Tag Archives: politics

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The perils of small (and large) target Christianity

In the politics/PR world there’s a thing called the ‘small target strategy’; it’s a way to manage your brand and reputation by only putting out there what is absolutely essential for the broader public to know, and so minimise the things about you that might give offense.

Now, there’s a certain sort of wisdom built on this sort of approach, but also a pragmatism that can end up leaving the public knowing less than they should when making a decision, or forming an opinion about you, or your party, or your brand — to the extent that some might question the ethics or integrity of such an approach.

In politics the ‘small target’ strategy gets deployed at election campaign time where the political other is so repugnant that all you have to do to secure victory is stay out of the way; it’s questionable, in a democracy, whether such a strategy earns you a mandate from the public to implement any particular policy beyond ‘not being the other side;’ and it’s a strategy also deployed because big target politics — the sort where you have a massively integrated political platform built on convictions, invites people to pick one area of your platform that they utterly repudiate and so choose the other side (Bill Shorten’s Labor leadership, and Labor’s failure at the last election, in part were a product of a big platform built from hubris and a sense that the other side, the Liberals, were so on the nose — adopting a small target might have been more expedient, politically, especially when elements of the platform were so easy to zero in on to create problems in the electorate). It’s typically, at least in Australia, a strategy adopted by oppositions; but Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign in 2016, and Scott Morrison’s 2019 campaign might have established it as a norm on both sides.

In public relations the small target strategy can be a response to a crisis, but can also be a longer term approach built around ‘staying on message’ — that’s where you just repeat the mantra at the heart of your organisation and your business at every turn; it ends up leaving you in a bit of a niche, where you’ll only be relevant to the public so long as that mantra is relevant. In a crisis the small target strategy means saying or doing as little as you possibly can — sometimes invoking the terrible ‘no comment’ strategy; it’s the equivalent of burying your head in the sand hoping that whatever danger or disaster is approaching will pass by without damaging the nerve centre of your organisation so that you can live to fight another day. This PR blog provides a definition of the strategy:

The ‘Small Target’ strategy is simple, conceptually – it’s selectively choosing to stay silent or minimising the response to an issue or crisis.

Now. I’ve been listening to plenty of chatter about the decline of the church in Australia, especially the reformed evangelical church scene I’m part of; perhaps especially focused on Sydney Anglicanism and the “pastor drought”. I’ve also been following a debate within this subset of the church, both here and abroad, about the definition of the Gospel, and I want to suggest part of the dilemma facing the church here in Australia is that we’ve settled for a small target Gospel, and a small target communication strategy in both a political and public relations sense (where evangelism; the public proclamation of the Gospel overlaps with both categories); and I want to suggest this campaign strategy isn’t working, and we’re reaping the results.

So, contra Philip Jensen, who in a Podcast interview on The Pastor’s Heart suggested the Sydney Diocese is where it is because it has ‘stopped preaching the Gospel’ (and there’s a big implicit critique of drinking too much from the fountain of Tim Keller in just about everything Philip Jensen says these days), I’m going to suggest it’s because the Sydney Anglicans (and others influenced by them) have preached too small a Gospel, and that’s become part of the toolkit for the modern church often coupled with church growth movement strategies that adopt ‘small target/big emphasis on unity around the key message’ as a growth and retention strategy (often growing by grabbing people from other churches). Stephen McAlpine’s engagement with Philip’s interview, and a follow up with others, is also worth reading (part 1, part 2); and I wonder how much a sort of tribal/culture war within the Sydney Anglican Diocese (historically Matthias v Barneys, UTS v UNSW, etc, etc) where people who didn’t fit one’s orthodoxy were discouraged from ministry, where its training institution has become increasingly narrow in its posture towards the world, and where the last Archbishop election involved a public dog fight between these camps, might also be to blame, and my understanding from talking to plenty of people over the years would be that Philip has been at the pointy end of that internecine/inter-nicene war.

But before I dig deeper into this; I want to acknowledge that in the present lay of the land a ‘big target’ approach to church is exceptionally costly to those running with it; in a landscape where people will chop and change churches for a variety of reasons (including personal preference) adopting ‘policy positions’ or articulating a Gospel vision beyond a small Gospel (as I’ll define it) leads (and in my experience ‘has lead’) people to break fellowship and to seek a more comfortable ‘small target’ church that is big on essential nature of the the small target gospel. If we approach churchmanship (awful word), or public Christianity, as though it’s a political or public relations campaign, where results matter, and where our metrics are numbers of bums on seats, and where we’re ultimately just competing for the distribution of the choir amongst various churches, rather than seeking to persuade others of the truth of the Gospel and its implications for their lives, then a big target strategy is a bad idea. It will probably, so long as others are adopting a small target, small Gospel strategy, shrink your church; and there’ll be a danger that you turn non-essentials into essentials and make it feel like there’s no room for disagreement on the implications of a bigger Gospel. So long as people will pick churches like choosing brands to purchase, or political parties to vote for, the small target strategy and the small Gospel will be the path of least resistance for church leaders. But like with politics and public relations, what seems prudent or pragmatic might ultimately lack integrity and normalise a certain sort of head-burying cowardice; it might also be a failure to boldly articulate a bigger vision that might prove unpopular with the public (but could also be truly and properly animating and life giving for those who get on board).

To be clear, though, this cowardice is not the sort embraced by the seeker sensitive movement that sought to eradicate anything offensive in the message of the Gospel — a ‘no Gospel’ strategy embraced this ‘small target strategy’ with great effect; the issue with the small gospel strategy in Reformed Evangelical circles in Australia is not with what it includes — that is, the offense of the Cross, of sin, and of God’s judgment, but what it excludes. Our scene wants to hold out that offense, and sometimes hold on to conservative moral values, without challenging anything tricky that might upset the western economic status quo (except when we tell upper middle class people that their sons and daughters should go to Bible college instead of being doctors or lawyers).

Small Gospel, Small Targets

There’s a tendency in the best parts of reformed evangelicalism to reduce the Gospel to the mechanism of the atonement and its implications for the individual. Penal substitution is, as far as I understand the Bible, part of the good news of God’s activity in the world in Jesus. But our small Gospel (Jesus died to save me, a sinner, from my personal autonomous rebellion against God, by taking my punishment in my place) often doesn’t help us escape from a disenchanted, modernist, individualist vision of life in the world and a disembodied eschatological hope (‘my soul getting into heaven’) (in fact, the Protestant Reformation arguably contributed to all these aspects of modern life). A fuller picture of the Gospel would, I think, make the subject and emphasis of the Gospel Jesus himself, and emphasise not just the fruit of the Gospel for me, and my personal salvation, but the victory of Jesus over Satan, and through his resurrection and ascension, the reconciliation of all things (a cosmic scale, where there’s not just the material world but a spiritual one too), where we get to be part of this victory even now, because God’s Spirit now dwells in us. Forgiveness of sins is part of this picture; but so too is our re-creation and resurrection as God’s children, as, through Jesus the Lord, Saviour, and King, God sets out to liberate all things from decay, and we anticipate the making new of both heavens and earth.

This is the debate playing out particularly in America between Scot McKnight, and those who’ve taken up the diagnosis of his book The King Jesus Gospel (where N.T Wright always looms large), and John Piper and those who’ve bought into his paradigm (let’s put those two figures at ends of a spectrum in this debate and recognise there’s significant nuance not just in their positions but in those of people along that spectrum).

Here are a few links:

This Gospel, where Jesus is not just personal Saviour who punches my ticket into heaven when I die, but also victorious king, and not just victorious king over sin, but vindicated king of heavens and earth and defeater of Satan and his beastly minions in heaven and on earth, has political implications for every inch of the Christian life; and implications not just for me as an individual, but for us as a community of people participating in this kingdom, anticipating and testifying to the renewal of all things as new creations in Christ, transformed into the image of Jesus. To proclaim this Gospel involves living it in our lives — both as individuals and community — as an alternative vision of life in the world; it involves seeing sin as something that doesn’t just corrupt us as individuals, but operates in partnership with curse, and Satan, to corrupt cultures and systems that people create. McKnight, in his book, saw this shifting an emphasis in our proclamation of the Gospel from making converts (small target), to making disciples (big target), and some of the implications of this bigger, cosmic, kingdom, not just individual salvation scope of the Gospel for discipleship are that it is not simply enough to pursue individual piety and a personal relationship with God, but to take up a vocation aligned with the kingdom that goes beyond simply proclaiming penal substitution (and so, it is true, thanks Keller, sorry Jensen, that being a pastor is a great vocation for a Christian, but not the only great, Kingdom oriented, vocation).

