at our kids kindergarten is also political. In my circles people don’t seem as in danger of fusing their faith with progressive politics, as they are with fusing their faith with conservative politics; but I recognise this is ‘a bubble’ I operate in. Even where the danger is real and present — that our politics is too conservative, or too progressive, and so is distorting how we present Jesus to the world, the antidote is not an equal but opposite reaction, it’s doing the hard work of re-centering ourselves on the politics of the kingdom.

This might look, for example, like calling our brothers and sisters, and being called by them, away from the political methodology or vision of the world, and towards, for example, the fruit of the Spirit, and the unity we’re meant to have that transcends partisanship because it is the unity shared by those in the kingdom of Jesus who share in his Spirit; if you can’t acknowledge that is the case for a partisan other, then this is sad and destructive.

In 2,000 years of the church, Christians, by the Spirit, have transformed political realities in ways that reflect the kingdom; we should celebrate and seek to conserve that, and grieve when such fruit is not conserved; but in thousands of years of politics and empire there is lots of stuff that is anti-Jesus; it was imperial power used to justify his crucifixion; the church has often been too wedded to such power so progress looks like consciously decoupling from such power, rather than embracing it and wielding it to protect our hard won territory, and seeking ongoing partnership and progress in the work of the kingdom, living in such a way that shows we want our prayers to be realised, and trusting that the risen Jesus is Lord and king.

On Cultural Marxism, Capitalism and Christianity as a third way

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

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

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

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

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

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

These deceptions alarm people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marxism is anti-Christ.

They substitute sin with power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to “Cultural Marxism”…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

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

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

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

On #BlackLivesMatter, colour blindness, centering, and Aboriginal deaths in custody

I’m still learning lots about Australia’s racism problem.

You see, I’m white, I haven’t experienced racism, either overtly, or through my interactions with the structures and institutions that form part of Australian society — and even within the structures of the Australian church.

I’ve had position, and forms of power, given to me through my education, my employment, and my family’s relative prosperity, secured through generations of free education, inherited wealth and social capital, and through my own efforts in securing an education — primary, secondary, tertiary, and post graduate. I am an ordained member of an institutional church in Australia that requires people in my position to have a certain amount of privilege; the type that enables access to and success in an academic context. My denomination only affords this particular positional privilege to men. Its structures are rigid and built on tradition, as well as doctrine. One doesn’t have to be white to be a Presbyterian minister, in fact there are many non-white ministers and elders in our denomination, but it sure seems to help. One does have to be educated, and adhere to certain social and cultural norms. It’s hard for one to not conform to the parts of our culture that look pretty institutionalised and based on credentials that require a certain sort of privilege; the sort that often seems to limit the pool drawn from (you know, like judges and other positions draw from the same milieu, but also the same schools and suburbs).

It’s easy for people in our particular context, where once one has a platform, and so a voice, one assumes a degree of being there by merit, or calling, to assume there’s a sort of ‘colour blindness’ that should mark our interactions within this institution, and then to extrapolate that as a norm we’d like to see in a sort of post-racial society.

We might even project colourblindness on to God; arguing that this is the default way we’re called to see and treat one another, because in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile; we are all one in Christ Jesus. And yet, our oneness in Christ Jesus does not eradicate our difference — it’s a paradox, or tension, we are called to hold that is held up as part of the Bible’s own vision of the kingdom of God.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” — Revelation 7:9

The Gospel of Jesus and our union with him does not eradicate distinction and difference, it unifies us across difference in our created purpose — loving God and enjoying him forever.

Today the Australian Christian Lobby’s Martyn Iles made two mistakes in this area; one, suggesting that God is colour blind, the second, suggesting that because the organisation registered as BlackLivesMatter has a radical vision for the end of oppressive structures that might go beyond a Christian desire to see such structures (like family) redeemed and reconciled in Christ, that all use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag supports the boogeyman of marxism. His post fundamentally commits a kind of reverse ‘genetic fallacy’ in that it links a hashtag that emerged on Twitter, with an organisation that developed around the hashtag and the conversation it linked. Hashtags on social media are a way of participating in linked conversations in a democratised way; and these links can give rise to different movements; but to use a hashtag is to participate in a conversation, and to affirm a truth, it is not to affirm a movement, or an organisation.

I am actually colour blind. Red-green. Just, not on issues of race. A few years ago I was invited by Common Grace and Aunty Jean Phillips to speak at a seminar in Brisbane, and there I repented of the idea that to be a follower of Jesus is a call to be colour blind on issues of race. You can read the talk, which drew on the super-powered Mantis Shrimp, an animal that sees a much greater spectrum of colour than I do, to suggest that we are more aligned with God, and the kingdom re-imaged and re-imagined by Jesus, when we see colour (and ethnicity) than when we pretend not to. But here’s a passage from it…

“I want to confess.. For a while I did believe that when it came to issues of race in Australia — colour blindness was my super power. I grew up in a small town in northern NSW and had plenty of Indigenous classmates — friends — even. I’ve always been convinced of the full equality of our first nation’s people. I was so proud of myself that I told myself I don’t see colour… I think this is symptomatic of a view of race issues in Australia that focuses on the responsibility of the individual to not be racist in the way we think of or speak about others; we can tell ourselves ‘I’m not racist because I have Aboriginal friends.’

And then I realised that’s a massively limiting decision in terms of what sort of change might be required in our nation — an imagination limiting decision… and a limited view of what is actually wrong with the world when it comes to race — the systemic side of life; and that I’m blind to the experiences of that system. So I had to try to get past this colour blindness; and to some extent that’s the journey I’m still on today.

If we Christians collectively want to free our imaginations and to be able to work for real change in our nation as people with renewed imagination, who are perhaps able to discover something ‘super human’ — we need to be to be more like the mantis and less like colour blind me.”

In my ongoing process of confessing, and listening, and learning, I’ve continued to journey with Aunty Jean Phillips, and with Brooke Prentis, who is now the CEO of Common Grace; Aboriginal Christian leaders who have worked hard to draw the Australian church’s attention to racism at work in our nation and in our churches.

I find myself facing a dilemma now, because the more I listen and learn, the more aware I am of the privilege afforded to me; as one occupying a position ‘at the centre’ of power and influence in my denomination, with some platform in the wider church (because apparently some people read stuff). I enjoyed one of my institutional colleagues’ reflections on white privilege on Eternity News a couple of days ago, James Snare wrote:

“What I’m suggesting is that the ethical imperatives of Christ, the growing awareness of my own privilege and seeing the consequences of not addressing racism and sexism in culture – and in the church – has led me to believe that people like me can’t let our privilege go unused for others any longer.”

I feel similarly. And yet I’m increasingly aware of the challenges facing people like me, with platforms, occupying positions close to the centre, that speaking up, even attempting to use one’s privilege for the sake of others, can be a form of what is now being called ‘centering’ — it can be a tool that people like me, at the centre, use to keep ourselves at the centre beyond an awakening. We can, in exercising our voices, continue to de-centre the voices of others. I’m aware of how tempted I am to speak up before listening, and how much that speech, even well intended, can be hurtful. I’m also aware that black Christian friends are often commodified as a sort of ‘resource’ in times like this; those we turn to only when it’s convenient and we feel there’s mileage to be made in centering activities; or those we only reach out to when it’s popular to do so.

