On the need for subversive ideologies

Australia’s Gospel Coalition CEO, blogger, and genuinely nice guy Akos Balogh is currently working on a series over on his blog about critical theory titled ‘Are You Being Shaped By This Subversive Ideology.’ Part 2 leads off with a quote from Hebrews, “‘Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings.’ (Hebrews 13:9),” this could just have easily have quoted Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

It’s a neat rhetorical trick to see Critical Theory as a ‘pattern of this world’ or a ‘diverse and strange teaching,’ but not to apply that same standard to the systems, patterns, and teachings that Critical Theory seeks to dismantle. For Christians, all systems of thinking and action — all patterns, political systems, and pretensions — whether whiteness or wokeness — are things we, at least, should be demolishing and bringing captive to Jesus (2 Corinthians 10:4), as we adopt a methodology or way of life that comes not from the world, but from Jesus, our king. This means Christians are actually called to be subversive.

Now, I’m not sure where Akos is going to land, whether or what insights from Critical Theory, or Post-modernity, and its critiques of modernity and power structures, he might affirm, but there’s something a little culture war-y about the posture of the series so far; and TGCAU has a little form here. If we’re not being shaped by ‘this subversive ideology,’ as Christians (or citizens), then might I suggest that we always need to be shaped by other subversive ideologies? Otherwise, without subversion, the status quo inevitably becomes enshrined as the default vision of ‘the good,’ and looking around at society, culture, and politics, I’m pretty sure we’re in need of some good old subversion, as I argued in a previous post, this subversion probably needs to be both conservative and progressive (mostly it needs to be wise and good).

Akos writes about the move from boring post-modernity, to a toothier ‘social justice theory,’ where the insights of post-modernity are turned into moral imperatives. He says “This desire to reorder society is incredibly moralistic: which is why so many students graduating from these ‘Social Justice’ type courses (women’s studies; gender studies etc) become activists.”

Now. We might be in real trouble if universities in Australia were pumping out graduates from these ‘social justice’ type courses (and, bear with me, ‘woke capitalism’ is certainly also a thing). That would be a status quo worth subverting. The ‘so many students,’ at least according to data on university enrolments from Australia’s Department of Education, is a subset of the 19.9% of university students who fit in the ‘society and culture’ segment of the university population, 25% of the student population are in ‘management and commerce’ degrees, 6% in Engineering or related fields, 7.9% in IT, 2.4% in Architecture and Building, 7.4% in Science, and 1.1% in Agriculture, add the 15.4% who are in Health, and that’s 65% of students who are in ‘modernist’ courses with a STEM flavour. That’s a pattern. That’s a system (the other 13.6% of students are studying Education or Arts). Drilling down into the ‘society and culture’ field of education, research conducted by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, says this sector includes “Political Science and Policy Studies, Studies in Human Society (History, Gender Studies, Indigenous Studies, Sociology), Human Welfare Studies and Services, Behavioural Science, Law Justice and Law Enforcement, Librarianship, Informational Management and Curatorial Studies, Language and Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Economics, and Sport and Recreation.” Gender studies is there, but that’s a whole lot of other courses that aren’t necessarily producing activists committed to a social justice outlook. According to that same AAH paper (albeit a paper from 2014, using data from 2012) the ‘Other Studies in Human Society’ field, that includes Gender Studies and Indigenous Studies only accounts for around 12% of full time equivalent employees in the Society and Culture sector. Given that (according to the Grattan Institute) only 2 in 5 high school graduates enrol in university, the number of Aussies getting Gender Studies degrees and becoming activists is negligible, especially when compared to non-activist students who get jobs that plug them in to an economic and social machine that is more representative of a system or status quo or pattern of the world.

Perhaps these activists have a disproportionate impact on society and culture — perhaps they’re particularly effective online, and in a sort of ‘chattering class’ that cares about moral or ethical conversations (where plenty of Christian leaders find themselves engaging). Perhaps they even wield a disproportionate influence on western politics, especially on the left (though equally, they gain a disproportionate amount of attention from the Christian Right in these same online fora). But. Here’s a couple of caveats — perhaps the social justice activists from the Gender Studies departments, or Critical Theorists are actually right in some of their diagnoses about power, and systems and structures (but maybe sometimes wrong about their prescribed solutions to said problems), and perhaps, we Christians, aren’t so much at risk of being swept up by this ‘subversive agenda’ but not being subversive enough when it comes to the status quo that accounts for the vast majority of university graduates, and the 60% of Aussies who don’t go to, or haven’t graduated from, university.

We Christians could be a little more subversive when it comes to systems or patterns of thinking that are drastically shaping our conception of what it means to be human. Systems like liberalism and its radical individualism, or capitalism. Power structures like systemic racism or the patriarchy. This isn’t to say the answer is rushing out and subscribing to Critical Theory or getting a Gender Studies degree, but surely the same discernment we’re so willing to apply to progressive politics should be applied to the conservative realm and its patterns. The call to follow a crucified king in an upside down kingdom where the proud fall, and the humble are exalted actually requires a degree of subversion?

Akos suggests that the political principle of this ‘subversive system’ is “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how. This has also been retained. In fact, this is central to the advocacy of identity politics, whose politically actionable imperative is to dismantle this system (i.e. modern western society) in the name of Social Justice.” I won’t rehash the argument I made elsewhere about how the Biblical account of empire — whether Babylon, or Rome-as-Babylon, seems to fit with a belief that society is formed of dominion systems of power and hierarchy — but I will suggest, briefly, that identity politics is actually a product not of ‘social justice’ but of liberalism; and some unexpected consequences of Reformation Christianity and its emphasis on the individual (and a protestant work ethic).

Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age, traces the rise of what he calls ‘the age of authenticity’ to a protestant impulse to disconnect people from a previous social order, particularly an order where people were born into class systems or professions, this came with a disconnection from the idea that this social order was created and dignified by God (or a reflection of the supernatural realm in the natural order), such that, for example, kings were appointed by God. When we pushed that transcendent ordering of the natural world to the side, we were all left masters of our own domains, forced to construct our own individual identities, and, often, choosing to construct our identities through performative projections of our ‘authentic’ desires; our ‘id’ into the world — when we talk about identity politics, we’re really talking about id-entities — the idea that we as individuals create ourselves, that we need to be recognised by others to be legitimised, and that we can often construct this identity through consumer choice; either as we build our appearance and our connection to place, or as we associate ourselves to brands, sub-cultures, or tribes, in order to be understood. The system that we all operate in — whether plugging in to the economy as the quickest means to the sort of security that allows us to construct our ideal ‘id-entity’ through consumption or experience, or participating in woke capitalism, or social justice activism, or culture wars — is one built on this conception of the human. It’s a picture that needs subversion, or disruption.

Historian Tom Holland (not the Spider-Man actor) does a great job charting this in his book Dominion. He starts his exploration of the impact of Christianity on the secular west — or rather its formative and foundational role in the western world, with an exploration of the systems of dominion or domination ultimately replaced by Christianity, but maybe, following Taylor, that we might be returning to in the post-Christian west (as a result of some streams of Christian belief and practice).

He says, of the Babylonian and Persian realms, that they had a particular relationship to a conception not just of the universe and the ‘heavenly realm’ but the nature of the gods, “beyond the physical apparatus of the Great King’s vast empire, then, beyond the palaces, and the barrack rooms, and the way-posts on dusty roads, there shimmered a sublime and momentous conceit. The dominion forged by Cyrus and secured by Darius served as a mirror to the heavens. To resist it or to subvert it was to defy Truth itself.” The sort of power systems that led empires to crucify, destroy, or torture their enemies in order to promote or maintain power gave way in the west, at least for a while, to a thoroughly different way of operating; but this does not mean that ‘systems of power’ are a fiction; they are, instead, the very patterns the Biblical story emerges against — the patterns Hebrews and Romans call Christians out of as we pattern our lives on the cross. Holland says his ambition in writing  Dominion was to trace the course of what one Christian, writing in the third century ad, termed ‘the flood-tide of Christ’: how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was. This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain – for good and ill – thoroughly Christian. It is – to coin a phrase – the greatest story ever told.” Note that Christianity in its rejection of the sort of power structures of ancient empires was subversive and disruptive. 

Holland argues that the subversive and disruptive effects of Christianity served to overturn a certain ancient, and perhaps human-without-Jesus pattern of dominion; the same sorts of patterns that always sit latent in human hearts in a Christian anthropology — or that are always active in human hearts and actions without the influence and transformation brought by the Spirit, such that we should expect to see not just human lives given over to dominion (or being dominated), but human systems and cultures being built around the idolatrous use of power. These are the sorts of systems that Paul and the writer of Hebrews were worried might pull people away from the pattern of life found in the Gospel. Holland says the pattern that has shaped the western world, for good, is not one of dominion built on power, but rather, a culture built on the emptying out of power for the sake of the other; the power of the cross not just as a symbol but an ethic.

He says:

“If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead – then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth? A myth, though, is not a lie. At its most profound – as Tolkien, that devout Catholic, always argued – a myth can be true. To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient implement of torture, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it – the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe – that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth. Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead on a cross.”

That’s powerful stuff right there; and I’d suggest where cultures, including the west, are moving away from the image of a god dead on a cross, and towards systems of power modelled on different concepts of god (idolatry, including greed), we’re seeing returns to dominion systems that just go by other names, like capitalism. Now. Capitalism is a product, like much of the west, of Christianity — a product of the idea of property rights and a person owning ‘property’ in the form of their own self (thanks Locke), and a product of ‘the protestant work ethic’ and democracy, and some of this is good fruit from a good tree — but idolatry is where good things — created things — are taken, and instead of being received with thanksgiving, worshipped in the place of God; made ultimate. The Social Justice Movement, or Critical Theory, is its own power game (as I’ve argued elsewhere), and it is not immune from critique using its own framework of deconstruction and assessment of an approach to power — but its critiques of systems of power at work in the west aren’t all wrong; especially because Christianity has had an awkward relationship with state power in the western world. If the book of Revelation is a criticism of Israel and its harlotry — cuddling up to the beastly Roman empire and so executing Jesus and persecuting his church, then the church, too, has been guilty of cuddling up to beastly human power structures — dominion structures — and copping some ire from the people we were meant to serve for our failures, historically and presently, is part of doing the business of repentance for us Christians. We shouldn’t be surprised if those who are sensitive to systematised abuses of power also point the finger at us, we had a whole Royal Commission exploring some of the failures of the church in this area, but those aren’t all our failures — just our failures that broke the law. We’ve also failed in our calling to be those who stand not at the centre of society but for all those made to bear God’s image, our neighbours marginalised by dominion systems. If the church is so cosied up to worldly patterns — especially in the west, which still bears the hallmarks of the Gospel and is now enjoying the fruits, how will we be able to see where disruption or subversion is still required without voices from the outside?

If we assume the status quo is good and right, how will we avoid the ‘patterns of this world’ — and isn’t there a chance that sometimes things that challenge our comfortable status quo will feel like ‘diverse and strange teachings’ — much like the prophets calling Israel away from idolatry, or Jesus arriving in first century Israel felt to God’s people who had become too comfortable with the gods and systems of the nations? If we get caught up conserving the good things about the west to the extent that we don’t hear a call to ongoing progression or disruption don’t we run the risk of conforming to the patterns of the world? To systems of dominion or empire? Won’t we end up becoming vassals to the empire in ways that make it hard not to bow the knee, or kiss the hand, or bless the President, when he beckons to us, rather than ambassadors for Christ and ministers of God’s reconciling work in the world?