The playing field created by this bigger Gospel means a ‘small target’ Christianity that simply proclaims individual salvation from personal sin and a personal relationship with God through Christ as mediator, by the Spirit dwelling in me, doesn’t really cut it in terms of an assessment of the problems with life in the modern world and the antidote offered in Jesus.

When Australian culture largely still operated with a social and cultural architecture that assumed Christian beliefs (including morality) at a political, institutional, and even aesthetic/cultural/artistic level, we, the church, could get away with a small target Gospel (maybe), to connect a bunch of norms with their source. We didn’t need to build all that other kingdom infrastructure because we inherited it from Christendom, and simply assumed it as foundational. But those foundations have shifted and now our small Gospel doesn’t land on soil cultivated by the historic impact of the bigger Gospel, it lands on rockier ground, or, as Alan Noble describes it in Disruptive Witness, we’re planting and trying to harvest on concrete.

People drinking the church growth Kool-Aid, or embedded in ‘toxic churchianity,’ and let’s face it, that’s most of us because it’s the air we breath, will default to this small Gospel, small target version of Christianity because it is pragmatic and maximises success in the metrics we’re given. A huge part of the problem with retaining people in Christian ministry boils down to these metrics and the associated pressure to create a big and growing church with lots of converts (or people grabbed from other ‘less faithful because they’re less numerically fruitful, or less programmatically excellent’) churches, because this leaves the pastor operating both as gospel teacher and CEO, and success resting on navigating both in the most effective way possible.

The “best strategy” to adopt in the current model is the most soul destroying; it’s to be a pastor without conviction beyond the small gospel, out of fear that you’ll offend someone and they’ll head to the better option up the road, or elsewhere. This leaves us not thinking about how we change and challenge the architecture of belief — political and cultural — outside the church, and still throwing the same good seed that once might have worked in a landscape more explicitly cultivated for that seed, and not getting the results we’ve come to believe should follow faithful Gospel preaching ministry (or people questioning whether we’re faithfully preaching the Gospel at all, and undermining attempts to renew or change the cultural architecture by telling people something other than Gospel proclamation might be a Christian vocation, thanks Philip). Keller isn’t blameless on the church growth front either; his ‘Leadership and Church Size Dynamic’ model provides a pathway away from the ‘pastor sized’ church to mega church and despite his own example of political engagement (a dedicated centrism), I’d suggest both in the model, and observing those who follow it, the ‘small target’ becomes more appealing for a pastor the more disconnected the pastor becomes from the lives of his congregation and the more the success of the movement depends on avoiding controversy. The most successful versions of this paradigm (according to these metrics) — both within Sydney Anglicanism, or in Acts 29, or in other networks seem to be the least politically engaged churches with the leaders least likely to articulate a political position on any issue that might cause offense. It has been refreshing to see Hillsong’s political engagement grow as (I’d suggest) its Gospel vision has grown (see, for example, its engagement in the Black Lives Matter conversation).

A small gospel matched with a small target strategy is not the solution we need; but a shift to giving church communities (and pastors) freedom to pursue a bigger Gospel and bigger targets in terms of messaging and engagement with the world outside the church (including seeing Gospel ministry as taking part in the renewal and reshaping of those parts of the world outside the church that form our beliefs and practices), without pulling up stumps and heading elsewhere if that big target offends you, might be.

The trick is to pull off a ‘big target’ where we display unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things. The bigger Gospel broadens the need for unity in Christ beyond unity in the individual mechanism and spiritual implications of the Gospel into some sort of commitment to a shared life and mission (beyond just the making of converts, and into the making of disciples, with ‘political’ and ‘economic’ implications in the true sense of both words — it organises us as people, and guides our collective approach to resources).

In a polarised political climate it would be easy for such a ‘big target’ approach to produce a ‘left leaning church’ and a ‘right leaning church’ who end up at odds with one another in both Gospel communication and politics; and an excluded middle. It is interesting that it doesn’t feel like churches are adopting a ‘bigger target’ strategy when they support politically conservative campaigns (like campaigning against same sex marriage, or abortion), but it does when churches speak out on systemic racism, asylum seekers, and the environment; or that one isn’t risking offending someone in a theologically conservative environment by adopting right leaning politics emphasising individual responsibility and morality, like we are when we speak out about systemic sin that people might be complicit in or benefit from without knowingly, as an individual, choosing to do so. Talking about individual morality, and applying that to the political realm, fits with the small target Gospel.

This, again, is where the small target thing is so much easier; we can avoid anything that feels like ‘worldly politics’ or division and focus just on getting bums on seats and buy in on the smallest possible truths that unite us (in our case, the Gospel of penal substitution). But that won’t work in an increasingly post-Christian context where heaps more scaffolding is required before people are even coming at questions of how the “Good News of Jesus” becomes good news for me, or changes me (or us); a big target approach considers how we challenge alternative scaffolding that supports unbelief, while building our own plausibility structures (communities of believers, following Berger) and social imaginaries (the things in our culture — stories, architecture, practices, politics, etc that support belief, following Taylor).

Grappling with how Paul navigates idol food, idol temples, and missionary dining in idol-food eating cities, with the unity of strong and weak brothers and sisters within the body of Jesus might be helpful here; especially noting that Paul doesn’t choose the ‘small target’ practices of the “weaker brother” in either Romans or 1 Corinthians, but urges their accommodation within a bigger drive to reach and engage the cities and critique, disrupt, and demolish the value of their idols by introducing the big good news of the Gospel of Jesus (an approach he models in, say, Athens in Acts 17 and Ephesus in Acts 19, and describes in 2 Corinthians 10).

The other challenge is for our ‘big target’ strategies to be appropriately shaped by our ‘big Gospel’ — for us not to adopt other forms of political strategies that undermine the message of the Gospel (think political lobbying as power game), or positions that simply pick one form of the post-Christian status quo to conserve because it aligns with the individualism of the small target gospel we’ve imbibed, without pondering how human sin and beastly, Satanic, empires work as the antithesis of the Kingdom of God, and so dismantling structures built on sinful behaviour might also be within the job description of Gospel shaped politics and communication.

The context for our public messaging, and our ‘politics’ has changed — and so the content of the Gospel we proclaim (in word and lives) needs to change too; a small target Gospel if a good thing at all, was an historical anomaly and retreating to it in order to avoid the costs of a big gospel (and even to hand some of that over to ‘the culture’) was maybe a mistake.

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The Image of Trump or the Image of Jesus: on Trump’s sacrilege and the toppling of idols

In the last two posts I’ve explored how the practice of destroying statues — the damnatio memoraie — is an ancient one, and how public space has always been sacred and contested (and how when Jesus turns up in a contested public space, both sides of the contest joined sides to kill him).

There’s a picture of this for those who would follow Jesus in the book of Revelation; John’s apocalypse. Up front John writes to some churches in the Roman world. He pictures these seven churches as lamp stands. Churches who are meant to bring light to the world as they reflect the glory of Jesus. By the time you get into the ‘apocalyptic’ stuff — the vivid picture of life in this world that John offered, the seven lamp stands are reduced to two. Two faithful churches — witnesses to Jesus — are pictured as martyrs, and we’re told they speak up, and the beastly world kills them, celebrating the sacrilegious erasure of their voice from the public square like first century statue topplers. John says, of these witnesses, “their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city — which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt — where also their Lord was crucified” (Revelation 11:8). To follow Jesus in the world is to be treated like Jesus because we act like Jesus because we worship Jesus.

The book of Revelation serves up a picture of beastly worldly power as opposed to God; it ties Sodom, Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and Jerusalem together as pictures of an economically motivated monster opposed to the kingdom of God; in love with the things of this world, and the prince of this world, Satan. The desecration of these faithful churches — these bodies pulled down in the public square is paralleled with the desecration of Jesus, the image of God, in the public square of Jerusalem.