It’s a fraught space to step into, especially if it is perceived as coming at the cost of those from the margins who have had to work for a platform, or to be listened to, in ways I can’t imagine — whether they are women, or from minorities, or in this particular case, women who are Aboriginal Christian leaders; those whose counsel I’ve sought, who have taught me as I’ve been on the journey with them.

Last week Aunty Jean Phillips phoned me about a rally being held in Brisbane over the weekend; a rally reported as a #BlackLivesMatter rally. She told me she would be attending, and she wanted to draw it to my attention. I didn’t go, partly as a result of my privilege — where I was still trying to decide on the efficacy of rallies, partly because life with small kids, in ministry, in this weird semi-lockdown age is confusing enough, life in ministry is challenging in this season, and for a whole bunch of other reasons that as I spoke to my friend Brooke today, just sounded a whole lot like the excuses I can make as a result of privilege, and only being indirectly effected by structural racism, and by Aboriginal deaths in custody. I admit that another large reason for not attending, for me, on Saturday, is that I think practicing social distancing is still the right thing to do; which is why I’m also not campaigning for restrictions to be lifted faster when it comes to church gatherings. And yet, Aunty Jean went. She’s in two significant risk categories. But how could she not? How can I not?

What I did promise Aunty Jean is that I was working on a letter about Aboriginal deaths in custody; following the urging of Brooke on the Common Grace website (there’s even a template). Brooke has been asking Australian Christians to pay attention to Aboriginal deaths in custody for years now. I’ve been to several #ChangeTheHeart services around January 26 where this is one of the key calls for prayer and action, alongside other initiatives that might close the gap. Brooke consistently urges us to listen, to learn three stories of Aboriginal Australians who have died in custody. This sort of listening is an act of de-centering; so to is acknowledging that listening is something you have been led to by those leaders who have been speaking up against racism in society and the church for years.

So I’m hesitantly offering this letter that I sent as an act of using my privilege for the sake of others, but also as an act of being on the journey with Aboriginal Christians; of listening, of seeking to not put my voice at the centre but to amplify others. Because Black lives do matter, and Australia still has structural issues that are the ongoing result of a time where nobody even paid lip service to that idea. We can’t jump from there to being colour blind; repentance and reconciliation are a process where we do have to examine the institutions, laws, cultural expectations, and practices — and the results they produce — that are the fruits of racism, whether that examination is in the church or society at large, and we must keep committing ourselves to reforming these structures.

I produced this letter because I told Aunty Jean I would, and I wrote it in consultation with Brooke — having asked her first if she, as an Aboriginal Christian Leader, was happy for me to not use the template (she was, so long as it rightly acknowledged a connection to a request from Common Grace, in connection to hearing first nations voices), and if she was happy to give advice as a first nations person — which she is, because to blunder in without such advice perpetuates a marginalisation of Aboriginal voices, and because part of ‘being on the journey’ together is a commitment to relationship and listening, and she gave me great advice on non-centering — particularly that always acknowledging those who have taught you is a good way of not making yourself the centre of attention.

Having witnessed, on Twitter, occasions where transgressions around centering behaviour and feeling the weight of the dilemma, I am thankful for the way that Christian leaders, powered by the Gospel, practice forgiveness around the bumbling efforts of privileged white blokes like me to escape the blinkers of colour blindness and privilege. Brooke and Aunty Jean are both consistently gracious in their responses to me, and others, in a way that without the unity we share in Jesus would be, evidently from Twitter, much more difficult. As Aunty Jean often says, there is no hope for reconciliation or a different Australia around these areas without the cross of Jesus.

Before you read my letter, can I encourage you to do six things:

  1. Commit yourself to listening to Aboriginal Christian leaders, not just privileged white blokes like me and Martyn Iles. There are good resources on the Common Grace website.
  2. Learn the stories of three Aboriginal deaths in custody — like Brooke has been urging us to for years. Here’s a starter on the issue.
  3. Write your own letter, using the template as a starting point, and ask for help from Brooke at Common Grace — join the journey (before you ask, Brooke has put plenty of resources for you to read on the website over the years. Read them first).
  4. Follow the example and call of Brooke, and Aunty Jean, and pray for our nation in this area.
  5. Don’t make this an issue of culture war/social justice ‘woke Christians’ v conservatives; make it an issue of seeking to learn our nation’s history and seeing the ongoing effects of that history, and committing yourself to act as someone shaped not by our nation’s story, but by the Gospel.
  6. Consider donating to the Common Grace 20 for Twenty campaign to employ an Aboriginal Christian Leader to work in this space.

To the Hon Mark Ryan MP, Minister for Police, Fire, and Emergency Services, and Corrective Services,

CC: The Hon Craig Crawford MP, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, The Hon Daniel Purdie MP, Shadow Minister for Police and Counter-Terrorism, and Corrective Services, the Hon Christian Rowan MP, the Shadow Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships

My name is Nathan Campbell. I live in Upper Mount Gravatt, in the Bonner Electorate. I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, and my parish meets in Annerley, in the Moreton electorate. My parishioners come from across the greater Brisbane area.

For a few years now I have been “on the journey” with Aboriginal Christian Leader, Aunty Jean Phillips — that’s what she calls it when white blokes like me are prepared to sit with her and to listen. Her generosity in thanking me for being “on the journey” as I listen blows my mind, because I feel like I am powerless to change much at all when it comes to structural inequality and its experience here in Australia. I often feel like I’m doing nothing. Common Grace, a movement led by CEO and Aboriginal Christian Leader Brooke Prentis has invited Christians to speak up, particularly about Aboriginal deaths in custody.

As a Christian I believe that each human, regardless of tribe, tongue, or nation, is made in the image of God; that our lives should reflect his goodness and love in the world, but also that each person has a dignity bestowed upon them by something beyond the self. This dignity cannot be taken away — but we humans can be good at not seeing it in ourselves, or in others. For too long, our western society has claimed to be developed from this idea that each person has inherent dignity, that each person is created equal, while not considering how an inter-generational failure to recognise that dignity in the other has become embedded in our structures, and in the experience of those at the margins of our society.

In recent weeks, as we marked Reconciliation Week, and witnessed the Black Lives Matter rallies around the world, we have all been reminded that one way this failure to recognise dignity, equality, and even the humanity of our first nations peoples manifests is in the ‘gap’ that is yet to be closed here in our country. We have also been reminded about the supreme goodness and necessity of genuine reconciliation, and our desire for it — another bedrock of any society that has been influenced by the Christian message of repentance, forgiveness, and new life together built on love. We are in need of deep, structural, repentance in Australia; in need of turning from an old way to something new, and we must, as we make these changes seek reconciliation with, and forgiveness from those we continue to wrong, our First Nations peoples.

While the Black Lives Matters movement gained momentum because of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police; the arms of government; we have our own very similar issues here in Australia. Aboriginal deaths in custody.

In 1991 a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that began in 1987 delivered its findings on 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody. 99 Australian Australian ‘George Floyds,’ with their own names, and stories. Since the Commission handed down its findings there have been hundreds more Aboriginal deaths in custody; many harrowingly similar to George Floyd’s death. Brooke Prentis and Aunty Jean Phillips challenged those on the journey to reconciliation with them to learn just three names and stories of first nations people who have died in custody. I wonder if you might be able to name three? Or whether you might learn three stories?