In an essay titled ‘Woke Politics and Power,’ published in The Monthly, Australian academic and media personality Waleed Aly unpacks a way that the Critical Theory/Social Justice movements play power games via cancel culture. His analysis is well worth the time because he observes that underneath the Social Justice/Critical Theory movement is both a power game, or dominion system, and an animating force that is essentially the same as the forces animating capitalism (that also explains, again, why woke capitalism is a thing). It’s the same false fruit of Christianity (and perhaps particularly post-Reformation Christianity) behind the ‘age of authenticity’ and the pursuit of an id-entity that needs to be recognised by others (including the state) to be validated. He’s not the only one making this observation. The whip smart hosts of the podcast The Eucatastrophe have been banging this same drum for three seasons of their show now, and, really, Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, and William Cavanaugh have made similar observations (MacIntyre in After Virtue, Cavanaugh in many places including this most excellent essay about Amazon as a modern god). The issue is a version of liberalism, or radical individualism, built on a radical form of individualism that props up, and in a vicious cycle, is a product of a form of capitalism-as-empire. Aly examines wokeness, and cancel culture as an application of woke power, as a reaction to liberalism that doesn’t escape liberalism’s constraints. He says:

“But perhaps cancel culture’s most fatal problem is that while it intuits liberalism is insufficient, and seeks to dismantle it, it cannot escape it. In fact, it ends up imbibing several of its basic ideas. This isn’t immediately obvious due to liberalism and woke politics’ opposing focus on individual rights and collective identities, respectively. That seems completely incompatible until you recognise that cancel culture adopts a postmodern version of identity that becomes highly individualistic. So, on gender (though not on race) identity is largely determined by individuals who declare themselves into existence, then require society to recognise them on those terms. That is very different from pre-modern identities, which were overwhelmingly given to people by society, assigning membership of a collective, which came with established roles and obligations to other people. These collectives might variously be national, religious, gendered, class-based (or some combination of these), but they were not typically chosen. Collective identities effectively led people to ask themselves “What is required of me?” rather than “What does my identity demand of you?” Liberalism smashed that comprehensively.

It’s a major difference with major consequences. Pre-modern identities sat atop a shared, largely fixed morality, provided mostly by religion or a relatively homogenous culture. Liberalism assumes that some kind of common moral culture undergirds society, but it is largely amoral itself. It leaves moral judgement to the “market” of individuals, which will change it over time.”

It’s a really, really, good essay.

So how do we disrupt, or subvert, the worldly patterns, systems, and power structures underpinning both wokeness and whiteness? How do we challenge not just the ‘subversive systems’ that challenge the status quo and so feel like they’re challenging the things we want to conserve, but also the more invisible systems that we’ve become complicit in that still need to be challenged?

Well. I tried to unpack that in this earlier post, but it’s ultimately going to work with the same spirit that animated the west and subverted older models of idolatry or dominion, and that animated the Reformation itself, even if subsequent generations of reformed Christians created a dangerous emphasis on the individual in their deconstruction of ecclesial power structures — the cross of Jesus. Weakness. Power given for the sake of others, not for self interest.

More than that though it will have to come with two simultaneous convictions — the existence of a heavenly realm and a heavenly being who has some say in how human relationships and systems should look — and we Christians have that at the heart of our story of creation and redemption; a God who made heavens and earth that they might reveal his ‘divine nature and character,’ who sustains things by his powerful word, who uses the ‘wisdom of the cross’ to shame and defeat worldly empires and power structures, and whose ‘word-made-flesh’ taught us to pray that his kingdom might come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ — we need a re-enchanted sense of the world, and our place in it within a system, not simply as individuals, and we need a conviction that our personhood is given, not just self-actualised.

The first of these convictions is going to come through worship that rejects idolatry. In Romans, Paul describes the way cultures and norms are formed when we reject God as creator, and worship creation instead. There are plenty of religions-of-liberalism. Aly describes wokeness itself as a sort of religion — the kind philosopher Émile Durkheim described in his sociological definition of ‘a religion’ — Durkheim’s model describes how all sorts of things, from politics, to consumption, to sport, function as ‘religions’ in a post-transcendent, or disenchanted, world. There are plenty of corporations out there vying to fill the religious void in your life, and even to appear ‘enchanting’ — Cavanaugh’s essay on Amazon describes this, where he says “we continue to serve gods every bit as transcendent and irrational as the gods of old. The holy has not disappeared but migrated from the church to the state and the market.

Cavanaugh concludes, saying:

“Idolatry is embedded in whole economic and social and political systems that hold us in thrall. In an unjust system, we are all idolaters, and there needs to be systemic change to free people from false worship. If there is no true God, that task seems impossible.”

In his Gifford Lectures, published as History and Eschatology, N.T Wright suggests that much of what might otherwise be called ‘liberalism’ is just a modern form of Epicureanism. Wright argues that this is built from a consistent atomisation, or individuation, of all parts of life, playing out in the way we approach systems — from the universe down, whether that’s in economics, politics, or anthropology. He talks about modern life as life in ‘Epicurean Babylon,’ and suggests that this Epicureanism has infected the church, including how we understand God as creator and redeemer, in a variety of damaging ways, and sees part of the way this atomisation has taken place being the destruction of the role of narrative — not just in post-modernity, but in western modernity as well (where propositional truth and a sort of ‘mechanical’ model of life and the universe were assumed, so that a ‘deistic non-interventionist God’ is assumed, and that isn’t so different from a disenchanted, materialist universe where secular and sacred are separate realms, rather than integrated or overlapping). In such a world material things become our objects of worship, or the ways we define our ‘identity’ — rather than seeing our humanity as something given to us with the purpose of reflecting the divine nature and character of God (or, bearing his image). This is to say that the current state of play in the West isn’t just a product of Christianity, as Holland suggests, but also the product of a turn to, or at times a synthesis of Christianity and, a sort of Epicurean cosmology that underpins liberalism and its understanding of the world, the economy, and what it means to be human.