It’s fascinating that the debate about the tearing down of statues — images cast in metal or stone — in public squares around the world — the outpouring of anger of the sort evoked by sacrilege that we’re hearing from one side of the ‘history wars’/’culture wars’ divide because statues-as-history are being destroyed in such a sacrilegious manner, and the outpouring of anger we’re seeing from the other side of the same conflict in the desecrating destruction these of statues happened at the same time that the President of the United States so ‘sacrilegiously’ (or desacrilegiously) set himself up as a pixelated image in a brazen photo opp on the footsteps of a church.

Trump’s photo opp was straight out of the playbook of the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes, whose cultural and religious conquest of Jerusalem was framed by the writer of the inter-testamental book 1 Maccabees as “the abomination that causes desolation.”

And perhaps the most distressing part of this scene was not Trump’s following the image-erecting playbook of the idol-kings of the ancient world; it was the way he was cheered on by the faithful — the sort of lamp stands in Revelation who forsook their first love, Jesus, to cosy up with the Beastly Roman empire; the new Babylon, Egypt, and Sodom.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse just means ‘revelation’ — it’s not pointing to some future moment of cataclysmic end times so much as revealing the cataclysmic results of siding with anybody but God; given that ultimately the victory of Jesus won at the cross will turn the whole world on its head. Revelation talks about the Spiritual reality behind political realities; there is no ‘secular/sacred’ divide — everything is religious; every political act is an act of sacrilege or sanctification — an act of elevating some thing or other to holy status, or applying a religious paradigm to the organisation of life in the world, in terms of how we organise communities of people and how we make and enjoy created things. That those kingdoms that set themselves up to oppose Jesus because they love money and the things of this world are collectives of people — systems, structures, cultures — that have rejected Jesus and picked Satan. Instead of being bearers of the divine image — and so being treated like Jesus and executed in the public square; they’re joining with corrupt power in order to reject God’s king and kingdom, and to destroy their own enemies (those who would take from them the things they really love). In Revelation you’ve got the image of Israel as a harlot, jumping on the back of beastly Rome.

1 Maccabees condemns Israel for not being desperately offended by the sacrilegious act of Antiochus Epiphanes; instead of tearing down the idol and seeking to rededicate the Temple to Yahweh (after Antiochus dedicates it to Zeus), “Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath” (1 Maccabees 1:43). Israel’s hearts have been captured by this beastly foreign ruler and his promise of order, and status, and the benefits flowing from belonging to such a powerful empire.

Trump’s photo opp — secured through violent action (this Washington Post composite of smart phone footage and police radio audio puts the idea that he didn’t use tear gas or equivalents squarely in the ‘fake news’ column) — was an act of sacrilege; co-opting the symbols of Christianity — the Kingdom of God — for his own political agenda (so much so that even his military has since distanced itself from the photo opp). This was the digital equivalent of the erection of a statue; a pixelated bust. An image that he hoped might spread frictionlessly around his empire to shore up his rule, and a call to worship his image. In Empire and Communication (1950), Harold Innis argued that empires rose and fell, historically, based on how well and widely they were able to communicate. Statues were an expensive but long lasting way to share an imperial imagery through the landscape an emperor ruled. They were fixed in place, but would last for a long time. They were limited. Trump is the master of harnessing the digital landscape to create imagery and words that spread through the empire; a master of propaganda and pageantry. He doesn’t need statues to spread his image; there is now a permanent picture of Trump with a Bible, in front of a church, engraved in the American pysche. The Roman empire followed other ancient near eastern practice by using coins as propaganda; the emperor’s image was carried in the pockets of the average Roman citizen (see Jesus on coins ‘the image of Caesar’ v ‘the image of God), when Trump wanted his name on the cheques sent out as stimulus to citizens during the Covid-19 lockdown he was again borrowing straight from the ancient playbook.

Just as Revelation depicts a faithful church who stand against the empire and so get slaughtered, 1 Maccabees tells the story that not all in Israel succumbed to Antiochus’ attempts to profane the Temple, while glorifying the image of his gods.

But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. (1 Maccabees 1:62-63)”

These were the #NeverTrumpers of the first century B.C.

My observations of peers in the U.S who won’t bend the knee to Trump is that it’s more costly within Christian community to refuse than it is for an NFL player to bend the knee during the anthem. Leader after leader seem to be coming forward to pledge their allegience to the Trump re-election campaign; excited by his fusion of the sword of empire with the sword of God’s word… while ignoring the picture God’s word paints of the empire while telling Christians to submit to its authority — to the point of martyrdom; just as Jesus did. Now, this is complicated of course, and people of God are able to be a faithful presence working for change in idolatrous foreign governments — the guiding principle from Joseph, to Daniel, to Esther, to Nehemiah, to Erastus in Corinth, to the early Christians in the Roman empire — seems to be a refusal to worship at the feet of the emperor because Jesus is their Lord and King — their spiritual and political leader. Daniel, the courtier, was chucked in the lion’s den explicitly for his refusal to bend the knee to the king he served. Serving in the courts of the king isn’t the problem — that’s precisely where God’s people can act as a faithful presence to see actions aligned with God’s kingdom (so when Esther doesn’t mention God, that’s not because God is absent in the story, he’s present through the faithful presence of his people). In Daniel, in case the symbolism needs to be any more overt, Nebuchadnezzar literally becomes beastly as a result of the pride he takes in the size and scope of his power.

“Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Daniel 4:33)

Trump is the embodiment of the worship of the things of this world. He is beastly in every sense of the word, as the Bible describes it. He is the personification of the vice list in Colossians 3 that Christians are told to put off as they are restored in the knowledge of the image of our creator. Find one thing in this list that Trump hasn’t proudly demonstrated in his tweeting, rallies, and photo opps.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices (Colossians 3:5-10)

He is a living, breathing, idol, erecting pixelated statues to himself and inviting all to bend the knee to him (and getting angry when they take a knee to any other god).

But when he stands in front of a church, co-opting it to maintain his position in his empire, church leaders in America aren’t falling in behind the example of the two faithful lamp stands in Revelation 11; they’re the five who left. And it’s appalling. It’s a symptom of a Christian culture that cares more about results and appearance and power than about virtue, and faithfulness, and following the example of a crucified king. It’s the sign of a church who learns nothing from history, because it cares nothing about history; or the role of narrative — both from the Bible, and through history, and its foundational role in shaping character; a church obsessed with technique, coopted by the forms and strategies of the world, because those are the ones that for good and for ill, have provided influence (and, on the whole, less martyrdom).

Christians might ‘bend the knee’ while holding their nose; but there was no space for that in Jerusalem when Antiochus swept to power, and none in Rome in John’s revelation; the faithful church was martyred for its refusal to take a knee. There’s even evidence of this in Pliny’s letter to Trajan. The trial Pliny devised for those accused of being Christians was simple; straight from the pages of Daniel. They were asked to worship an image of the emperor.

“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and also cursed Christ – none of which those who are really Christians can, it is said, be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.”

Trajan’s response is a model of reasonableness — he doesn’t want a witch hunt; but, if people are accused of being Christians and fail this test, then they are to be punished.

“They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.”

There’s a whole swathe of Christians failing this test; putting Supreme Court seats, religious freedom, political influence, abortion law reform, and victory in the culture wars against the evil “woke left” as justification for joining in Trump’s profanity. But it’s not just the church of the right co-opted by the empire… by the lure of worldly power — they’re not the only Christians lured by the sides going toe-to-toe in the culture wars and backing their chosen champion to the hilt; not the only ones taking a knee… There’s a whole swathe of Christians also failing this test by becoming political and spiritual progressives who deny the resurrection, reject any created norms in terms of biological sex, sexuality, or sexual morality, where allegiance to the institutions of the left seems to require a particular stance on the lives of the unborn, who take on the more radical ‘deconstruction’ aims of the extremes of the left not only to dismantle oppression but the idea of any construction outside the self-constructed authenticity we all want to pursue as tribes of individuals… The litmus test might not be invoking the gods in words supplied by the agents of the empire, but it sure feels close; the Christian leaders who paraded out in lockstep to praise Trump’s strong and god-annointed leadership, and to celebrate the photo, have something to learn from Daniel, from Esther, from the faithful Israelites in the time of Antiochus, and from the faithful churches in Revelation…

Both the ‘Christian right’ and ‘Christian left’ — when they’re expressions of the culture wars, and the fight to control the empire (at the expense of the other) — have forsaken their first love. And it might seem like this is a world away from Australia, and America’s narrative — especially when it comes to civic religion — is a very different animal to Australia; but the same symptoms are there in Australia’s own version of political Christianity; especially, I think, on the Christian Right, with the Australian Christian Lobby and a variety of similar bodies spearheading the charge. There’s, frankly, not enough calling this out from leaders of the institutional church in Australia because our temptation to idolatry is often aligned with the right; we Christians (apparently) want a government that will make life comfortable for us (religious freedom), that will keep the invocation of God’s name in the parliamentary process (the Lord’s prayer), and who will give conservative Christian voices access to the throne room (even if it means justifying a vote for One Nation).