So I remember Trevor King, a 39 year old man from Townsville, who couldn’t breathe after officers spear tackled him into the ground, whose wife had called police because Trevor was talking about self-harm. Who died in the ambulance police called in 2018.

I remember Shaun Charles Coolwell, a 33 year old from Kingston, who, during his arrest was pinned, handcuffed, and injected with a sedative, before he had breathing problems. He died in hospital a few hours after his arrest in 2015.

I remember NRR, a 37 year old from Cairns, who was pinned to the ground by six neighbours after a violent altercation, and restrained face down with zip ties. By the time police arrived the Coroner’s Report says that Mr Reading was unconscious, and no longer a threat, however police handcuffed him and shortly afterwards his breathing stopped, he was unable to be resuscitated.

The idea of custody is an interesting one; that those who were the traditional custodians of our land, responsible for stewarding this part of God’s good creation are dying in what should be our nation’s care is a profound problem that should lead us to consider, for example, whether our police should be a “force” or a “service.” The Royal Commission’s report in 1991 made many recommendations that have not yet been implemented, including many that would have resulted in a different approach to policing in these three stories; recommendations about the decriminalisation of public drunkenness (recommendation 79), and of arrest being a last resort in situations like the ones in these stories (recommendation 87a). The report also recommends that officers should receive training that involves listening to Aboriginal people in “appropriate training and development program, designed to explain contemporary Aboriginal society, customs and traditions. Such programs should emphasise the historical and social factors which contribute to the disadvantaged position of many Aboriginal people today and to the nature of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities today. The Commission further recommends that such persons should wherever possible participate in discussion with members of the Aboriginal community in an informal way in order to improve cross-cultural understanding” (Recommendation 96).

As the Minister for both the Police, and Corrective Services departments here in Queensland, I urge you to consider the urgent adoption of these recommendations. There have been 28 Aboriginal deaths in custody in Queensland since 2008, many in situations paralleling George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Implementing many of these recommendations would require the sort of partnership between states, territories, parties, and the Federal government that we have seen displayed in the recent efforts to combat Covid-19 here in Australia; we now know such action in response to a health crisis is possible, and so I call on you to exercise the same leadership of our nation in this area by listening to the voices of First Nations people, and the Royal Commission, and ensuring we do not see another George Floyd, or TK, or Shaun Charles Coolwell, or NRR, here in Queensland.

I would love a reply to my letter outlining how the Government intends to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody, and where it stands in the ongoing process of implementing the recommendations of a Royal Commission that concluded 29 years ago.

I will continue to uphold you and other members of the Queensland Parliament in prayer as you seek to lead us in listening and seeking reconciliation with our First Nations people. I would be happy to arrange contact with Aunty Jean Phillips and Brooke Prentis should you wish to join us on the journey.

Yours Faithfully,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

The climate apocalypse is real, and here’s why we need a different sort of climate apocalypse that begins with Jesus (and us Christians)

11,000 scientists from around the globe have joined forces this week to declare a climate emergency, signing a paper warning of catastrophic threat to humanity. It’s a pretty apocalyptic sort of vision.

Are you listening?

I’m not a scientist, so I tend to leave science to scientists. Which means I am listening.

I am open to questioning the worldview or default assumptions underpinning some science — in that, as someone who is a Christian I do also believe in a supernatural realm and a God ‘in whom we live and breathe and have our being’ who ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ and I’m skeptical of scientific overreach where conclusions are drawn about the legitimacy of such a being because of ‘science.’ As a quick tangent — science as we know it is born out of theism — Christianity specifically in the western world, and Islam in other parts of the world. For Christians, from the Bible (for eg Romans 1:20), through Augustine, the Bacons, and other pioneers of the scientific method science was a way to study the cosmos as ‘God’s second book’ — understanding God from what has been made. When we observe natural operations and order in the cosmos (like mathematics and natural laws) we are seeing God’s handiwork. Part of the problem, in the Bible, is that we can’t always get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ because we humans are so busy writing our own stories into the fabric of the universe as we build and break, but also there’s this dynamic right from the first pages of the Bible where that good order is thrown into ‘disorder’ or decay, frustration, and curse as a result of human sin. Plus, a sensitive reading of Genesis 1-2 suggests there are bits of creation that are less than perfectly ordered in that the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are meant to “cultivate and keep” this garden, so probably to expand it over the earth as they “be fruitful and multiply.” The Garden, Eden, does not yet cover the whole earth. There’s space for some chaos existing outside the garden in a plain reading of the text of Genesis.

Christians have typically understood God’s first book — the Bible — as the primary authority in a way that shapes (and underpins) the scientific endeavour. If there appears to be a conflict we’re either reading one (the Bible or the science) or both books (the Bible and the science) the wrong way. When they line up we can be pretty confident, as Christians, that there’s something to pay attention to. We don’t need to reject or be suspicious of science simply because it is ‘science’; or to conform every bit of what we believe to be true about the universe to what scientists tell us (or the conclusions that naturalistic scientists then might seek to draw from the data).

So when 11,000 scientists — and plenty of Christian scientists — tell me that the world is heading towards catastrophic change, and I can see a pretty direct link to individual and systemic sin — particularly greed or selfishness or our culture of instant gratification and taking what we want from the world rather than stewarding it sustainably as an act of love for God the creator, and our neighbour — as a cause then I’m happy to take note. I’m not, for the record, a Young Earth Creationist TM  so I’m not inclined to reject science simply because it is science, but I do take Genesis very seriously as a text that informs my position on this question. I’ve been puzzled for a while about an apparent link between young earth creationism and rejecting anthropomorphic climate change because it seems to me that a plain, literal, reading of the text of Genesis directly links the state of the planet to human action (the subsequent promise not to wipe out humanity with another flood in the Noah narrative notwithstanding). Here’s what God says to Adam about sin and the climate. The fall itself is a sinful, self-serving, grasping, pillaging approach to the created world — the taking of the fruit God had forbidden to use for Adam and Eve’s own ends.

“Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

This seems to be a big deal for Paul in the book of Romans, who spends a bunch of time showing that Jesus is a new Adam, who brings a new pattern for humanity (a new image of God to be conformed to), where we become the ‘children of God’ that the creation itself is longing for. Or, as Paul puts it:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. — Romans 8:20-22

The command for humanity to ‘be fruitful and multiply, rule the earth and subdue it’ is not a command to rape and pillage the creation, but to interact with the created world as image bearers of the life giving, life creating, God who makes things good and hospitable; it’s a call to cultivate Eden across the face of the earth not strip mine it to build little palaces for ourselves that mitigate the harsh conditions we find ourselves living in. The post-fall, cursed, world is the reality we exist in and have to figure out our ethics from. We don’t pretend the creation is not cursed or frustrated as a result of the fall of God’s image bearing rulers (we’re certainly not universally pursuing fruitfulness and the sanctuary where God dwells with his people post Genesis 3). We also can’t totally pull the conditions of the new creation — described in Revelation 21-22 back into the present. We should expect fallen people to be producing cursed conditions rather than life-giving ones as they depart from bearing God’s image in the world. This is one of the things that was most beautiful about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah movie a few years ago; the way it showed how the sinfulness of the generation God wiped out in the flood expressed itself in the treatment of the world; it’s what is beautiful about Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the way that Mordor is a picture of the destruction of the planet through the idolatrous pursuit of control, wealth and power (this link is to a great piece exploring this dynamic, but also check out the Eucatastrophe’s episode on why they’re called The Eucatastrophe for more on this). Human sinfulness damages the world, and you don’t have to be an expert on ecology to know that there are cycles in nature that can be thrown into different patterns as we tinker with or destroy the natural order — it shouldn’t surprise us that pumping anything into the air that wasn’t there in the same volume before has an impact (I mean, it’s obvious with air pollution and air quality in cities right? And in water quality when we pump stuff into rivers or oceans).