For me the second task, rediscovering who we were created to be, means being suspicious of the word ‘id-entity’ as a theological or ethical category (and a preference for talking about personhood), and an avoidance of identity based politics, identity-construction through consumer choice (and, instead, an approach to formation and ethics based on virtue and embodying the narrative we’re called to live in by the God who made, and re-created us in Jesus, who is transforming us into his image). Id-entity construction is so often a product of idolatry — our hearts, that are factories of idols, are poor guides for what our humanity should look like, and we aren’t as in control as we think we are of our ‘identity’ if, fundamentally, we are worshipping creatures who become what we worship. Our transformation, redemption, or re-creation in Christ certainly involves transformed hearts — but this transformation, like our bodies that are born into a ‘story’ (our families, communities, etc) is ‘given’ to us in that it is brought about by the Spirit (see Romans 7 and 8). The whole exercise of talking about Christianity as an ‘identity’ that we construct lends itself to a sort of liberalism where our religious commitment ends up being a personal consumer choice and a bid to construct and have our heart-desires recognised in much the same way as a sports fan, or a member of a sub culture or community. The Biblical concept of personhood in relationship to God as creator and redeemer is, in many ways, the antithesis of liberalism and we should be really cautious in adopting the language, or anthropology, at the heart of the liberal system (or empire).

This attempts to re-understand humanity, or personhood, requires a commitment to discovering who we are in the Gospel, as the culmination of God’s story — or revelation of his character to us, and in our union with Christ and as his body in the world, and a commitment to the sort of worship, or liturgy, that forms us as the people who live this story in all of life. The stuff Paul says at the start of Romans 12 about true worship is the antidote to the false worship of Romans 1, and the basis of our transformation and the renewing of our minds and the not being conformed to the patterns of this world, and its the ‘offering of our bodies’ in view of God’s mercy to us in Jesus). As MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, when examining the givenness of our personhood, and how that has been lost in modern constructions of identity (or how the modern bureaucratic state wants to educate/form us into particular identities within an economic machinary), ‘“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do? ‘ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

Finally, because subversion requires challenging the status quo we need to not just hear political and social voices we might otherwise exclude. The prophetic voices calling for disruption, subversion, or Reformation. I fear that many of our conservative, institutional, voices would react to Luther the way the Pope did. The Protestant impulse might have led us to some interesting political and social positions where different sorts of idolatry were birthed, and it may have not just ‘re-ordered’ given structures that underpinned a sense of God’s providential ordering of the universe (like kings and popes), but done away with a link between the two in some profound ways, but it did get the emphasis on disruption or subversion — the church always reforming — right. Perhaps rather than dismissing voices that challenge systems and status quos as ‘diverse and strange teachings’ we might consider and discern whether we should be receiving them as a ‘voice calling from the wilderness’ encouraging us to make straight paths for the Lord. Our tendency, especially in a ‘liberal’ world that teaches us we are the autonomous authors of our own identity, is to be blind to the systems that are shaping us, because we believe we are in control.

The telling of the Christian story as a counter-narrative to the stories of the world is one way that should open our eyes, but we probably also need to hear the Christian story as told by non-liberal (non-western even) Christian voices to examine where our version of the Gospel might have been colonised, or where a worldly dominion model might have crept in without us noticing (or worse, with us noticing but not caring because that’s more effective, or comfortable). One example of this that I’ve come across recently is this application of something like ‘critical race theory’ to ‘whiteness’ in the church, or more particularly, in the Christian academy by Ekaputra Tupamahu. This article’s insights into how liberalism, particularly in the form of property rights (starting with the self, or the body, as autonomously governed personal property) and then copyright are particularly ‘white’ western phenomena (made evident, historically, by colonialism in the west, and white ownership of non-white persons as slaves). The application of ‘property rights’ — an expression of liberalism — to the field of Biblical studies, and specifically, to a problem in New Testament studies known as ‘the synoptic problem’ is a fruitful example of listening to voices from outside of the liberal western world and allowing those voices to lead us in a task of subverting some damaging assumptions.

Brian Walsh, the author of Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times, which explores, for the most part, an Old Testament Babylonian context and the way Israel’s creation narrative called them to be a subversive people who believed something different to the sort of idolatrous capitalism and environmental (and human) destruction at work in Babylon’s dominion-based empire, in order to map that on to a call for those bearing God’s image in a new Babylon, also wrote Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empiredemonstrating (as Tom Holland does) a shared philosophy of dominion or domination at work in Babylon and Rome, seeing these as the backdrop for Christianity and its subversive politics — namely, the kingdom of God, centred on a crucified king. In it he said:

“What was true of an ancient community of Christian believers struggling with a powerful and appealing philosophy is also true for Christians in a postmodern context. Arguments that deconstruct the regimes of truth at work in the late modern culture of global capitalism are indispensable. So also is a deeper understanding of the counterideological force of the biblical tradition. But such arguments are no guarantee that the biblical metanarrative will not be co-opted for ideological purposes of violent exclusion, nor do arguments prove the truth of the gospel. Only the nonideological, embracing, forgiving and shalom-filled life of a dynamic Christian community formed by the story of Jesus will prove the gospel to be true and render the idolatrous alternatives fundamentally implausible.”

The trick is to not embrace deconstruction (alone) or dominion-style power games as we listen to these voices, but to embody a subversion built on hope, and joy, and eschatological anticipation of the renewal of all things, and so to work towards reconstruction of our own systems aligned to the Gospel and the kingdom of Jesus. It’s actually these voices from the margins — or the wilderness — speaking out against empires, dominions, or domination systems — that are echoes of the voices of the prophets; the voices that are indispensible for our task of being disrupted to our own personal transformation, and to the transformation of the world around us, or at least our anticipation that the one reconciling all things to himself will one day return to make all things new, but it’s the voices of those pointing us to Jesus that are the ones offering us not just diagnosis, but a way forward.