There’s another interesting dynamic to Antiochus Epiphanes and his abomination that causes desolation. The temple he profanes is empty. It’s a shell. It stopped housing God’s glorious presence in the exile. When Solomon builds the temple in 1 Kings, the glorious presence of God shakes the foundations of heaven and earth, and God speaks, as he comes to dwell in Israel as their God. The Temple is the seat of his political and spiritual rule; his footstool in the earth. The curtain in the temple marks off the ‘holy of holies’ — as a sort of boundary marker between heavens and earth.

The second temple never witnesses God’s glorious presence arriving (well, it might, I’ll get to this below); the Old Testament ends in anticipation of God gloriously dwelling with his people again. Israel, with the help of the rulers of Persia, rebuild and rededicate the Temple.

There’s a sense in Ezra that things just aren’t the same; first, people who remember the original temple mourn the difference as the foundation is laid: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.” (Ezra 3:12), and then, the whole thing launches with a party without any divine intervention.

“Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, one for each of the tribes of Israel.” (Ezra 6:16-17)

And that’s it. It goes off with a whimper, rather than a bang. There’s no ground-shaking arrival of God in his house from the thunderclouds. No cloud of glory. The house that Antiochus desecrates has not yet been resanctified; the Day of the Lord has not arrived; Israel is still essentially exiled from God when this house is renovated by Herod, when Jesus turns up as the Messiah and calls it a ‘den of Robbers,’ he turns up as an entirely new temple.

And, just in case you think this is some weird over-reading of a lack of cosmic fireworks in Ezra, the prophets anticipate a future ‘day of the Lord’ when the temple would be restored…

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:6-7)

Haggai also has this change coming with a judgment on beastly empires.

“I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.” (Haggai 2:22).

The sort of destruction longed for, and promised, in the closing chapters of Revelation. The one that comes when Jesus returns to ‘make all things new’ — the sort of kingdom — political and spiritual — that Christians are now meant to anticipate that allows us to faithfully avoid being co-opted by the empires of this world.

The same Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Washington (the denomination St John’s, the church in Trump’s photo, is part of), Mariann Budd, who said “Mr. Trump used sacred symbols to cloak himself in the mantle of spiritual authority, while espousing positions antithetical to the Bible that he held in his hands,” also said, in a widely quoted (now deleted) blog post “The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death, anymore than we can know what will happen to us. What we do know from the stories handed down is how Jesus’ followers experienced his resurrection. What we know is how we experience resurrection ourselves.” There’s every chance Trump stood in front of an empty house, just as Antiochus re-dedicated an empty house to Zeus. Denying not just the ‘in the flesh’ nature of the incarnation, but the resurrection, was something John (who by-the-by, I think is the same John who wrote the Gospel, and Revelation) had pretty squarely in mind when he talked about anti-Christs in 1 John (see more on this here).

I’m not here to play the theological witch-hunt game or to be a watch-blogger railing against the wishy-washy world of the Episcopalian Church; the bishop might have had a bad day, and this might be why that post is now deleted and the quote found circulating elsewhere on the interent. As an Aussie Presbyterian, I don’t have a dog in that fight. But the left hand side of the culture wars demands allegiance just like the right does; you get to be part of an empire on that side if you give up the spiritual reality of the Gospel in order to pursue the political vision of justice that was part of Jesus’ kingdom. Christians explicitly taking sides in the culture wars — championing or being championed by visions from the left, or the right, end up doing eschatologically odd things, and aligning themselves with empty temples. You get a pass from the left for championing feelings and desires above the created reality of our bodies, and the ‘feeling of resurrection’ over the embodied reality of resurrection, and the goodness of humanity over the darkness of sin and God’s holiness and so the reality of judgment (and exile from God). You get a pass for the left for sharing its political vision, and so sharing its spiritual vision — because there is no secular/sacred divide. You get a pass for totally over-realising your eschatology; and, just like the right, seeking to build your vision of the kingdom here and now through whatever levers of power are on offer. So you play your own part in the culture wars, and bend your knee to your own alternative gods when you should stand. And yet, again, a caveat — Christians can be faithfully present in the institutions of the left, just as they can in the right, the question, ultimately, is about allegiance (and one of the signs for who your allegiance is to might be in how you make space for Christians on the other side of the political fence).

We followers of Jesus should have no part in sacrilegious abominations that are not the destruction of our own image in the same way that the image of God was destroyed in first century Israel, in the public square of that beastly city. We’re not meant to jump on board with the erection of other images that represent worldly power; not to nail our colours to those masts; not to bow the knee to other emperors — we’re to stand, and die, with the one who stood and died for us. To pick a side in the culture wars is to pick an idol, and to sign up for a particular form of iconoclasm, and a particular form of idol construction. And the Bible consistently calls the people of God away from idols because to participate in such image making conforms us into a particular image… As Psalm 115 puts it, when it comes to idols, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” You lie down with dogs, you get fleas. You side with Antiochus, you get the Pharisees executing Jesus. You side with Satan, and the rulers who rule using his playbook, you become beastly. You follow Trump and suddenly you lose all public credibility when preaching Jesus. You join young Martyn and his political revolution aimed at securing access in the corridors of power through endorsing One Nation, and you get… And here’s the thing, you sign up as a card carrying supporter of Black Lives Matter, the organisation (as opposed to participating in the conversation and using the statement)… well, it’s very likely you’ll be conformed to its view of the world. The trick is figuring out how to be in an empire but not of the empire; to serve in the government of Rome without worshipping the emperor. To work in the public service without campaigning for the leader, which is hard — a lesson a certain general, and stacks of other ex-Trump staffers have learned the hard way: you refuse to be in the photo opp, or facilitate it, you say “no,” you differentiate yourself in words and actions, you speak up clearly and with conviction to call out bad behaviour, you recognise the good and the humanity not just in your own side, but the other, you love your enemy and practice forgiveness, you draw a line and you hold it with integrity, you preach Jesus even rebuking those in power on your own side, when it costs you everything… You stand when you’re called to bow. And look, I get that my friends on the right see that this is an issue with Black Lives Matter TM, and so don’t want to take a knee — but I’d like them to take the same stance when it comes to those idolators on the right, not stay silent when it suits them. You stand against racism and for the plight of the marginalised and oppressed; and you stand for J.K Rowling as she gets cancelled. You do both. 100%, or 50-50, not chucking stones at the other side and its excesses with a caveat about the goodness of their diagnosis of the issue, not defending the excesses of your side with a caveat that Trump is really bad “but”… You use “and” instead of “but” — a pox on both their houses… Both houses are empty.

Revelation 11 gives us a picture of faithful image bearers of Christ, and what that looks like in the public squares of beastly empires.

They’re dead.

Killed. Hated. Rejected. Mocked. By everyone.

Right and Left, without Jesus, are just beastly versions of the same beastly game of rejecting God in favour of self; both are insidious expressions of and co-opted to a political system that loves money and power and autonomy; both are idolatry.

We might well get thrown to the lions, but not bending the knee, is also how to patiently and faithfully bring about the sort of change and reform that shook the world, it’s also what we do in the hope of real, embodied, resurrection.

Choosing either side of the culture wars has a cost for our faithfulness, and deforms us into false images of false gods… and I’ll explain in a future post why I write so much more about the dangers from the ‘right’ and Trump, than from the left… but for now let me conclude by saying that Trump’s photo opp, like the original ‘abomination that causes desolation’ is the product of the fusion between the political and the spiritual; there’s no secular/sacred divide.