The Noah promise that I’ve seen politically conservative Christians rely on to reject climate change is one piece of Biblical data pulled out of the context of the rest of the Biblical narrative. You don’t even have to leave the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, a literary unit of which Genesis and the Noah story is a part) to find evidence supporting a relationship between human sinfulness and the state of the climate. What’s going on in God’s “never again will I curse the ground” with Noah is clearly not a return to Eden, and clearly not a restoration of a universal image bearing people — the children of God — who will live rightly with creation. It doesn’t prevent human intervention in messing up the world. God’s sovereignty doesn’t ever seem to totally try to wipe out the human impact on the world except at the flood. Maybe that’s significant in our interpretation… in fact, from this point onwards, fruitful, blessed creation where the conditions for human flourishing are most present in the world (not withstanding God sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous) are promised benefits for people living in harmony with God again — whether that’s Israel and the promised land (eg Deuteronomy 28:1-11), the promise that the land will become hostile to life if Israel becomes hostile to God (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), and restored if they return to God (Deuteronomy 30:1-11), Ezekiel’s description of the barren land produced by Israel’s profaning God’s name and subsequent exile, and the promise of a new Eden when God re-creates a new image bearing people who serve him from the heart… the conditions of the world are, from Genesis on always linked to whether or not the people living in the environment are in relationship with God or not; when they aren’t, curse and destruction follows.

The Bible’s approach to the natural world and its hospitality for life is anthropomorphic not simply about God’s sovereignty; though God’s sovereignty plays out in blessing and curse. Here’s a sample from Deuteronomy 28, which comes, of course, after the Genesis 9:11 passage that climate change skeptics love to quote. This is the sort of doom and gloom apocalyptic vision we now hear from scientists — talk about uninhabitable for human life…

“The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” — Deuteronomy 28:22-24

Oh, and there’s this cheery bit in Deuteronomy 29…

The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in fierce anger. All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer will be: “It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.” — Deuteronomy 29:23-28

If God, in his sovereignty, says this is how he will respond to sin — and sin often expresses itself in a failure to steward creation or to seek the flourishing of others (selfishness/self-gratification/pillaging) — then who are we to insist that climate change is not a result of human behaviour and not consistent with God’s sovereignty?

Now, these curses are just promises to Israel, God’s people — and it’s not a great principle to extrapolate from such a curse to a universal principle; but nor can we use the words in Genesis 9 to establish a universal principle that Deuteronomy 28 explicitly rejects. Especially when Romans 8 seems to still see a universal frustration of creation linked to humanity not universally being Adam-like children of God who bring fruitfulness. There’s also, in Genesis 12, the promise that God’s blessing on the nations — their flourishing — is connected to Israel. We see a slice of that in Joseph’s relationship with Egypt, but more with Solomon’s international relations (not the marriage bits, their coming to him for wisdom on how to live in the natural world (you know, the world he compiled proverbs about)). But this promise to Abraham is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus (which is where Paul goes in Romans 9), so that real blessing and the real people of God who really start unravelling curse is found in those united to Jesus as the new Israel; the people of God who bring life and relate to the world differently because we have the Spirit (which is the fulfilment of the prophecies in Ezekiel that start the new Eden project).

Jesus is the new Adam, the New Israel, who is faithful — whose heart is inclined to God so that the restoration promised in the Old Testament is possible. As a cool bonus detail, in his resurrection appearance he appears as a ‘gardener’ a new Adam bringing a new image of fruitfulness and, ultimately, the liberation of creation from sin and curse (Romans 8, Revelation 21-22). His obedience means that he and the father pour out the Spirit and re-create people who are children of God.  People who are called not to conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed (Romans 12). People who are part of a liberating project that will ultimately be fulfilled in the return of Jesus and the complete revelation of the children of God.

Here’s a fun fact about Romans 8:19, which says “for the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” That revealed word is ‘apocalypse’ — apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — but creation is waiting for the apocalyptic children of God. People who will help creation meet its ‘end’ or fulfilment (as the children of God are revealed) and live in a new beginning for the created world too. The point of Romans is that the apocalypse doesn’t just arrive with the return of Jesus but with the coming of the Spirit into his people. We live in this apocalyptic, revealing, age pointing to the ultimate end (both purpose and future) for creation — and to where creation goes when we humans use it for our own godless ends.

Some Christian political visions do pretty odd stuff with Revelation as a text; Revelation is a pretty odd text. But Revelation is an ‘apocalyptic’ text (again, that word). It reveals true things about the world as it is; not just as it will be. It is a profoundly political text; a rejection of the beastly human empires that kill God’s children, including his son, Jesus, and who use God’s creation for selfish gain. It’s a text that offers a similar commentary on reality to the Lord of the Rings; especially in the first century. If you want more on this, check out Richard Bauckham’s work on Revelation. He’s got an interesting chapter on Revelation 18 and its economic/apocalyptic significance in a book called Image of Empire (though I think a better reading of Revelation than he offers has Rome as the beast, and idolatrous Israel who sold her soul to Rome and conspired with it to execute Jesus as the harlot).

Here’s an interesting promise, from God, about the nations and the climate… 

‘Come out of her, my people,’
    so that you will not share in her sins,
    so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
    and God has remembered her crimes.
Give back to her as she has given;
    pay her back double for what she has done.
    Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief
    as the glory and luxury she gave herself.
In her heart she boasts,
    ‘I sit enthroned as queen.
I am not a widow;
    I will never mourn.’
Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her:
    death, mourning and famine.
She will be consumed by fire,
    for mighty is the Lord God who judges her. — Revelation 18:4-8

Sound familiar? Now, people have all sorts of positions on when this will happen (or has happened) — the ‘apocalyptic times’ — but the point of Romans and Revelation is that the apocalyptic times are now. This is life now because it is life opposed to God. John in Revelation describes the cargoes of all the merchants who belong to Rome/Babylon — they get rich from the things they dig up and produce from the world; things specifically mentioned in Eden in Genesis, but also recalibrated to give glory to God in the vision of the new Eden and new temple in Revelation 21. Revelation is a condemnation of the empires that set themselves up grasping and destroying the world and living for self and self-gratification and the moment, rather than living for God with eternal fruitfulness and the kingdom of Jesus in view. The message of Revelation is that kingdoms — lives — built on pillaging and destruction and greed and the rejection of God — the kind of lives it describes as belonging to Babylon — the nation that took God’s people into exile — will not last. Lives that seek to control the frustrated creation by building human comfort through making ourselves little gods, and through the robbery and misery of others will be destroyed… and that Jesus will make all things new. Jesus will, ultimately, fix the climate. And when this is our story, the lives we live now — and our interaction with and understanding of the natural world — will look different to Babylon; and we’ll expect Babylon and its sin to have an impact on the world.

