parliament house

A line by line explanation of why the Australian Parliament should not pray the Lord’s Prayer (because they don’t mean it).

Peta Credlin just shared a letter from Victorian Liberal MP, Matt Bach, celebrating that the Reason Party’s Fiona Patten had been unsuccessful in her attempt to remove the Lord’s Prayer from Victorian parliamentary proceedings.

This was, of course, one of the key ‘how to vote’ issues that saw the ACL endorse One Nation, in Federal Parliament, but it’s a campaign I’ve never understood, because, in modern, secular Australia the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in any Parliament House seems to be not just implicitly contrary to the content of the Lord’s Prayer, but explicitly against the instructions given by Jesus as he taught his disciples how to pray.

Christians should not be excited that the Lord’s Prayer is being attached to the work of our politicians in a Federal Parliament House that uses the (multifaith) prayer room for sexual trysts between staffers, or that it is being prayed in a parliament that has introduced bills that, in some pastoral contexts, would make praying “your will be done” punishable by a prison sentence.

We should not be excited about people opening their work praying words that they then set about undermining with their decisions; especially decisions built on the greed and dominion building projects of our nation. To celebrate the praying of the Lord’s Prayer in this context is to undermine both the commands of the Lord Jesus and his teaching on prayer, and what is being prayed for in the Lord’s Prayer; those who pray it, who aren’t committed to the Lord’s Prayer being answered in their conduct and decision making are precisely the people Jesus is warning people about.

I was struck, too, by Mr Bach’s reasons for celebrating this (temporary) victory in the state of Victoria, he said “it is also a marker of the long Westminster Parliamentary Tradition, and a reflection of the core tenets of our Judeao Christian Heritage, like individualism and the rule of law” (emphasis mine). He also had a shot at the “radical left” and their “woke agenda” which leaves them despising Christians and western civilisation (“many from the radical left despise not only Christians, but all Western Civilisation, and are currently embarked on a woke agenda to destroy it. They must be resisted”. I suspect that Jesus would be shocked to discover the words of his prayer being used in a Right v Left culture war within the confines of modern liberalism when his kingdom project (the one we pray for) is altogether more interesting and revolutionary; challenging both the liberal left and the liberal right, but also, if the radical left — represented by Premier Daniel Andrews and his government — is as bad as Bach says, surely we don’t want them associating their agenda with the kingdom of God, or requesting divine assistance in bringing it about? It’s like Trump holding the Bible. It’s a hollow icon being employed as propaganda in order to ‘own the libs’ (or in this case, because Australian politics is confusing and the Liberals are the conservatives, the ‘leftists’).

It’s not just Victoria where this is an issue though; this will no doubt be raised in the Federal context, and in the federated context (state by state). So here’s why politicians committed to the liberal economic order that now dominates the western political landscape should not be praying the Lord’s Prayer.

The Federal parliament uses the following version of the Lord’s Prayer (and the Victorian Government’s committee appointed to make a recommendation on this present debate used the Federal Government’s Standing Orders in its findings).

Our Father, which art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

This is the version you’ll find in the King James translation of Matthew’s Gospel. Let’s deal with what the prayer means, line by line, and why it’s inappropriate for our governments to be praying it if they don’t mean it.

For starters, in context, Jesus’ teaching on prayer is particularly a teaching against religious hypocrisy — and the sort of hypocrites who pray in public to be seen by others. The argument that the Lord’s Prayer is a tradition and that it should open public sittings not because our collective hearts are in it, but because it’s part of the shared fabric of our parliamentary system seems to me to be both open to the accusation of hypocrisy that might come from saying empty words, and Jesus’ critique of performative prayer conducted not in relationship with God, but to present oneself in a particular way to others.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” — Matthew 6:5-7

It’s hard for me to see the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament as an expression of fidelity to God, or even an expression of Christian values, when the practice runs counter to the commands of Christ about how to pray. Especially when the praying of the prayer is co-opted into not only the liberal political agenda, but the right wing side of a right-left culture war. There’s something pagan about the idea that the Lord’s Prayer serves as some sort of invocation or ritual that can be performed by people who are not praying to “their Father who is unseen” but to TV cameras as an expression of the traditions of our liberal, western ancestors.