Trump’s photo opp was a profane and idolatrous act as he sought to glorify himself by creating an image to spread through and support his empire; and that should be massively problematic for Christians, and we should faithfully speak out not just in opposition to that, but to testify to the same Jesus who was executed in the public square of a beastly city by religious people who should’ve kept the faith, but whose track record was being the descendants of those who did not oppose Antiochus. How could they do anything but cuddle up to worldly power?

If you’re upset about statues of ancient white dudes being toppled, but not by this old white dude erecting pixel images of himself while surrounded by symbols of Christianity, then I think you need a little more iconoclasm in your diet.

Images are powerful. That’s precisely why not only are those statues ‘powerful’ — but the pictures of statues being toppled get sent around the world.

And if you can’t bring yourself to condemn Trump’s image-building, without qualification, as an act of political beastliness, rather than godliness — I’d ask you to check your motives. Your enemy’s enemy is not your friend. The lesser of two evils is still evil (and may actually be the greater danger if you can’t call it evil). Trump’s image, because we’re now in the digital age, is likely to be harder to remove than a statue. It will be reduplicated and distributed as part of the historical record; unlike a statue, it’s going to be very hard to erase.

When it comes to the culture wars, without a differentiated Christian presence challenging the idol building game, the temples on both sides are empty; devoid of life and the presence of God. A St. John’s without the proclamation of the Gospel of the resurrected Jesus, if indeed this is the case, is a profane building already; empty and de-sacred (‘desecrated’). God is present through his Spirit; his Spirit is present in those who recognise and proclaim the resurrection and Lordship of Jesus. Trump’s digital statue exercise and rededication didn’t significantly change its spiritual state.

Israel’s exile from God didn’t end with her return from exile; the captivity of their hearts continued. The return, and even the building of an inadequate, empty, temple was a precursor to God’s plans to return to his people and re-create us in his image again; to give us new hearts. The day of the Lord required an empty Temple, so that god’s presence might fill his new temple as his spirit created new images.

And that happens with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. I think, for some reason I’d always pictured this moment at Pentecost happening in “the upper room” (because the events of Acts 1 happen there). But Luke is at pains to tell us that the disciples practice was to ‘meet daily in the temple courts’ (Luke 24:53, Acts 2:46). The events of Pentecost happen in front of lots of people — heaps more than you’d expect in an upper room where the disciples met in Acts 1. There’s chronological distance between Acts 1 and Acts 2. So I think the events of Pentecost happen in the empty-of-God’s-presence Temple; the Temple that was judged when the curtain tore, that has no claim on being the dwelling place of God because of the way Israel participated in the ultimate desolating abomination (the destruction of Jesus).

There, in the temple that had been waiting all those years to be renewed by God’s presence coming back, God’s presence comes to those who believe in the resurrection of king Jesus. It comes in the same glorious firey way that God came into the Temple in 1 Kings, only it lands not in the holy of holies, but on God’s holy people. People made holy (sanctified… made ‘sacred’), by the Holy Spirit. Holy just means ‘set apart’ from the beastly people around them. The Holy Spirit is what gives animating life to God’s living, breathing, images — the representatives of his kingdom — as we live in the world as his ambassadors; those who might be present in the corridors of power in different empires, but who won’t support or bow the knee to the elevation of abominations — those who call people to worship something other than the living God. To pick a side in the culture war — to choose an empire with its associated imagery — and to be excited or upset about the image games played by your side (or the other) — is to choose an idol.

One way to avoid the appearance of picking a side — even while seeking to be a faithful presence within an empire and its machinery — is to call out this idolatry, the idolatry of your own particular political ideologies or inclinations, another is to keep faithfully proclaiming the death resurrection of Jesus and seeing his kingdom as one that challenges the beastly regimes of this world so much that they put him to death; such that to follow him means a commitment to a certain sort of martyrdom; to being desecrated by the world.

As John himself puts it in 1 John…

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:19-21)

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Why would your people kill Jesus? On statues, culture wars, and modern day politics as religion

When Jesus was executed by crucifixion there were some particularly interesting political dynamics at play. The Pharisees who hated Roman occupation almost as much as the zealots; or pretended to; cuddled up to the Roman empire and got Pilate and co to get their hands dirty in a state sanctioned murder where both sides had political justifications; in Luke’s Gospel we even hear that the execution of Jesus brought Pilate — Rome’s official presence in the region — and Herod — a kind of vassal king — together as friends, where previously they had been ‘enemies’.

It’s funny what a common enemy can do for us, in terms of getting us on the same page.

And so I’m wondering — what would it be about Jesus that would lead your side in the culture war, your politics, to kill him — as a natural extension of what you’re holding dear, or seeing as ultimate? What standard would he offend that would see you join a mob baying for his blood and pulling him down in an act of desecration?

The culture wars that we’re seeing played out in recent times; amplified by race rallies, the destruction of public idols statues, and figures from the right coming out against “Cultural Marxism” and the ‘long march of the left’ through our civic institutions, feel like something out of the pages of the first century A.D, and even before.

The contest of ideas has, almost forever, been fought out in public space. Public space is an interesting phenomenon in the battle between left and right — the question of who owns such space; the public, private enterprise (and its outdoor advertising), the government (on behalf of ‘the public’ at large, or its ideology), is an interesting one, and we’ve very much lost the idea of the commons; but in the past, public space was also contested, and explicitly religious. Now it’s contested and implicitly religious; it has the same function, but we want to pretend that graven icons have suddenly lost their function as permanent visions; images of the good life and our story etched into our public psyche.

The erection and destruction of statues has always been both political and religious, because almost all politics (if not all politics) is actually religious, in that it comes from a vision not just of ‘the good,’ but the relationship of ‘the good’ to ‘the gods.’ In the ancient world we see this in, say, statues of Gudea, a Sumerian king (circa 2100BC) who became a god through his propagation of statues — literally “images of God” — to spread his rule and influence. He was a king (politics) whose reign was justified by ‘the gods’ (religion) who became a god (religion) by spreading statues throughout public spaces in his empire (religion and politics). Here’s a sample of one of his statues and its inscription. This became a pretty solid move in the political playbook in the ancient world; but it wasn’t just rulers-as-gods that propped up empires; an empire’s gods and how widely and well represented they were (partly in public space) propped up political regimes too. So you get, for example Esarhaddon, king of Neo-Assyria (680ish BC), who plays games of ‘capture the flag’ with idols from the surrounding nation; such that we have inscriptions about revivifying god statues that have previously been captured, but returned to life, prominence, and public space, through conquest. In an inscription, Essarhaddon boasts about the restoration of statues in Babylon. An expression of political achievement or dominion over his enemies; and a justification of his reign as ‘beloved by the gods.’

“I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. “

Esarhaddon boasts that his public statues to the gods legitimise his reign; they form part of the story or myth that justifies his political position.

Before Gudea and Esarhaddon, we have Dagon, the “Lord of Canaan.” Dagon emerges in the historical record from around 2500 BC. He’s a reasonably constant visual presence in the public spaces of the Ancient Near East until he pops up in the story of the Bible (he’s around after that for a little while too). Dagon is the god of the Philistines; who play their own political-religious game of ‘capture the flag’ when they capture Israel’s Ark of the Covenant and treat it like an idol. They pop it in their temple (the same temple they later pop chopped up bits of King Saul, a king who does politics like the nations around Israel).

There’s a political-religious critique going on in this story captured in 1 Samuel; and it’s part of the same story that made Israel politically different from the nations; Israel was a country built on a different sort of public architecture; it had architecture that supported its belief; absolutely — the Temple, and its adornments — all of them — told a story in public space. But it had no political or theological statues; no idols (just altars, and the politicisation of altars for personal gain became problematic, again, see King Saul). Israel’s lack of statues was a novelty; but also a profound critique of the surrounding nations. Israel’s God could not be reduced to dead images; Israel’s God was not just represented by one king who was the living image of God; Israel’s God had a whole nation of living images; not a “priest-king” whose reign was justified by the gods, but a “priest-nation”…

Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.” — 1 Samuel 5:2-4

Israel was meant to engage in a purging of public spaces; a toppling of statues — because public space, and how we order it, is inherently religious, not just political. Because Israel was to be a monotheistic public space with a story testifying to the one true God, their public spaces — their commons — were not to be pluralistic; they were to destroy all statues (and certainly they weren’t to build their own, see Golden Calf, The).

‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.’ — Numbers 33:51-53

They weren’t meant to be worried about preserving history, or ‘preserving the story’ of these other political/religious systems. That was the point; to keep these statues around was to keep these religions alive. To legitimise the story. To be captivated and captured by the gods they were meant to be removing. They were to not make statues or images of living things, or people, and give them religious significance; but they were to seek God by being people shaped by his story and his presence with them, first through the Tabernacle, and then the Temple. They were the images. The promised land was to be their new Eden; where they would be God’s priestly presence to the world. Their use of space was meant to tell that story. In Deuteronomy 4 the Exodus is described as being like the fire used to make statues or images, on Israel as a nation, while they’re told not to make their own images in these fires. And then we get the 10 Commandments restated in Deuteronomy 5 (because remember how well that went last time, see Golden Calf, The).

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” — Deuteronomy 5:8-9

While we’re on public space, it’s interesting to see how the ‘architecture of belief’ is a factor that Deuteronomy raises for Israel; there aren’t really neutral uses of public space, it has to be approached in connection with a story. So Israel will find itself with a new architecture: “a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12), and they’ll be tempted to forget God, the God without statues, and his story, and so be shaped instead by these things (and maybe, any statues they don’t knock down). To help this memory exercise; to help public spaces (and private spaces) testify to their place in the world, Israel was to: “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 7:5-6).

Public space matters; statues aren’t neutral or simply ‘political’ — they’re religious. They’re also not simply ‘religious’ — they’re political. They shape our stories and our shared vision of life together.

In the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the Israelites have been returned (like a captured flag) from exile in Babylon (then Persia); they’ve rebuilt a temple (see Ezra-Nehemiah (as the separate books in the Old Testament) under Persian rule, but then they’ve been smashed again and occupied. The “Second Temple” built by Ezra and crew (in the 400s BC) has been radically renovated by the Herod family (specifically Herod the Great, in the late first century BC). Before this rebuild the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes, learning from the playbook of the ancient world and the religious/political use of public space, has, in an invasion of Jerusalem, set up idol statues on the altar in Israel’s temple, rededicating it as a Temple to Zeus. The book of 1 Maccabees tells the story of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the world as they knew it, and Antiochus Epiphanes succeeding him as king of the Greek empire; including Israel. It’s here that the writers of the Maccabees see this as the fulfilment of a prophecy in the book of Daniel about a future ‘Abomination that causes desolation’ or a ‘desolating sacrilege’:

Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, “And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.”

In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. He appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the towns of Judah to offer sacrifice, town by town. Many of the people, everyone who forsook the law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had.

Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah.” — 1 Maccabees 1:41-54

Here’s a foreign king practicing Deuteronomy style conquest on Israel.

Here’s a foreign king altering (altaring) the public architecture of Israel to change its religion and politics.

Here’s a foreign king conducting the ‘desolating sacrilege’ of altering a people’s public religion by putting up statues.

In the ancient world, politics was sacred business.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think this isn’t true today. History unfolded religiously, and continues to; the church played a part in this as the Roman empire Christianised. The Medieval period was one where rulers continued to be viewed as those appointed by God to rule (ala Romans 13); the Reformation survived and thrived thanks to the political protection of rulers and movements won over by its theological (and political) vision. In Dominion, Tom Holland argues that even the secularity of the modern west is a fruit of religious convictions (specifically, Christian ones). While our public landscape in the late, secular, west isn’t as explicitly Christian in its architecture (you won’t find many statues of Dagon, Gudea, or Zeus), our public spaces are still surrounded by the architecture of modern religion — city halls, clock towers, sky scrapers, casinos, banks, and statues. Statues of people because modern political-religion in a particularly secular form is not pluralist — we don’t recognise that our culture is one where many religions come together in both contest and tension — it’s humanist, our civic religion doesn’t happen in a contest of “transcendent” visions of the good, where our statues throw us beyond ourselves to a vision of the good that comes from the gods; in our secular vision we are the gods, and these figures from history serve our political agenda; we just forget that our politics is inherently, still, an expression of our religion.

The statues Antiochus Epiphanes erected in Jersualem are part of the city’s history — but they were rightly torn down as its history continued. The tearing down of the statues of Zeus were also a form of desacration — a denial of the sacred vision of the Greek empire; all tearing down of statues is religious and desecrating; because public space is actually sacred space; it’s just our vision of the sacred has collapsed to ‘the political’ not ‘the political as an expression of the religious’… This is a slightly different view of the distinction between secular and sacred offered by, for example, Mirsolav Volf in his critique of those rejoicing that Donald Trump conducted his own desolating sacrilege recently, with his Bible-in-hand photo opp (the criticism that the church he’s standing in front of has long abandoned traditional Christian teaching about the literal resurrection of Jesus is, in itself, another desecration).

Volf says (on Facebook):

“Some evangelicals think that public religious gestures (e.g. Trump’s holding the Bible) will halt secularization. They won’t. They ENACT SECULARIZATION: they put the sacred to profane use that’s contrary to the character of the sacred. That’s desecration and secularization.” 

There’s something to this critique; but it does reinforce a secular-sacred divide that just isn’t actually there. Trump’s act was explicitly political and religious — it just wasn’t Christian. It was more like Gudea, and the conquering God-kings of the ancient world, than Jesus. His act in public space, for an image-opp — creating a statue-like moment in the form of pixels — like the tearing down of statues — was both desecration of a religious view (in his case, Christianity, rather than “secularism”), and its own expression of a view of the sacred. The ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ — locked in a culture war, are actually locked in a religious-political war; a war built on acts of desecration of the other’s religious architecture and attempts to replace those icons with one’s own. Modern expressions of the ancient game of capture the flag; modern attempts to create the most egregiously offensive or “triggering” acts (photo opps or statue destruction) to both demoralise the other and radicalise one’s own base. ISIS has been playing the same game in its destruction of what are now seen as only religious symbols (and only from history) — rather than political and religious symbols of previous regimes; at least they’re being theologically (and historically) consistent.

And so I wonder, if Jesus were to walk onto the battle field of the culture war, would both sides unite to execute him all over again.

Because that’s what happened in Israel.

The side who were all about religious and moral purity and the Temple (but who had turned the temple into a house of robbers; desecrating it) conspired with the side who had built the Temple to secure political power, while killing any from Israel who would oppose him (Herod and family put to death those opposed to their rule on the basis that they were Idumeans, Herod the Great’s son Archelus, erected a statue of an eagle on the temple, killed those who took it down, then massacred 3,000 people in the following riots in the Temple, and then cancelled Passover), conspired with the Romans (who were busy deifying Caesar, installing images of Julius and Augustus all over the empire) and had Jesus executed for political and religious reasons.

Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. Caesar did too, and the Jews knew he was claiming to be divine, in that claim; a threat to their religious and political status quo.

Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews. Caesar and Herod did too. This was the charge brought to Pilate, who had no choice under Roman law but to crucify someone committing this sort of treason, to make them a public image of what happened to opponents of Rome; a sacred statement, not just a political one, and for the leaders of Israel an act of desecration to remove any sacred claims Jesus was making.

Here’s the thing.

In the Gospels, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple; the ultimate desecration of God’s sacred presence in the world. In John’s Gospel we get the explicit interpretive guide that he isn’t talking about what Rome will do in 70AD, but what Rome, and Israel, will do to him in 33AD. That he is the Temple. That the crucifixion then is the ultimate act of desecration; an ultimate political and religious expression. Perhaps when Jesus, after talking about the ‘destruction of the Temple’ in Matthew 24, says:

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand…”

He’s not talking about a new Antiochus, dedicating the Temple to Zeus. He’s not talking about Nero rolling through Jerusalem with his armies in 30 years… He’s talking about the sacrilegious destruction of God’s most sacred image.

He’s not talking about Trump with a Bible.

He’s not talking about the tearing down of statues in public spaces.

He’s talking about the destruction of God’s divine image, orchestrated in the place that is meant to be his presence in the world; by those whose job it is to manage his house, the Temple.