The vision that is to animate Christians against the beastly Babylonian backdrop the first Christians found themselves operating in in Rome, and that we find ourselves operating in today (which includes economic and political powers that destroy the planet); is the vision of a new Eden; a new Eden requires a world that is broken by sin and curse — by human actions and God’s punishment for our sin — a world longing to be renewed.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” — Revelation 22:1-3

Those of us who are Christians now live in these ‘apocalyptic’ times differently. We live as those restored from exile from God — the exile that began for humanity in the loss of Eden, and for Israel in Babylon. We live as people with God’s Spirit in us; people living in the dawn of an ‘apocalyptic’ end times age. People knowing where things are going; but our neighbours don’t. And the world is still frustrated and will still be messed up by ‘Babylonian sin’ — by those exiled from God who aren’t bearing his image, but the image of the destructive idols we pursue instead. Those who don’t fruitfully multiply by cultivating the earth, but bring death and destruction by pillaging it. We live as a kingdom called to be different, with our vision of the future shaping how we live now, and the kind of solution or apocalypse we proclaim as we ‘garden’ and serve the resurrected gardener. Our apocalyptic vision is the new eden project.

When scientists say ‘we’re heading towards climate catastrophe’ and the reasons we get look a lot like us taking creation and trying to be God with it from sinful, selfish, hearts — then we Christians are pretty well positioned to say “amen” and offer a solution that isn’t just human-driven salvation, but a return from being exiled from the creator to being the image bearing gardeners we were created to be, who in partnership with God, spread the conditions of life through the planet again; that’s one way Christians might bear witness not just to the creation but to the new creation we see depicted in Revelation; where Jesus returns to make ‘all things new’ — until that happens, in a Romans 8 sense, we have the job of being ‘children of God’ who are mini pictures of the returning Jesus, being transformed into his image by the Spirit because we have faith that he is our Lord and king and the pattern for our humanity. Maybe we need to re-read or re-watch the Lord of the Rings and commit ourselves to a certain sort of heroism; maybe fantasy might help us see nature as part of a cosmic battle between God’s design and the patterns of the evil one. We can bring little pockets of life-giving liberation and resistance in those parts of creation we occupy and cultivate. We can commit ourselves to stewarding creation for our neighbours, and their children, as an act of worship. A friend of mine from church has launched a project aiming to live a carbon positive life; he’s blogging his way through it. Another friend is blogging through her own journey in stopping what I’d call ‘Babylonian’ practices and starting ‘Eden’ ones. We can do our bit to resist the systemic and individual patterns of life that bring destruction. We can do this while preaching the Gospel, proclaiming that the resurrected Jesus brings new life, and launched the new Eden project, that is the ultimate solution to human sinfulness and its impact on the world, and the end of God’s curse.

We need to embrace a different sort of apocalyptic way of life, one that sees the world and its patterns as they are, a source of death and curse, and Jesus and his patterns as they are, a source of life and blessing.

The ACL and Luther’s “Theology of the Cross v Theology of Glory”

Be careful what you wish for…

I’m starting to think I liked it better when the Australian Christian Lobby never mentioned Jesus.

The ACL’s website describes the organisation’s mission in the following terms:

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. Proverbs 14:34

To this end, Christian institutions are being undermined. Churches are being pressured by new moral and legal norms. Individuals who speak or live consistent with truth are made a prey.

To stand for truth in public as a relentless, unquieted, and effective voice, is a leadership role that is desperately needed. It requires divinely inspired courage, wisdom, and endurance.

But the courage of one inspires the courage of others. And the truth, whenever it is spoken, will yield fruit.”

It also says:

“Isaiah 59 records God’s displeasure at the paradigm in Israel which so closely mirrors the concerns articulated in Australia. In particular, the Lord marvelled that “there was no one to intercede.”

ACL seeks to ensure that such a statement cannot be made of modern Australia. To intercede for the cause of truth, righteousness, and justice in the public squares is our burden and our core business. This includes interceding for the cause of those who are made a prey.”

And finally:

“We want to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate as a society. We want Australia to become a more just and compassionate nation.”

Now. These might sound like noble aims; the sort of thing that most Christians would want to get on board with out of love for our neighbour. This courageous standing for righteousness in the public square sounds like a tremendous thing to do, and the ‘leadership’ it involves sounds positively heroic. Glorious even.

It sounds a lot like Rodger Ramjet. Now, whenever I read anything by the ACL I’m going to be singing this theme song in my head.

Martyn Iles now likes to dish out his wisdom and leadership via his video blog and his Facebook Page. Now, I’m not really in a position to judge; I have a blog, after all. And a Facebook page. But I did read this missive from  Sunday night, reflecting on the sort of leadership the yoof of todayTM require, the sort of leadership or example the ACL and its head hero would like to bring to the public square in pursuit of truth, justice, and the Christendom way.

Iles says:

I am constantly asked questions along the lines of “how can we reach young people?”

One thing I have learned over the last decade is, if you are a man, today’s young person will be drawn to your:

1) Strength
2) Wisdom
3) Goodness

Put simply, they are searching for people to look up to; people who tower over them.

Stop trying to be their bestie and their equal. Stop living like an apology to them. They don’t want friends and equals – they have people their own age for that, who will always be better at it.

They want trustworthy leaders and examples.

And here’s the tragedy: they often don’t find them.

People just need to know where to look for this sort of leader. One who stands above the fray and fixes problems not by being a ‘bestie’ to those they’re leading, or their equal…

… But by being ‘trustworthy’ — you know, not slandering women who come forward with embarrassing information that your new bestie and equal is someone you’re not equally yoked with because they deny the fundamental tenets of your faith… like the Trinity, and even your own salvation because you were presumably baptised in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit… Trustworthy, like coming forward and saying “yes, this is true, Israel’s beliefs put him outside the Christian church as we understand it, but we support his rights to hold religious beliefs we profoundly disagree with.” Instead of attacking someone as “having an axe to grind”…

I just want to very briefly unpack the problems with both the ACL’s ‘about’ page, and Martyn’s logic in this Facebook post, just for a moment.

The ACL has a strong track record of making natural law arguments and wisdom arguments for public and private morality and righteousness in the Australian cultural frame; and I tend to agree that natural law and wisdom are good things because they tend to be oriented towards the intended telos of all created things — they reflect the divine nature and character of God; nature is ordered to grace. God has two books of revelation — the natural world, and his revealed word, which culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh (John 1:1-18, Hebrews 1, Luke 24, etc). But here’s the thing; the ACL wants their leadership on moral and political issues to influence Australia, and they seek to exercise this leadership through wisdom and natural law arguments, and often through political power and legislation (they are a political lobby group, after all). Their approach to social change is ‘top down’ though they are a grass roots organisation (so they’re attempting to change the top down approach from the bottom up). Confused? Good. It gets worse.