It gets worse when we get into the content. While Parliament prays a slightly amended version of the KJV, I’ll quote from the slightly more modern sounding NIV below.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name”

This is not an expression that God’s personal name is “hallowed” but, rather, an expression of a desire that God’s name would be set apart as holy — that our Father in heaven, the Lord of hosts and God most high, would be recognised as the rightful ruler of the cosmos and our lives. The opposite of God’s name being hallowed is God’s name being sullied or taken in vain. The commandment in the 10 Commandments about not taking God’s name in vain is not about using “God” or “Jesus” as swear words; but about attaching God’s name to your actions (and empire) and then dragging it through the dirt. The problem the nation of Israel found itself facing in the Old Testament was that they took God’s name and trashed it, and so, faced judgement and exile. Consider these words from God in the book of Ezekiel:

“So I poured out my wrath on them because they had shed blood in the land and because they had defiled it with their idols. I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’ I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone.” — Ezekiel 36:18-21

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer prayed by Israel’s Messiah; the one who came to restore God’s kingdom and create a new people who would live for God’s name (and not take it in vain). It’s a prayer that followers of Jesus — children of God — might live with God as their heavenly Father, and so bring honour to his name.

You can’t pray these words and then commit to dishonouring God through disobedience without being exactly like Israel. A nation that in the Old Testament claimed that its political leaders were acting for God’s will, when it was clear from their actions and their idolatry that they were not.

I don’t think any modern political party in Australia can claim to be pursuing government in a way that wholeheartedly seeks to honour God.

The other catch is, in Ezekiel, that the new people who would carry God’s name again needed new hearts, so that they could be a new kingdom. And this happens (and the Lord’s Prayer is answered) in the coming of God’s kingdom as Jesus ascends to rule beside his Father, and, together, they pour out God’s Spirit on a people to make us new, and to make us the “kingdom of God”…

If we don’t mean that God’s name should be restored to its glory by his intervention in history through the man he appointed as Lord, saviour, and judge, the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus, whose obedience was an example of life lived in accord with God’s will, for his glory, then we shouldn’t say these words.

Which leads me to this next bit…

“your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is a prayer not just for earthly political revolution — parliaments who might pray this prayer for reasons of human tradition — but for human transformation from above; for the heavens breaking in to earth so that people are able to do God’s will (unlike those described in Ezekiel). This prayer that God’s will be done — by people — in God’s kingdom — is a prayer for people re-created by God’s Spirit; for these words to be prayed devoid of this context — to become a prayer that the kingdom of Australia might increase, or some earthly kingdom built on individualism and the rule of Law, not on whole-hearted obedience to God enabled by his Spirit, misses what it is that Jesus is asking his followers to prayerfully look forward to (and to participate in as they pray).

When we read a Gospel narrative, like Matthew, and these words of Jesus — it’s worth noticing the positioning of the elements of the story. This lesson on prayer happens in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus pulls back the curtains to reveal what God’s law has always required — perfect holiness — and what the nature of his kingdom has always been (the beatitudes, in contrast to human systems built on sinful grasping, violence, and dominion). The prayer of Jesus is matched with the ethical teaching of Jesus; they are linked — but they also come as the culmination of Israel’s story as Israel’s king is on his way to launch God’s promised kingdom at the cross, and through the pouring out of God’s Spirit.

Jesus is encouraging us to pray for systemic revolution — a kingdom where he is king of kings — and individual transformation, lives where we are able to do God’s will because God’s Spirit is alive in us because we have received salvation from Jesus through faith in him. The Victorian government has shown little interest in either (this is also true of the Federal Government).

If we don’t want something like Christendom — the kingdom of Jesus being coterminous with the kingdom of Australia — then we should not ask our political leaders to pray these words. God’s kingdom comes with every heart brought to life by his Spirit through faith in Jesus.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer and meaning something other than what the Lord meant is a fast path to the sort of hypocrisy he warned us about. And then there’s this stuff…

Give us today our daily bread.