The crucifixion is the abomination of desolation. It is the ultimate statue toppling act. A political and religious statement.

A profound treatment of a religious image — one that has ultimate significance not just to those who worship him; but to God — “the image of the invisible God” — the one true priestly representative of God, the “exact representation of his being”… To follow Jesus and enter his kingdom is both a religious and political act. And the political systems of this world — that aren’t the kingdom of God — are geared up for his execution.

And maybe, just maybe, our politics — as people who claim to follow Jesus — should be shaped by how we treat images of God, and where how we do politics and religion as those made and given the vocation of being images of God; and maybe as our politics gets distorted so that we see other image bearers of God as enemies in a “culture war” so that we get caught up in games of capture the flag or ‘desecrate their idols’ (like those excited at pulling down statues of dead humans) or ‘defend out idols’ (like those excited to keep statues in public spaces to prop up an idolatrous civic religion), while ‘making our own idols’ or defending those who make them (like those excited about Trump holding up a Bible in front of a church and the ‘Christianisation of space’) — maybe we’re just becoming those people who wouldn’t recognise Jesus if he looked us in the eye; but would kill him instead. And maybe that’s what actually unites those people playing culture war politics games, politicising religion — a rejection of the kingdom of Jesus, in favour of little man made gods. It was stupid when it was Gudea; stupid when Antiochus Epiphanes did it; and it’s stupid now.

It’s interesting to ask what political or religious idolatry would lead those on your ‘side’ of politics — of the culture wars — if that’s the game you’re playing — to kill Jesus? Because all the sides of the first century’s culture war suddenly agreed on that being the absolute best thing to do in the moment; so they could go back to fighting each other undisrupted.

You might want to pretend that Jesus plays the culture war for the right team, or the left team. But that’s to create a Jesus in your image. There were ‘righties’ and ‘lefties’ in Jesus’ day too; and the idea that your side has exclusive access to the truth and an exclusive mandate to conduct divine political and religious business here in the world, by building an empire, well… that gets to some ugly places fast in history — and it’s tricky to maintain when other followers of Jesus have different politics to yours.

Maybe our call isn’t to play the game of ‘idol building’ or ‘idol destroying’ but pointing to the one God raised up? Maybe we should trust this to hollow out the value of other idols? Maybe we should see this as the task of building our own alternative polis, in and through the church (as a people).

Maybe we should look to Paul in Athens; who didn’t come in to a public square saturated with political and religious imagery with a sledgehammer; but seeking to understand why they’d carved the things they’d carved out of stone; what good might be affirmed in the quest for truth he saw in their political and religious systems, so that he could connect the good with the search for God, and maybe we could help people meet the unknown God behind their religiousity, their politics, their pursuit of the good, in ‘the man God has appointed’ through his resurrection, so that we might find the God we’re reaching for. Maybe we’re not meant to be culture warriors — because that’s a path to killing a Jesus who doesn’t line up with our cultural expectations — maybe we’re meant to be peacemakers, who follow Jesus and so make space for others. Paul introduces a new God to the Athenian landscape, not by building a temple, but by being an image bearer of that God who speaks in a way that heralds his truth, and tells his story.

When he gets to Ephesus (a couple of chapters later) he disrupts the statue making economy of Ephesus — a city built on a more monotheistic love for one particular God — by, again — proclaiming the one true God. The city riots. He doesn’t smash Artemis statues down, and melt them in the fire, he pronounces a better, more loving, God — the God we meet in Jesus. Public space occupies a profoundly interesting place in the narratives in Acts, and Paul introduces Jesus to crowded and contested public space not by knocking other gods down, but by hollowing out their value, and pointing the hearts that find meaning in alternative religions and political systems to Jesus and his kingdom. By joining, by affirming, but also by differentiating, and offering a better story — not just hard opposition — and he doesn’t even get out the sledgehammer when his (right) methods fail to see others take up the sledgehammer.

He is not a cultural warrior; he’s an ambassador for the crucified king.

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Hey ACL: If your “Christian Values” endorse One Nation, you’re doing it wrong

It’s election time in Australia, which means its time for various Christian pundits and thought leaders to put out their ‘how to vote’ guides, because, clearly, most of us can’t possibly work out how to participate in the democratic process without some sort of pre-packaged checklist highlighting where the parties stand on the issues we’re told we should care about. If you’re after advice from me I’ll stand by my how to vote in (not) easy steps post from the 2016 election, and leave you trying to work things out.

Long time readers (if there are any) of this blog (if that’s even what this is) will know I’ve been a strident critic of the Australian Christian Lobby for various reasons; but mostly because they, historically, never spoke about Jesus, or about why a particular policy direction they took was a particularly Christian approach. There were some observable changes when former chief Christian, Lyle Shelton, left to fight for marriage with the Coalition For Marriage, and then to run for the Australian Conservatives. The new chief Christian, Martyn Iles, has been doing a creditable job making Christian arguments for various (conservative) positions on various issues, he even made promises to broaden the platform a little (as the former chief did when tackling penalty rates). The change has been, I think, a breath of fresh air and represents at least a desire to enter the political realm or public square in a pluralist, secular, democracy as Christians, rather than as people who neuter ourselves and argue for and from status quo assumptions given to us by a hard secularism that assumes religion doesn’t belong in the public life of any individual or society.

The breath of fresh air turned fetid and stale overnight, for me, when the ACL issued its ‘how to vote’ card for the May election. They’ve picked five, that’s right, just five, ‘key’ battleground issues for Christians in this election. And there are certain issues that seem particularly self-serving for Christians, which then frames how our positions on issues like abortion and euthanasia might be understood (that we care more about being in control than being considered as a voice in the mix). The ACL’s “Policy Analysis” considers abortion and reproductive health, euthanasia, religious freedom (specifically for Christian schools), sexual orientation and gender identity, and keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament. Picking just these five issues seems an interesting narrow cast; and perhaps it’s because on all the other big issues all the parties are exactly the same? Maybe that’s it? But given the ‘wings’ of this table are ‘all green ticks’ and ‘all red crosses’ it does appear at least to be about contrasting the ‘Christian’ options (the Australian Conservatives) and the ‘non-Christian’ options (the Greens). It’s weird to devote so much column space to Derryn Hinch, and not the many, many, minor parties throwing hats into the ring this election. But what’s perhaps most beyond the pale for me is that picking such a narrow agenda ends up not just endorsing Bernardi and Shelton’s Australian Conservatives, but Hanson’s One Nation Party.

I’m going to put it out there that if your policy platform ends up endorsing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a ‘Christian vote’ in the current climate, there’s probably a problem with how you’re defining your platform. Especially if you don’t prosecute a party’s platform, persona, or character beyond those issues that serve your own interest — or worse, beyond the way that party promises you access to the political process. This is the mistake evangelical Americans have made as they’ve been co-opted by the Trump administration in the U.S; a failure to maintain a distinct sense of Christian character and virtue beyond what is politically expedient, and what is happening to the church in America. These politically active Christian conservatives in the ‘religious right’  have done significant, measurable, damage to the reputation of Jesus amongst the general populace of the United States (and possibly globally) because of the way they’ve jumped into bed with a bloke who literally embodies the vice list in Colossians 3 just because it’s politically expedient to do so; because we Christians, like our neighbours, have bought into an ethic detached from a ‘telos’ or from life in a cosmos where God and his nature defines what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and started pursuing politics like good little utilitarians; jumping on board whatever train will deliver our political ends, no matter what that means.

When I pressed Martyn Iles about this expression of a ‘preference’ for One Nation on Facebook, he justified the position with the following remark:

“…their doors are far, far wider open to Christians than most of the groups listed. They are easy to deal with, are often convinced to do the right thing, and they happen to line up on the social policy issues listed here.

I am pretty happy to defend where they’ve landed in our flyer just on the basis of how willingly their elected politicians work with Christians.

I get it that they have their problems (including serious ones, like their support of euthanasia), but I’ll take 10 One Nation Senators over Palmer, Hinch, or the Greens any day of the week.”

Their relationship to One Nation is, then, analogous to the relationship between the big end of town and the major parties, and the sort of insidious relationship we keep seeing exposed between foreign ‘soft power’ and our parties; the kind that leads people to suggest banning political donations from such quarters. Votes for access is a terrible pathway to the worst kind of democracy; the craven type where elected representatives act based on what will secure votes, rather than what is good, true, and beautiful, and where lobby groups that aim to distort the process for the sake of special interests urge for votes not based on what is best for all, but what is best for them — measured, predominantly, by questions of power and access.