The Bible suggests there might be a problem with this approach; the human heart. Romans 1 says that rather than creation being ordered towards grace in the human heart, creation is ordered towards self; while all things that have been made were made to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God,’ we humans take creation and worship it in God’s place (Romans 1:20, 25). This does things to our capacity to recognise wisdom, and, in fact, we humans become fools. Romans has an answer for this foolishness; the new hearts that come through the Gospel, which Paul calls the power of God (Romans 1:16). The Gospel reveals the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is actually revealed not in the law — whether natural or Old Testament moral law; but in Jesus, through the Gospel (Romans 1:17). The law, the Old Testament variety, actually reveals our unrighteousness (Romans 3:20), it isn’t so much a guide for righteousness but a pointer to its fulfilment (the same logic from Matthew 5, and Luke 24 — the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus). The ACL wants a more righteous Australia, but Paul says that righteousness comes from only one source, he says: But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22).

Without the Gospel our attempts at righteousness will come to naught and our claims of wisdom will be foolishness in God’s sight. Paul makes a similar argument about the Cross being the wisdom of God, but foolishness to the world in 1 Corinthians 1. Without the Gospel we do not receive God’s Spirit which unites us in Christ, and so gives us God’s righteousness. Without the Gospel of the crucified Jesus — God’s wisdom — and the transformation we receive by faith, there is no righteousness. Paul says this sort of endeavour is pointless.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8)

Campaigning for righteousness without the Gospel, as Christians, doesn’t make you Roger Ramjet; it makes you a kamikaze Don Quixote; flying planes into windmills.

Which brings me back to Martyn Iles and the tall man syndrome on display in his post; he has observed a pattern in creation (wisdom), whereby the ‘yoof of todayTM‘ require “strength, wisdom, goodness” and a towering presence; a Roger Ramjet like figure. Trustworthy leaders and examples who will stand strong against the dragons (possibly windmills) of modern life. Leaders like himTM who happen to be tall and chiseled; not that there is anything wrong with being tall. I am tall. There’s a bit of Jordan Peterson’s upright, shoulders back, top lobster in Iles’ observation — his suggestion that the sort of person the world wants, the type who might lead the sort of charge the ACL wants led, will be a person “who tower[s] over” others. A towering leaderly type who is strong, and wise and good. Now strength, and wisdom, and goodness are all virtues. But this towering righteous figure of courage; this dragon slayer; who is going to set an example — he’s going to have to do that in one of two ways. He can do it Ramjet style, and seek to bring righteousness to the public square through law and order (not the TV show), through politics and power, through ‘towering strength’ while people look up to them… standing up against anyone — even Christian women concerned about the Trinity — who’ll get in the way of truth, justice, and the Christendom way; or he can do it like the Apostle Paul, as he imitated the Lord Jesus Christ.

These two choices are choices Martin Luther described as the choice between adopting a “theology of glory” or a “theology of the cross”… Paul had a particular understanding of the posture Jesus took towards others; it wasn’t one of ‘towering over’ but of sacrificial service; of lowering and letting go of status; to the point of humiliating death on the cross; Jesus went as low as could be (Philippians 2). This was the example Paul followed; he saw the cross as God’s wisdom, which meant he didn’t come into the public square as a burnished up champion in armour riding a steed in triumph, towering above all, but as the vanquished captive at the end of the procession. The humiliated loser. He contrasts himself with a Corinthian church who perhaps think they’re campaigning for a more righteous Corinth, but really they’re campaigning for a more worldly Jesus; the Corinthian church is obsessed with worldly power and status and influence. And Paul wants to turn their whole world upside down by pointing them to the cross.

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.” — 1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:9-13

And when it comes to the example Paul thinks he is following in this posture — one that shapes his ‘becoming all things’ including a servant, to all people, is the example of Jesus; the Jesus he describes in Philippians 2. He says to the Corinthians:

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” — ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭11:1‬ ‭

And if it’s not clear that he means the crucified Jesus he’s been preaching about — as he has resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified; preaching the Gospel — the power of God — when he writes a return letter to the church in Corinth after they’ve signed up a bunch of Roger Ramjet type Super Apostles who keep attracting people to themselves by being tall, and wise, and eloquent and all the things the Corinthians wish Paul was… he returns fire with:

“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” — ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭11:30‬

‭And then describes his calling, from God, and his understanding of the rationale for delighting in the world treating him the way it treated Jesus.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭12:9-10‬ ‭

Paul doesn’t sound like the sort of figure who towers over others and who is looked up to; instead he follows the Lord who lowered himself.

Look, like the ACL, I’d love to see a more righteous and compassionate Australia; a more just nation. Unlike the ACL, I’d like to see those desires extend to policies that deal with refugees and asylum seekers, and to our first nations people, and to how we justly participate in the use of natural resource for life and our enjoyment and that of future generations… not just religious freedom, the Lord’s Prayer in parliament (and not even that), abortion, etc.

Like Martyn Iles I’d like to see lots of examples of Christian leadership raised up. I’d just like to see them raised up to testify to Jesus in the public square and reveal the source of God’s righteousness; and to do that by making it clear that God is revealed not in Roger Ramjets jawline and muscular heroism, but in the mess and blood and sacrificial humiliation of the cross. We’re not just tilting at windmills; there is a dragon. Satan. A dragon defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus who still has followers who like to wield beastly worldly power to fight against God’s kingdom; this is John’s apocalyptic vision of the economic and political power wielded by the Roman empire. John describes the witness of the faithful church — the ‘two lampstands’ of Revelation — and its results.

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. — Revelation 11:7-8

The inhabitants of the world look on and gloat, but then, in the very next chapter John reminds us that the dragon was defeated; that Jesus dealt him a death blow in his crucifixion and now he’s thrashing about mortally wounded. The cosmic, apocalyptic, victory has already been won; when the curtains are pulled back on the heavenly significance of Jesus’ humiliating death we see the destruction of unrighteouness secured through “the blood of the lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:7-17).

So by all means, let’s call for courageous leadership in the public square; but that looks like testifying to Jesus Christ, not calling people to law and order. The call to law and order will fail to produce the righteousness the ACL desires; their own handbook, the Bible, suggests theirs is a fool’s errand. They are bringing a ‘theology of glory’ approach to a fight that requires a ‘theology of the cross.’ Luther coined these categories in The Heidelberg Disputations, a public debate about theology (the sort the ACL tells us, or at least Martyn does, that we shouldn’t be having in public). Luther condemns those who seek to produce righteousness by ‘works of man’ — whether that be leadership, or the creation of laws or policies, or even the preaching of the law without grace — and says the works of God always appear ugly and foolish like the cross; lowly rather than towering. He notes that just recognising good and virtuous things in the world does not make one worthy and wise, or a theologian; a true theologian “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” A true theologian; a true leader who might point us towards righteousness, is one who frames his understanding of righteousness not through the wisdom and power of the world — looking for towering leaders, but through the folly and weakness of the cross, looking for self-effacing, servant leaders.

Luther says:

“A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the “old Adam,” who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his “good works” unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.

That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened. This has already been said. Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on.”

We don’t need a generation of towering heroes, or Roger Ramjets, crashing their planes into whatever looks like a dragon. We need a generation of self-emptying theologians of the cross who model service and suffering for the sake of others; weakness not strength — who truly see the cross as the power and wisdom of God, not some thing to be moved past and overcome as we seek to bring God’s kingdom of righteousness through our own power, but as the very key to the kingdom and the demonstration of its ethos and power. God’s glory and righteousness is revealed in the weakness of Christ on the cross; and in his power to resurrect even in the face of those evil powers who would seek to silence the testimony of his witnesses; the church.