This seems like a straight up request for provision from God, the creator, for his people — and there’s an element where that is legitimate; especially in Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer, we should expect God to supply our material needs. There’s a sort of hat tip to Israel’s time in the wilderness here, where God provided Israel manna (bread) from heaven. In that story Israelites were not to store up bread beyond their actual immediate needs; the provision was predicated on recognising providence and was meant to limit greedy over-consumption. It’s hard for me to see that ethic at the heart of Australia, or Victoria’s economic approach, and yet, there’s again more to this than meets the eye.

In Luke, Jesus says “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” He sees the Lord’s Prayer, and our trust in God to provide, as grounded in his much bigger provision — the gift of the Holy Spirit — who is poured out for those who are children of God and part of his kingdom at Pentecost, the festival or bread. And the literal translation of the Greek in Matthew’s Gospel is “the bread of tomorrow today” — it’s a request for ‘eschatological bread’ — the heavenly provision of eternal life that Jesus brings (bread is a pretty significant metaphor in the Gospels, right?).

If our politicians are not asking God to provide his Spirit — and so, because he is our Heavenly father — to also meet not our long term economic needs, but to provide daily provision for us — then we shouldn’t ask them to pray these words.

And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

The ethic of forgiveness is, of course, at the heart of Christianity — and the heart of the kingdom. The kingdom is launched through the ultimate act of forgiveness. Jesus himself will provide the mechanism for forgiveness through the cross — to pray this prayer without relying on the atoning work of Jesus — asking God to forgive — is empty. It’s like sacrificing sheep on a hill in Jerusalem because you haven’t recognised that forgiveness of sin (our debt to God) is secured only in and through the death of Jesus.

And the idea that we “have forgiven our debtors” while we’re putting out culture war garbage calling for the destruction, defeat, or resistance of the other again fails to practice the sort of ‘forgiveness of debtors’ Jesus preaches about in the surrounding chapters of the Sermon on the Mount.

If our political leaders are not seeking forgiveness through Jesus, or offering forgiveness to their enemies in the way Jesus models at the cross, and teaches, then we should not let them get away with praying these words. That’s hypocrisy.

And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

I find it hard to take it seriously that politicians in a late modern capitalism that champions liberalism at a market and personal level can say “lead us not into temptation” with a straight face; our economic prosperity is built on leading people into temptation and having them work to pay money to satisfy desires cultivated by culture. The idea, also, that the evil one does not use the trappings of empire to capture the hearts and minds of people, via idolatry, simply because our politicians pay lip service to our Christian heritage in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, while utterly ignoring (and outright rejecting) the exclusivity of the Lordship of Jesus and the glory his victory over evil brings to his Father (the answer to the prayer) is risible.

It’s also particularly laughable to have politicians in our Federal Parliament pray these words while facing accusations of sexual assault, a grasping culture where people use power to coerce and abuse others, and where a cultural review is taking place because self-control and love for others are foreign virtues in that place.

There’s no doubt that Christians seeking God’s kingdom in the past — or even in the present, in our various parliaments — have profoundly shaped the western world and its political institutions for the good; but, we’re not in Kansas anymore, or Oz. We’re in 21st century Aus. Those politicians should do that work as a faithful presence in our community, but I would suggest that if they get a morale boost from a bunch of hypocrites praying the Lord’s Prayer next to them as they pray it in earnest, that they have something badly wrong.

In my estimation, short of a miraculous work of God secured through the proclamation of the Gospel and a move of God in the hearts not only of our leaders, but the people, the ongoing commitment to the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament is not bringing glory to God, or securing his support for Australian politics through some formulaic invocation, instead, it is the very form of hypocrisy that Jesus was teaching against as he taught his followers how to pray as his followers, and the sort of blasphemous use of God’s name that Israel was exiled for, rather than a hallowing of his name.