Yo, Christian, our world doesn’t understand religion, it’s time to make sure you do

Jacinda Ardern is, from what I can tell, a lovely lady and an inspirational Prime Minister. You can tell a lot about a leader by how they respond in the crucible of a crisis; and Ardern responded to the recent Christchurch shooting with grace, poise, and a tonne of empathy. She won praise for her speeches, for her leadership in bringing people together across religious and ethnic divides, and for her humble empathy, especially when she wore the Hijab; an outward sign of solidarity with her religious neighbours. A religious symbol that she wore, not because she decided to subscribe temporarily to Islamic doctrine, but as a symbol of another sort of religion; unity and solidarity. In Ardern’s speech at the memorial service she said the answer to the problem of terrorism lies in finding our shared humanity, and that the events in Christchurch now form part of our shared experience, and that this comes with a new responsibility.

“A responsibility to be the place that we wish to be. A place that is diverse, that is welcoming, that is kind and compassionate. Those values represent the very best of us.”

She finished her speech quoting the national anthem; a call for unity across creed and race, and a call not just to our humanity but a prayer for divine intervention.

Men of every creed and race,
Gather here before Thy face,
Asking Thee to bless this place
God defend our free land

From dissension, envy, hate
And corruption, guard our state
Make our country good and great
God defend New Zealand

The attack on a mosque, a place of prayer, was for many in our modern age a racist attack (and though I haven’t read the shooter’s manifesto, race was certainly a part of it). But there’s something more insidious about such an attack for those who have beliefs about the nature of religious belief; that exploring religious questions is part of what the podcast The Eucatastrophe described in an episode that discussed Christchurch as the fundamentally human ‘religious quest.’ For those of us with religious convictions the attack on a place of prayer is not just a hate crime, it’s a different sort of sacrilege; an attack on something so profoundly located at the core of our experience of being human that we should have a deep empathy, even across religious or doctrinal divides; not simply because we believe our muslim neighbours are made in the image of God, but because they were killed while pursuing something so intimately connected to the fabric of reality; an experience we, as religious people, can relate to with a different lens. Our ‘solidarity’ with our muslim neighbours at this point should be of a different depth to the solidarity expressed by our secular neighbours, not because they care ‘less’ about the humans involved, but because they care less about the religious experience and religion as it defines our personhood. Though our ‘secular age’ might see religious belief, or any belief in the supernatural as contested or superfluous for understanding life in the material world; religious people see more to this world than just the material, more robust motivations for and solutions to ‘terrorism’ than just ‘our humanity’ (though most religious belief gives humanity a certain sort of sacredness), and more to the hijab than simply a marker of cultural practice that can be appropriated to whatever narrative we see fit (though, it’s true, that there were people in the Muslim community who appreciated the expression of solidarity).

Ardern’s use of the headscarf, and the praise she received for it, reveals something about how the modern world understands religious belief. Religious belief is just one commitment amongst many; one consumer choice, that we use to construct and perform our identity; one path to our ‘authentic self’. Again, The Eucatastrophe digs into this brilliantly, but they, like the book Disruptive Witness, are digging in to Charles Taylor’s work not just in A Secular Age but in Sources of the Self. When something ‘transcendent’ or divine is removed from our common ‘social imaginary’ — the backdrop of beliefs and ‘things’ that give our life meaning and help us understand who we are — we’re left constructing meaning for ourselves. We can don religious garb without it meaning anything deep, because religion is no longer a fundamental driving part of our personhood — God and the ‘givenness’ of our life no longer constitutes who we are; religion is a market choice. That it is viewed this way explains, in part, why religion always loses out to sexuality in clashes of identity. Our modern world is not equipped to see religion as inherent to a person’s personhood in the same way we understand sexual preference. You don’t don your sexual attraction like a hijab; we can’t, following a shooting at a gay bar, adopt those things that constitute a ‘gay identity’ the way we can use the words and symbols of religion after a shooting in a house of prayer.

It’s interesting, with Islam, that it’s so often understood in public dialogue in ethnic or ‘race’ terms; a reality that became starker as Sonny Bill Williams, a muslim, publicly participated in the mourning process around the events in Christchurch. Here’s a man who obviously believes things deeply, but who also, when he isn’t on the football field, is comfortable wearing the symbolic markers of his faith.

It’s also interesting, with Islam, that because it’s understood in ethnic or race terms, so little is said about Islamic doctrine on social issues; one can, it seems, don the Hijab in the western world without asking what that symbol means in other parts of the world; one can express solidarity with muslims without sharing any belief in the substantial elements of religious belief (that prayer isn’t just to an empty room, but is part of a search for the divine); and one can do that only so long as one never has to come into contact with not just the question of the reality of a transcendent God, but the particularity of the sort of creeds brought together under the human banner ‘New Zealand’… While I believe in a fundamentally different God to my Islamic neighbours, I believe in the one revealed in the divine person of Jesus, and so my doctrinal commitments are utterly different to other religious commitments, there is a ‘shared quest’ that I recognise in this community, and a shared framework of sorts, that stands at odds with the modern secular account of reality. I can stand with my muslim neighbours the same way the Apostle Paul stood with the religious philosophers in Athens, recognising this religious quest, while making a claim about the exclusivity of the truth found in Jesus, see how he balances this ‘religious quest’ with this claim of truth, while engaged in dialogue with other ‘very religious’ people:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

Paul speaks in categories almost universally shared by religious people; an assumption that there is a transcendent reality out there, and that the human religious impulse is not simply an act of identity construction, but the pursuit of something real and true. Something that will, ultimately, define who we are and shape the way we live. Not just a ‘tack on’ or a fashion accessory, but something fundamental to how we understand our personhood. Our muslim neighbours understand this in a way that our ‘secular’ neighbours do not.