If you want a more righteous Australia, preach the Gospel to more Australians and trust that it is God’s power for salvation for all who believe.

Truth made public? Izzy, the ACL, and the smoking gun…

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) re-branded recently. It adopted the tagline “Truth Made Public.” New chief, Martyn Iles, has successfully reintroduced religious language into the ACL’s public platform, and has set about creating a new approach to politics that saw the organisation focus its energies on marginal seats, which meant publishing election materials that promoted One Nation, and then defending that position on the basis that the party provides better access to the political process for the ACL (and thus its “Christian constituency” than other parties, and that it had clearer policies on the ACL’s ‘big ticket’ Christian priorities, which included the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament, and religious freedom).

The ACL is enjoying a post-plebiscite moment in the sun thanks to the Israel Folau saga. The organisation stepped in after Folau’s crowd sourcing fundraiser was deplatformed by GoFundMe, donated $100,000, and raised $2.2 million on the basis that Folau’s situation with Rugby Australia was a result of a Christian expressing his Christian beliefs and losing his job as a result. The fundraising page contains a statement from Mr Folau that says:

“I am also a Christian. My faith is the most important thing in my life. I try to live my life according to the Bible and I believe it is my duty to share the word of the Bible.”

Israel Folau has a religious history as complicated as his sporting code history. He grew up in the Mormon church, with his family, left that church (changed codes), with his family, joined the pentecostal church (Hillsong specifically), left that church (changed codes again), with his family, and now is part of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church in Sydney, with his family — specifically his father Eni Folau is the pastor of that church, and he and his cousin Josiah often preach at the church (videos of their sermons are posted on the church’s Facebook page).

After leaving Hillsong, in 2018, the Folaus were caught up in the ‘oneness pentecostalism’ of Gino Jennings. In 2018 Israel Folau tweeted:

“To be born again you MUST, repent of your sins, be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and then prayed upon asking God to receive the holy spirit. If you’ve done it a different way from this then you aren’t born again. John 3:3,5 Acts 2:38 Acts 19:1-6

Jesus Christ was the vessel of God, God is a spirit. He formed the body of Jesus Christ and was in him. And the holy spirit is the characteristics or functions of God. But it’s not 3 or the trinity but just him alone. Isaiah 43:10

There’s nothing in the bible that says anything about a trinity.”

There is nothing hidden about these tweets, and no reason from Folau’s stream of public Christianity since, or the publicly available teachings of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church (including Israel’s own sermons) that suggest he has changed his position.

These are the sort of tweets that might have a Christian lobby group doing some due diligence before posting a testimony to their website with the footballer claiming to be a Christian.

Because here’s the thing; theology is fundamentally integrated. What a person believes about the nature of God will shape how they understand the person and work of Jesus, and so will frame how somebody understands the Gospel. There’s actually a particularity to Folau’s expressed views on baptism here; like other ‘oneness’ co-religionists, Folau (and his church) believe that if you are baptised following a formula based on Matthew 28:18-20 (in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit), then you are not born again; you must, indeed, be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.

Watch enough of the sermons on the Truth of Jesus Christ Facebook page and you’ll see some deliberately strange terminology being used around the Trinity. There is “one God, and his name is Jesus Christ.” The sort of belief the Folaus espouse has a fancy label ‘modalistic monarchianism‘; it ends up with a wonky Christology because ultimately Jesus, the son, does not remain incarnate and human and ascended to heaven as the first fruits of our resurrection, he goes back to being God the Spirit, and people are meant to switch to praying to him as ‘father’. How that works with, say, Jesus interceding for us, or redeeming us, or many other parts of how ‘Christology’ works gets very messy very quickly (because theology is integrated). It’s hard to say at this point that the words ‘Jesus is Lord’; given by Paul as a sort of litmus test for the presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12) has the same content or meaning as you’d find in the Bible (not just emerging in the history of the church).

There are a few historic creeds that all Christian denominations recognise. And these creeds are often used as a framework for assessing whether or not a person who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. These are the reason that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also deny the Trinity, are not considered to be “Christians.” These creeds universally uphold the Trinity. I really like this bloke in church history named Athanasius. He wrote lots about the incarnation of Jesus; that he was God’s eternal word made flesh. I remember my mind being blown when I realised that the incarnation of the word doesn’t end with the ascension of Jesus; that Jesus remaining ‘in the flesh’ means that the sacrifice of the incarnation goes way beyond the cross and the Easter event, and continues for eternity as Jesus, though in very nature God, remains fully human and fully divine. That’s a big deal for the way God’s dealing with humanity works in an ongoing sense — the divine human Jesus in heaven interceding for us as we pray, the efficacy of his sacrifice on our behalf and the mystery of our union with him, by the Spirit (which he and the Father pour out on us) such that he is able to stand in our place. Theology is integrated; and the Christian Gospel requires a fully divine Jesus, and a fully human Jesus, and prior to that, a Triune God. The way Athanasius drew threads of the story of the Bible together to help us grasp this picture was recorded in ‘The Athanasian Creed’ (though probably not by him). Here are some quotes:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.”

And:

“Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works.”

There is of course the earlier (and more widely authoritative) Apostles’ Creed (390AD) which is Trinitarian in its structure, and content, and before that, the Nicene Creed (325AD), which is essentially, explicitly, a statement about the Trinity and the way the Triune God works in the world and in salvation. It also contains the following statement.

“But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’ — they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church”

The word ‘catholic’ here simply means universal; these creeds were formulated before the schism between the eastern and western churches, and before the protestant reformation. The Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant churches all uphold belief in the Trinity as essential. Mysterious and difficult, certainly. But essential to knowing God.

When the Folau family and their theological buddy Gino Jennings stand against the Trinity they stand not only against the Scriptures, and the tradition of the church, but also against intellectual giants like Athanasius. They are choosing to position themselves at odds with these statements of belief, and so, drawing a clear line. They are staking their salvation on the idea that they are right about God, but almost the entirety of church history is wrong. In fact, their bet is that the Mormons and JWs are closer in their understanding of God than the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions.

Because theology is integrated and Israel Folau’s view of personal salvation (shared by his church) involves a particular form of baptism, and particular beliefs about God, we shouldn’t be surprised that his proclamation of what he believes is the “good news” takes a particular form that feels different to the Christian Gospel. Because the Folau’s church insists that they derive their doctrine from ‘the Bible alone’ but they also rule out the Trinity, we should expect the church to have a different, idiosyncratic, interpretive grid. It shouldn’t surprise us when they take hard, literal, interpretation, for example, to the english word ‘homosexual’ without considering what the words might mean in the greek; language study is, for them, a move from the ‘plain reading’ of the Scriptures.