And so, I think Christians — including Christian politicians who may well pray the Lord’s Prayer as they seek to act as representatives of God’s kingdom in and through their public service — shouldn’t be campaigning to keep the last trappings of Christendom in the halls of buildings where God’s name is treated with contempt (and not just as a swear word, but in the policies enacted, and the lives lived by our leaders), to do so is to risk being complicit in attaching God’s name not only to the wrong side of a culture war, but the wrong side of a spiritual war. The same war Jesus came to expose, between the evil one and God, fought out using human puppets and empires, when the government of his day nailed him to a cross.

Sex in the prayer room; and when ‘thin places’ become thick

There’s lots that can (and must) be said about the present crisis in Australia around toxic sexuality (as an expression of toxic masculinity and rape culture). Lots is being said about the relationship between institutional Christianity, purity culture, and this crisis both outside the church (in the church shaped western world), and inside the church. I’m working with a brilliant friend who is a scholar on the Song of Songs to piece together a helpful response both for my own church community, and beyond.

But I was struck by reports emerging about videos and stories of bad sexuality in parliament house; and particularly struck by the location identified as home base for perhaps the worst of the depravity.

The prayer room.

If parliament house were meant to be a sort of temple to Christendom this is the sort of thing that would have Jesus flipping over the tables; it certainly reveals the hollowness (rather than hallowedness) of our parliamentarians praying “The Lord’s Prayer” at the start of the day (and of campaigns to keep that in place).

When Jesus flips the tables in the temple in Jerusalem it’s part of a wider act of judgement against those running the show; a judgment that culminates with the curtain temple tearing at his death, and with his Spirit not coming to the holy of holies in the temple, but into the hearts of those who recognise him as Lord. The church. The house — a place that once was the meeting place between God and humanity — is left desolate; and Jesus’ judgment is that this is the case because “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.”

In 2012, a travel writer from the New York Times, Eric Weiner, wrote a piece that popularised the concept of thin places, places in nature, but perhaps even places of human architecture, where ‘heaven and earth’ come closer together.

“No, thin places are much deeper than that. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic of travel.”

The Temple was meant to be a ‘thin space’ — where the boundaries of heaven and earth were less obvious; a place that threw worshippers towards the transcendent realm; the heavens. Where the supernatural and natural overlapped. A house of prayer; but it had been corrupted by the idolatry and materialism of its day; the attempts to secure meaning and goodness not through relationship with God, but in material realities, like money and power.

There’s a corresponding story to Jesus judging the Temple in the New Testament to God’s judgment on ‘thin places’ (which are often ‘high places’ in the OT, if you want to trace this as an interesting and legitimate thread); particularly the judgment brought on those who are meant to be stewarding the Tabernacle; the ‘tent of meeting’ or dwelling place of God at the start of 1 Samuel. There’s an old priest, Eli, whose two sons are corrupt and corrupting not only the meeting tent — the thin place — but the whole nation of Israel. They’re extorting people, stealing food, and sleeping with the women allocated to serve in that thin place — abusing their power in pursuit of pleasure. And God steps in to judge this family because of their failure to represent God as his priestly people, presenting his house as a meeting place between God and the world.

Parliament house is built like an ancient temple. It has columns and courtyards and a pillar that reaches towards the heavens. It sits on the hill overlooking the capital. It’s a monument to our values and is meant to be an expression of our heart; our commitment to democracy; the equality of all people in the law, and perhaps, under God.

Whether or not it was ever meant to be a ‘house of prayer’ — leaders in western democracies; landscapes shaped by Christendom; were meant to be doing the work of God for us; leading ‘under God’; and the house and its prayer room and the Lord’s Prayer are all vestiges of that sort of vision.

If Parliament House was meant to be one of these ‘thin spaces’ — how much more the prayer room: a room where people go to connect with the divine; a sacred space; profaned. Desecrated.

When the apostle Paul writes about sexual ethics for married couples — upholding the goodness of the one flesh union of husband and wife as a created gift from God to be enjoyed together, he says the one thing that might keep them apart is their devotion to God, they might prioritise prayer “for a time” over sex; our parliamentarians have turned all that on its head; both the sexual ethic of the mutuality, commitment, and intimacy of marriage — where the parties belong to one another and are bound up in love and communion — but the idea that prayer might be a priority.