It’d be curious to see how Sonny Bill would respond on Twitter if someone asked him what God’s plan for gay people is. And curious to see how long people comfortably don the Hijab when confronted with genuine religious conviction. Which is an interesting hypothetical because of what is happening at the moment with Israel Folau. Another footballer. Another religious believer for whom religion is substantial not just symbolic; for whom religion is public, because it is part of his understanding of his personhood, not just private, and not just a consumer choice that he’s made to look good on Instagram.

Israel first kicked off controversy because he was asked just that question, and he responded according to his beliefs (note, again, he responded in a way that I wouldn’t). He ‘doubled down’ on that after much discussion, and apparently a new contract with a social media clause, and now he has been fired because he’s in breach of his contract; because his comments (an articulation of his religious convictions) are in breach of Rugby Australia’s inclusiveness policy (and, apparently also the NRL’s own ‘inclusivity’ principles, that will allow a bloke convicted of a violent rampage in New York, and accused of domestic violence, to be registered to play despite public outcry). This is the same Rugby Australia who are sponsored by QANTAS, whose CEO is a well known activist for inclusion and rights of the LGBT+ community (as he should be). QANTAS put pressure on Rugby Australia last time Folau spoke up, and were vocal again this time, but this is the same QANTAS who partner with nationalised airlines from Islamic nations where homosexuality is a capital offence; it seems their real religion might actually be the more conventional god of ‘mammon’ (money), with ‘inclusivity’ a convenient piece of religious garb to don when it will make more dollars.

Rugby Australia’s inclusivity policy includes religion as something they’ll include… here’s part of the statement they made in announcing they were going to no longer include Folau in the Rugby family:

“Rugby is a sport that continuously works to unite people. We want everyone to feel safe and welcome in our game and no vilification based on race, gender, religion or sexuality is acceptable and no language that isolates, divides or insults people based on any of those factors can be tolerated.”

It’s clear from the Folau case that it’s not a definition of religion that would be shared by religious people with the sort of conviction about reality expressed by Paul in Athens; it’s the approach to religion that sees religious garb as a bit of bling added to make an ‘authentic’ you, but a ‘you’ with a pre-commitment to a different religious framework — the one where ‘humanity’ is our solution, and where ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ mean sameness (or a conviction to those things as ultimate ‘goods’ not as ‘means’ by which we live together through thick disagreement. If Folau’s religious commitments were more like Ardern’s hijab — something he’d hold loosely so that he could reach out to the Islander community, or the Christian market, and there was a dollar, or a fan or two, in it, then Rugby Australia might not come down so hard. But the reality is, Rugby has its own religious commitment to uphold, and Folau is now a heretic. One could ask if some of the commentary around Folau comes pretty close to intolerance and vilification of Folau based on his religious beliefs; but to do that, you’d have to convince the people you were asking that they’ve misunderstood religion.

But to come full circle, Ardern, who led her nation through a time of mourning; who modelled empathy and compassion to the religious other, showed that while she might be happy to grab a Hijab, so long as it doesn’t mean anything substantial (or so long as she can re-appropriate it to mean what she wants it to mean), isn’t really a fan of actual religious conviction. She, too, was asked about Folau’s views:

“Obviously at a personal level I clearly don’t agree with what he said, and … very mindful of the fact that he is for many a role model. He’s a person in a position of influence and I think that with that comes responsibility. I’m particularly mindful of young people who are members of our rainbow community, there is a lot of vulnerability there. As I say, I totally disagree with what he’s said and the way he’s using his platform.”

She could’ve said something like: “our unity as humans comes from our capacity to hold different creeds, and profound disagreement — even about each other — and still be united as people. I support Israel’s right to hold these religious views, even as I disagree with him. I love watching him play football — even if it’s for the Wallabies — but I believe these views are harmful to our rainbow community, and here’s my alternative vision for our society…”  But she didn’t. Because that’s not how religion operates in our society, it’s meant to be kept to privacy of the prayer house — until people who hate religious convictions (or people who hold competing religious convictions) attack religious people, then we’ll “come together.” We can’t ask for unity amongst people of different religious convictions in the public enterprise on one hand, and then exclude those we disagree with on the other…

It’s well within Ardern’s rights to disagree with Folau; I disagree with Folau, but there’s not a whole lot of ‘solidarity’ from the secular world for religious people when it comes to actual religious beliefs, or substance, and our right to operate in life in a way that doesn’t just see ‘religion’ as a thing we tack on to this new, secular, view of humanity but as the thing that most profoundly defines who we are.

And so, the question for those of us who claim religious beliefs is increasingly going to be — is this how religion operates in your life? And if it isn’t, could it be that your ‘religion’ is, to you, a ‘consumption decision’ that is about performing some identity, signalling something, just as Ardern’s hijab was for her. And if so, what’s the point? Especially if Paul’s words in Athens are right, that our ‘religious quest’ comes from a creator God, a God who wants to be the foundation of our life, but who’ll also judge us for false religion — for building our lives around ‘idols’ or ‘gods’ other than him; for taking our ‘religious quest’ and using that impulse to pursue ‘human’ solutions like “diversity,” “welcome,” and “inclusion” — good things though they are — at the expense of pursuing truth, love, and the God who made the universe.

A letter to the Queensland Government regarding the Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018

The Queensland Government is considering a new bill to decriminalise abortion. I wrote a pretty lengthy piece for church on how any legislation in this area is complicated because it touches on how we, as a society, define personhood, and how we choose who gets ‘human rights’ before we then stack the rights of the mother up against the rights of the child. Abortion is a pretty complicated issue and it’s multi-factorial — there’s much more going on than can be solved simply with legal solutions, and the church’s public stance on sexual ethics (and thus unwanted pregnancies) has left us as complicit with abortion as those who allow it. We’re also bad at imagining solutions beyond legislation — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak about legislation when the moment arises. Two of my brilliant colleagues, Andrea and Vicki wrote pieces exploring these issues.