Over the weekend the Sydney Morning Herald published a story about Folau’s beliefs (or the beliefs of his father’s church). Celebrated journalist Kate McClymont spent weeks investigating this piece and validating the testimony of her sources. I know this because I was a source for the story, or, more particularly, because the story is built on the testimony of a ‘concerned mum’ of an up and coming Rugby player, and I know this mum, who sought my advice on some of the theology being espoused by Folau’s church. She reached out to me a few weeks ago and we have since become friends. We had coffee yesterday. She is a real person. She is who she says she is: a mother of a Rugby player, and a Christian who worked for some time in Christian ministry. She’ll be sharing more of her story in coming days, but I’ve seen her evidence from an undercover trip to the Folau’s church, where Israel’s father, Eni, laid out the church’s position on the Trinity. They told her that there is one God in heaven, whose name is Jesus Christ (you’ll also find this in their published sermons), and that when Jesus was alive on earth it was God the father inhabiting a body, and that after his resurrection he returned to be Jesus Christ, the father. When my friend asked how this fit with the Lord’s prayer and Jesus’ instruction to pray to the father he was talking about prayer when he goes back to the title “father,” when he goes back to heaven. My friend also has message transcripts from her contact with the church and its representative (Israel’s cousin) on Facebook.

The publication of this story clarified what was already public knowledge from Israel’s tweets. The Truth of Jesus Christ Church, pastored by Israel’s father Eni, that rents space of a Uniting Church and meets midweek in the Folau family home (where my friend was offered baptism in the backyard pool), is heterodox. It is not a Christian church in any meaningful sense.

When this story broke instead of issuing a mea culpa, acknowledging that Folau’s position puts him outside the Christian constituency, the constituency the ACL turned to to raise financial support for Israel’s trial on the basis that Israel was a fellow Christian being persecuted for expressing Christian beliefs, the ACL’s Martyn Iles doubled down and attacked both the mum, and a multi-award winning investigative journalist. Instead of saying ‘we didn’t do our due diligence on Folau, and we apologise for the confusion caused by presenting him as a Christian, but his legal plight is a matter of religious freedom and we still believe this to be important’… He did a Donald Trump. He played the ‘fake news’ card. He sought to undermine the public’s confidence in the sort of institutions our democracy needs to function by attacking the story; and he did this by bringing Folau closer to the fold. He showed that for the ACL correct politics — or political advantage — is more important than correct doctrine (just as he did in the election when endorsing One Nation because they’d give his organisation better political access).

Mr Iles is quoted in the Herald piece saying:

“I have never heard from him anything which contradicts mainstream Christian belief. That is not to say there is no disagreement – I am sure there is – but some disagreement is normal between Christian denominations.”

Whether or not the Trinity is real definitely contradicts mainstream Christian belief and is not simply the type of disagreement that is “normal between Christian denominations” it is what separates “Christian denominations” from other religions; like Judaism, and Islam.

His Facebook statement said:

“His [Israel’s] alleged beliefs are largely unsourced and unreferenced.

It is written by hostile journalists who have been listening to a woman with an axe to grind against Izzy’s family (who won’t identify herself and has been trying to make trouble for a while now).

Izzy’s people asked to include a comment in the article, even if only one sentence, and was refused.

I can’t claim to know all of Israel’s theology, but I have spoken with him and friends of his enough to know that what’s written contains errors.”

It seems unbelievable to me that Iles did no checking into Folau’s theology before endorsing him on their website (and in his video blog) as a Christian. Folau had been a Mormon, and his tweet about the Trinity became part of the coverage of his first foray into social media controversy. But this is not the smoking gun. It is, however, classic ‘culture war’ stuff; it’s a playbook Trump perfected. You play to your base. You deny. You redirect the attack back to the ‘other’… The “Real Mark Latham” chimed in on Twitter to suggest that this mum, my friend, is a fake.

A day later Iles shared the Folau’s statement, again on Facebook.

“We are extremely disappointed the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont did not seek comment from Israel, his family or his church, for her story focussed on Israel’s church and its doctrine.

The story carried a number of factual inaccuracies which could have been avoided had Ms McClymont simply followed standard journalism practice and approached us for comment.

The story appears to be based predominantly on quotes from a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia. Any suggestion that Israel would stand in judgment of another person is incorrect.”

This is an interesting ‘clarification’ that elucidates nothing; there is no identifying of what claim is inaccurate, and given that my friend tells me the claims in the story were predominantly copied and pasted from messages sent to her by Folau’s church, and the story claims to be representing the views of the church, these seem pretty watertight; and consistent with what was said to my friend in her visit to the church.

So here’s the smoking gun.

The ACL’s tagline is “truth made public”.

The truth is that this mum, my friend, brought the content of the story; the beliefs of Folau’s church, to Martyn Iles attention, directly, over the phone, in the first week in July. She did this because she was concerned about the doctrines Folau holds, having seen his influence in the Rugby community. She was concerned that Folau’s beliefs fell outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, and that the ACL needed to know the truth (and communicate it). She withheld her name in that conversation because she wants to protect her son from repercussions or reprisals, but she was connected to Martyn by mutual friends who knew her identity. For him to turn on her the way he has, for political gain, is diabolical.

The truth is that Martyn knows she is not “a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia” who “has an axe to grind against Israel’s family,” but a Christian mum concerned about the Gospel. The connection she has to Rugby Australia is as the mother of a player contracted to Rugby Australia. Very few people are discrediting Alan Jones and his arguments on this situation because he ‘has an axe to grind’ against Rugby Australia because he missed a board position, or the ACL for supporting Folau because they have an ‘axe to grind’ with Qantas and the cause of religious freedom.

There are lots of motives at play for every actor in this situation, and lots of opportunities to play the man or woman. The accusation that she “has been trying to make trouble for a while now” is strange and non-specific; how long? She has been trying to ensure the ACL (and Iles in particular) possessed the truth about the Folaus and their beliefs; and that is only trouble making if the truth is a threat to some political agenda the ACL holds dear. She tried to make contact with him over a month ago to do this, and then spoke to him a week after that, that doesn’t sound like trouble making to me? It sounds like truth telling.

Either what the stories reveal about the beliefs of the Folau’s church is true, or it isn’t. I know, from the evidence available publicly, and revealed to me privately by my friend, that the claims are true.

The truth is that Folau’s beliefs, or the beliefs of his church, are also well documented and directly sourced from his tweets, and the sermons posted on Facebook; beliefs that put him (and them) outside the bounds of the church.

The truth is you can fight to defend Israel Folau’s religious freedom without calling Israel a Christian; and the ACL should have been more careful to do this from the beginning, and they had the opportunity to correct the record very early, when my friend raised her evidence with them — and they didn’t. And now they are doubling down and attacking her in order to defend their cash cow; their golden calf. That’s what idol will do to you, they’ll turn you from the truth, and turn you against those faithful messengers who speak it.

The truth is that Christians should’ve been more carefully nuanced with Israel’s instagram post right from the beginning; its fatal flaws were deep and wide. He sourced it from a hate group. It distorts, rather than quoting, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. It is unhelpfully unclear about what that passage says about homosexual — using a word understood as describing orientation, or attraction, rather than action. Israel’s understanding of ‘repentance’ is built on a false picture of God and a false Gospel. There was nothing Christian about his meme.

It was religious; Israel is a religious person; his religious freedoms should be protected and he shouldn’t have been sacked for holding or expressing religious beliefs. But Israel is not a Christian, and to co-opt him into a Christian war against the culture is only going to end badly.

That’s the truth.

The truth is that Martyn Iles will probably double down on this until the cash cow comes home to roost, but the evidence behind these claims is out there, and truth loves becoming public.

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