But these news stories — that MPs would use the prayer room — a thin space — for such thick purposes; worldly purposes far removed from the heavens — reveal something about our modern gods, our modern pursuit of goodness (and even perhaps echoes of transcendence not through prayer, or religiosity, but through the liturgy of sex and orgasm), and perhaps, for just a table-flipping moment, just how toxic and damaging these new gods are to us, and to our leaders.

Want to know why we’ve got no social changes or political will around rape culture — look at the heart of our nation and how deeply embedded this poison is.

The Lord’s Prayer opens by acknowledging the nature of reality and the heavenly realm; “our father,” it says “who is in heaven”… it acknowledges that God’s kingdom represents the overlap between this realm and the earthly realm — “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” — parliamentarians prayed this because the idea was their actions were meant to be part of the answer to this prayer. They’re clearly not. And should stop pretending.

Someone should flip some tables.

The kicker in the Lord’s Prayer here — when it comes to Jerusalem and its thin-place-become-thick, or Canberra and its thin-place-become-thick, is in the opening “hallowed be your name” — God’s name was attached to his temple, and his people. The way they lived and acted was to be an expression of the God they worshipped and a reflection on his reputation; it could either bring glory, or desecration. And desecration of God’s name brought consequences. Table flipping. Judgment. Jerusalem no longer the centre of, or vehicle of, God’s kingdom. Their temple, and nation, declared no longer a ‘thin space’ where heavenly realities are realised; but thick, and dead, and disgusting. This isn’t to say these things about the Jewish people; Jesus was Jewish, the vast majority of the ‘new temple’ were Jewish people, including those at Pentecost who had been spread into the distant corners of the globe, but about the hollowed out rather than hallowed religion of those operating the Temple in pursuit of false gods; perverting the name of the God they served.

Parliament House isn’t a ‘thin place’ — it’s become thick, or perhaps it is a ‘thin place’ like the corrupted Temple in Jerusalem, a place that reveals who we have become. In the NY Times piece that function of a thin place is meant to be good and life-giving, as it pushes us towards a greater sense of reality, but perhaps it can push in another direction too; exposing us like Jesus exposed the politcal-religious leaders of his day (and the prevailing culture that enabled them, and that they perpetuated)? So the Times piece says:

“Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

Parliament house, like the temple, has been unmasked — and the essential selves revealed by this mirror, or this revelation, are not pretty. Parliament House, and these leaders — or this institution, won’t bring the sort of liberation from idolatry and the destructive nature of dehumanising toxic sexuality that is rampant in our culture; because it can’t. Instead, while this toxic heart beats — where sexual pleasure with no regard for another person is God — it’s just going to push us further and deeper into that pit. Unless someone flips the tables… unless a new heart is dropped in.

And yet, at the same time there is something revealing about the approach to sex in a ‘thick world’ in all this; we’ve replaced God and the presence of the divine — even the idea of ‘thin places’ we might travel to; with sex. With pleasure. With ‘created things, instead of the creator’ as Romans 1 puts it…

Sex is one of those ‘thin experiences’ that might push us towards the idea of something divine; a God out there who made goodness, and sensuality, and put us in this world so that we might seek him, and perhaps find him, with the help of all these good things that reveal his divine nature and character. Thin places and thin experiences are meant to push us towards the transcendent. Our issue, at heart, is that we keep exchanging the truth about God for a lie; we’ve put sex in the place of God, instead of sex being something that throws us towards the overlap between heaven and earth.

And so maybe the prayer room is the right place to take that search for meaning and significance; even if in doing so we’re opening ourselves up for judgement; turning what is meant to be a ‘house or prayer’ into a temple to toxic sexuality.

Maybe in this moment of judgement and exposure we might start to ask questions about the sort of culture we’re building when we make this exchange.

Maybe, though we’re quick to throw stones at the ‘Temple’ or thin space in Canberra, we might also — those of us who are Christians — seek to get our own houses in order; asking if they — whether our church spaces and communities, or our own homes — are built on the same hollowed out sexual idolatry and damaging, dehumanising practices — or are spaces committed to the coming of God’s kingdom and the hallowing of God’s name; lest the tables be turned on us.

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