I’ve been asked why abortion (and the sanctity of life) is a different issue to marriage equality (and the sanctity of marriage), which is a great question that I’d love to unpack. And my basic answer is that it both is and isn’t different; my approach to speaking into the political sphere as a Christian is consistently to articulate a Christian perspective and recognise that we are not a Christian nation and that our views have no special place in the legislative approach chosen by our government — who must balance all the views at the shared table. A Christian perspective is one built from the idea that, for the Christian (and in reality), Jesus is Lord, and that our loyalty, within a democracy (or anywhere) is to him first. Our reason for speaking for a Christian view is that we believe it is better for all people because God is the loving creator. Our challenge is that other views of creation (idolatry) will need to be accommodated by the laws in a secular, pluralist, democracy; and such a democracy, that holds competing views together in tension, will always by default lean towards one view and attempt to accommodate, or make space for, as many others as it can.

Our case for or against any change is not served by spreading misinformation; and having read the Bill and the report from the Queensland Law Reform Commission that produced it, I’m appalled by some of the misinformation being circulated by the pro-life side. I’ve seen claims that the legislation allows sex selection, the death of children born alive during the process, and partial birth abortion. The last claim is the most obvious form of misinformation; the Bill does not mention partial birth abortion because the report suggests a partial birth abortion is neither an abortion, nor murder, but fits within its own definitional category in the Criminal Code).

The report says:

“Provisions like section 313(1) were intended to fill the gap between the offences of unlawful termination (which apply to a fetus) and unlawful homicide (which applies to a child born alive).”

The relevant section of the Criminal Code says:

“Any person who, when a female is about to be delivered of a child, prevents the child from being born alive by any act or omission of such a nature that, if the child had been born alive and had then died, the person would be deemed to have unlawfully killed the child, is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment for life.”

The report acknowledges that there’s an ambiguity here when it comes to abortion, so the Bill recommends an amendment to s313, to make it clear that terminations are not the same thing as ‘preventing a child being born alive’. It doesn’t specifically say anything about the surgical procedures involved that either allow or disallow partial birth abortions. And while, if the unborn child is a person from conception, there’s no moral difference when it comes to the methods of procuring an abortion anyway, it is important that when discussing a topic that is rightly one where the emotions are at play, and where the outcome matters, that we get our facts straight. There’s a massive grey area on the question of partial birth termination, but that’s not the same as suggesting it’s a built-in feature of the Bill. One problem with the Bill is that there are just two many grey areas that mean different emotional arguments from all sorts of scenarios become possible arguments, but this doesn’t make them good arguments any more than the grey areas make good law.

I’d recommend reading the QLRC report (where the Presbyterian Church of Queensland submission even gets quoted). It’s 300+ pages long, but if you’re going to enter a conversation it’s worth holding an informed position. Especially if the issue matters.

Here’s a letter where I attempt to hold these things in balance. You might like to write your own.


To the Hon Yvette D’ath MP, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice and the Hon Jackie Trad MP, Deputy Premier and Member for South Brisbane,

Re: Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018

I am a Presbyterian Minister, leading a congregation in Ms Trad’s electorate of South Brisbane. I’ve long been an admirer of her engagement in the community of South Brisbane and particularly her concerns for the vulnerable members of her electorate — our neighbours.

The recent proposed changes to laws regarding termination of pregnancies in Queensland are causing some concern within the Christian community, and not a small amount of misinformation is being circulated by pro-life groups. I’ve been urged to oppose changes to the legislation because the new bill allows abortions on the basis of ‘sex selection’, and that it will allow partial birth abortions or even post-birth abortions where a fetus survives the process and is left to die, unwanted. This is disturbing to many within the community (beyond the boundaries of religious groups). As I read the proposed Bill from the Law Reform Commission I could find no evidence to support such emotional claims, but also nothing to refute them.

As a leader within the Christian community it seems that the best pathway to a civil conversation on what is not a small or simple issue requires clear information, especially in response to misinformation — especially when the moral weight of such misinformation must surely lead many decent people to oppose the bill. I’m writing to ask that in the course of the public conversation you devote time and energy to both hearing from those worried by these changes, and to correcting the record with as much clarity and charity as possible.

It seems to me that the discussion around the legislation of abortion is not helped by references to marginal cases (from either side), but also that such marginal cases are inevitably part of the discussion. I watched a speech from Ms Trad on the ABC’s Facebook page where she said:

“When the other side say that what we are campaigning for is the right to carry an unborn baby for 38 weeks and then go to a doctor and say we want an abortion is bullshit. It is 100% bullshit.”

I’m concerned that while Ms Trad identifies a gross misrepresentation of the views of those seeking legislative change, any approach to a complex ethical issue built on statements about ‘the other side’ are likely to create an adversarial basis for discussions. One can grant that the legislative changes are seeking to aid women in enormously complicated medical and emotional circumstances without accepting the premise that generalised laws should be made for marginal cases. The proposed legislation is much broader than required those situations as they arise. I am concerned that the proposed limits in the legislation for terminations beyond 22 weeks are fairly vague, where they could be much more specific.

That’s not to say that those of us in religious communities within the community are only concerned about terminations after 22 weeks, which involve the more emotionally disturbing surgical termination (and as a result open up concerns about partial birth abortions, and infant survival beyond the process). The report from the QLRC, which produced the draft bill, provides a relatively black and white position on what it acknowledges is a complicated and contested question.  In deciding whether to recommend abortion ‘on demand’ or the ‘combined approach’ the bill adopts, the QLRC acknowledged various objections to abortion on demand from religious groups (including the Presbyterian Church of Queensland), and those supporting a ‘combined approach,’ which typically argued from the rights of the mother. The report cited a submission from the Australian Lawyers For Human Rights which, in arguing for no limit, made the point that isolating any moment in the gestation period as a point at which the fetus gained human rights and legislating from there is an arbitrary decision:

“Specifying criteria for termination according to different gestation periods is arbitrary, and fails to consider the individual circumstances of each case.”

I would agree with the arbitrary nature of specifying criteria, but suggest that a rush to individualise the considerations around particular cases ignores general principles that our legislative framework must uphold (and indeed the sort of ‘general principles’ required to establish generalities like universal human rights. I would humbly suggest that it is precisely because making such a distinction is arbitrary that we might consider drawing such a point earlier than viability, rather than later.  The report, in Appendix D, also makes the claim:

“Determining the moral status of the fetus or unborn child is contentious. It cannot be resolved by medical facts.”

If extreme cases make for bad law, then I wonder if another axiom might be thrown into the mix — legislation that doesn’t have settled ‘first principles’ also makes bad law. While I recognise that the rights of the woman are an important consideration, laws regarding termination (and that such laws have not been established in Queensland prior to 2018) have always been contentious because deciding when a human life becomes a ‘person’ the law should protect is not easy. The contest of rights between mother and child cannot simply be solved by assertion, and the report itself acknowledges that religious and philosophical reasoning must be brought to bear on this question that medical science alone cannot answer; and so I was concerned to hear Ms Trad dismiss religious objections being raised to the Bill when she said:

“That is the shameful act — to elevate these women’s lives and these women’s circumstances and to use it as a political platform for their absolutely fringe religious perspectives here is outrageous.”

These are not so much fringe religious perspectives as perspectives on the nature of human life that have shaped the approach to human rights, including the rights of the mother, that we enjoy in the western world. For good, and for ill, our approach to personhood in the western world has been profoundly shaped by the Christian teaching that all people are made in the image of God, and thus have inherent dignity (traditionally from conception), and the command from Jesus to “love your neighbour as you love yourself.” It is this axiom that led the early church to, in practice, oppose the abortion-on-demand culture of Rome, a first century Christian document, The Didache, contains specific teachings about how the church was practice this command, which included, specifically, a command not to have abortions, and as the Christian view of life became the dominant one in Rome, and then the west, this view of the unborn child as a neighbour became enshrined in practice, philosophy, and law. From the earliest practices of the church, through to the influence of these practices on our laws (and the establishment of rights for women and children), the church has been seeking to apply the teaching of Jesus to a belief that life begins at conception. These are not ‘fringe religious perspectives’ but a particular position on an issue that Queensland Law Reform Commission acknowledges is complicated.

Because Christians believe the unborn child is a person from conception there is a heightened amount of passion and emotion brought to the conversation about legislation; for us the images brought to our imagination when discussing surgical terminations after 22 weeks are profoundly the same as the idea of the ‘surgical termination’ of a newborn, whose right to life the state rightly protects. While Ms Trad rightly makes the case that nobody takes these decisions lightly, and they almost always tragedy, the legislation does not provide adequately explicit limits on the sort of cases where surgical terminations might be performed; and the distinction between a surgical termination performed at some point prior to 22 weeks and afterwards is, as the report acknowledges, totally arbitrary. How can those who hold this view of the humanity and personhood of the fetus possibly stand by and still believe they are upholding the command of Jesus to love our neighbours? For these weighty questions or scenarios to be dismissed as ‘bullshit’ or ‘fringe’ does not allow the sort of civil discussion required for the formation of good law based on the sort of consideration our pluralist, secular, democracy requires.

The influence that inherently Christian views should have on legislation in a modern secular state is, of course, open to debate. I’m not writing with the expectation that the particular views of my religious tradition be enshrined in the law, but rather to request that they not be summarily dismissed as ‘bullshit’ or ‘fringe religious perspectives’ in weighing up questions of when a human is viewed as a person (the criteria we use here, which are philosophical, will have profound ‘first principles’ implications for all sorts of lawmaking). I would urge you both, and the Labor Party, to reconsider the arbitrariness of drawing a line on where a fetus is a person, and as a result, draw the line to confer both personhood and human rights on the unborn child much earlier, and thus to weigh those rights carefully.

I’m also writing to suggest that the laws regarding conscientious objection and the necessary referral to other practitioners are not so straightforward. In my conversations with medical professionals within our Christian tradition I’ll be suggesting that part of ‘disclosing an objection’ is an opportunity to explain the basis for such an objection, to persuade our community that the best version of our society is one where Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ shapes all we do, that to simply refer a patient to termination by another where you believe the life of a person involved is to become a bystander in the killing of an unborn person. When Jesus affirms the command to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’, he tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan — the one who stepped in to a complex situation to help after two others (religious leaders) had chosen to be bystanders in the situation. If such a stance is not protected or envisaged by the current framing of the bill then it does not actually protect the conscience of the practitioner but impinges on it such that they are essentially forced to adopt the definition of personhood not-clearly-defined by the Bill.

I recognise that churches have a long way to go in making alternatives to termination plausible, and that our ‘pro-life’ stance often does not extend to the community based support we offer mothers in emotionally and socially vulnerable situations, such that we demonstrate a concern for the rights of the mother, and I also recognise that there are many medically and socially complex cases where decriminalisation of abortion and the provision of clear medical guidelines for practitioners is important, but I do not believe this Bill provides the clarity or limits required for it to make good law for those circumstances.

Ms Trad has been exceptional at loving our neighbourhood in many other spheres, recognising the inherent dignity of many people our society chooses to walk by, and I thank her for that. I would love to have a further conversation with Ms Trad to listen to her perspective, and to outline the objections of the religious members of her electorate and the wider community, trusting that such a dialogue would limit our capacity to see our neighbour as a despicable ‘other’ and that dialogues like this are the basis of producing better, and more inclusive, legislation. Christians are also called to pray for our leaders, and I write to assure you both of my prayers as you, and the government, weigh up the best way forward on this issue.

Sincerely,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Campus Pastor — Creek Road Presbyterian Church, South Bank.