If you chuck virtue and character out the window when assessing what party to vote for, in the name of results, you are making a bed that the rest of us have to lie in. If you end up platforming a party whose leader consistently appeals to the worst ‘angels’ of our nature; who promotes conspiracy theories rather than truth at every turn, who blames the media when her chosen representatives are exposed as degenerates, whose party cosied up with the NRA to try to soften Australia’s gun laws, whose positions on issues affecting the most marginalised members of our society or the global community are well documented, and who moved a motion in the Australian senate using a phrase (“it’s OK to be white” typically used by white supremacists). Hanson is a climate change denier (and the Australian Conservatives come pretty close), she is opposed to foreign aid (in all its forms). The party can’t seem to keep an elected representative in its folds, let alone in parliament. And according to the Australian Christian Lobby they’re the party who’re the second most deserving of your vote, because of what we Christians might get from the deal. Donald Trump might embody the vices in Colossians 3 solo, One Nation’s candidates prefer a cooperative approach.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.  You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other… — Colossians 3:5-9

I’m not suggesting that One Nation’s elected representatives should behave like Christians, or that we should expect them to… but I do think Christians should behave like Christians and exercise our participation in the political process as Christians who are ambassadors for Christ — and so not endorse vice for the sake of being closer to worldly power. I’m suggesting that virtue matters for us (and that it’d be nice to elect politicians who display virtue rather than vice, or to call for those sorts of standards rather than pure utility). A Christian vote is not about how they behave, so much as how we behave, and about what it is we express is important. There is no current political party that exhaustively embodies “Christian Values” (even the ones that have Christian in their name), which means a ‘Christian’ vote is not about who we vote for, but how one votes (and participates in political life) as a Christian.  Here’s what should mark our participation in public life.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

If you want to “vote for Christian values” then those are the values, or virtues, you might want to see on display in the people you’re electing and expressed by their policies. What’s tricky, in the way politics happens in the modern world, is that these virtues are thoroughly embedded in a life where a community ‘lets the message of Christ dwell among them richly’… And perhaps a better way of framing our participation in politics (beyond just the ballot box) — a politics built from “Christian values” — would be for us to push for Christians to deliberately and transparently bring Christian virtues into public life. The problem is we’d be bringing them into a “public” that has largely rejected virtue for the sake of utility, and where the key, distinctive, Christian idea that virtue comes not just dispassionately from ‘nature,’ but from a relationship with God is even more remote. To embrace a politics of utility enforces this chasm, which is the very chasm our Christian witness seeks to close.

In his work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor makes this observation about the ‘field’ public life, including politics, now takes part on, or at least about the way we think about how we should live as people in the modern world.

“The dominant philosophical ethics today… conceive of morality as determining through some criterion what an agent ought to do. They are rather hostile to an ethics of virtue or the good, such as that of Aristotle. And a Christian conception, where the highest way of life can’t be explained in terms of rules, but rather is rooted in a certain relation to God, is entirely off the screen.”

Taylor suggests the stakes of playing the game with these rules and assumptions are high; they reinforce the view that reality is a ‘closed system’ or an “immanent frame” that excludes God from the picture. There’s a real danger that the way we do politics, if we embrace ‘utility’ or the idea that being good is about obeying certain rules, or having a certain moral framework, rather than imitating the character of God, actually serves to reinforce the assumption that God isn’t in the picture, Taylor says that promoting a morality (or politics) that arises from ‘an impersonal law” or “impersonal order” — rather than from “a personal relation” is a problem for Christians. He says: “All these forms of impersonal order: the natural, the political and the ethical can be made to speak together against orthodox Christianity, and its understanding of God as personal agent.” Playing the political game this way, as Christians, takes the game further and further away from a Christian view of reality.

“On one level, we have the natural order, the universe, purged of enchantment, and freed from miraculous interventions and special providences from God, operating by universal, unrespondent causal laws. On another level, we have a social order, designed for us, which we have to come to discern by reason, and establish by constructive activity and discipline. Finally the Law which defines this order, whether as political/constitutional law, or ethical norms, can be expressed in rational codes, which can be grasped quite independent of any special relationship we might establish with God, and by extension with each other. The human relationships which matter are those prescribed in the codes (e.g., Natural Law, the Utilitarian principle, the Categorical Imperative).”

Christian values are going to be the ones that push back on the idea that we should make political decisions simply about what’s going to be convenient for certain groups — including us — here and now, they’re going to be the ones that say there’s more to life than just political success, or lawmaking, or winning, they’re going to be the ones that point to an actual, not just mechanical, relationship with God being at the heart of reality. And while keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament could be a nod to this higher ordering of reality, I’m not sure that having a bunch of politicians pray the Lord’s Prayer — including the line ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ (which is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come, and for the sort of kingdom ethics expressed in the Sermon On The Mount, where the prayer is found, to be lived) — who are then going to do their best to do the opposite — is the sort of pushing back on this closing of the system that’s required. Hypocrisy is not a “Christian value” and I think we should avoid the enshrining of ironic hypocrisy, especially given how Jesus opens up his teaching on prayer when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer: “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” (Matthew 6:5). If we’re going to ask our politicians to keep praying the Lord’s Prayer, we’ve also got to ask them to both believe it, and mean it, and to turn their attention to the sort of ethical vision and kingdom that the prayer entails.

I’m not going to cast my vote just to secure an ‘open door’ and a few key ‘ticks’ on policy areas that serve my interests. A Christian vote is not the vote that secures the best possible result for us on certain positions, or the best access to those in power, no matter the cost. A Christian vote is the one that looks to our relationship with Jesus as Lord, to his example, and to his commands, where we vote with integrity and character and virtue — the highest of those virtues being love. This will certainly mean that Christians consider the elderly, the sick, and the unborn in our political matrix — but also the refugee, the foreigner not on our shores, the widow, the poor, the not yet born (whose natural environment our decisions affect), and just about any ‘other’ — given that they all fall into the category of ‘neighbour’ or ‘enemy’ and Jesus calls us to love both (but first to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength). Here’s the paradigm that’s meant to mark our politics as Christians because it’s what it looks like to be a citizen in the kingdom of God — the kingdom Jesus launched in his death and resurrection, at the cross.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” — Matthew 16:24-27

Cosying up to One Nation might gain us the whole world in terms of political access and power (it probably won’t); but what if the cost is not just our soul, but our witness to our crucified king? Is it worth it? Or is it the equivalent of trading our birthright in God’s family of promise for a bowl of gruel?

UPDATE: A friend connected to the ACL has reached out to suggest the take put forward by this piece on the flyer is less than charitable, and that a statement posted by Martyn Iles might clear up what the aim of the flyer is. Iles says:

“There is an important difference between an education resource and a political tool.

A political tool has to effectively appeal to people who are disengaged and influence them.

An education resource is for people who are engaged, and it takes them on a much bigger journey.

If our flyer were primarily an education resource, it would include all parties and all conceivable “Christian” issues (which I do care about – anyone who follows my vlogs and blogs will know that). It would also have a small distribution, targeted to rusted-on Christians.

But it is not.

(Actually, it wouldn’t be a flyer at all – it’d be a website).

There are a number of good resources of that kind already available, which most people who are that engaged will already have seen.

The flyer is for middle-Australia, marginal seat, politically disengaged, Christian-sympathising voters. It has a mass distribution.

It’s for a target that other groups are simply not reaching. It is for a target that is not in yours or my mindset.”

I’m not sure I understand how this makes my post unreasonable, I’ll let you be the judge. There’s a little more in his post.

I will say, briefly, that I think this explanation makes things worse, not better. If this is designed to present a ‘Christian values’ approach to politics to people who are largely not actually Christian, but might share some Christian values, then this misrepresents the heart of Christianity (and Christian political concerns). It might be politically expedient (or utilitarian), but it is not helpful for the wider mission of the church (or the Kingdom of God, of which the ACL is, universally, a part). I’d also point out that there is a website that goes with the flyer, and lots of opportunities for the ACL to be clearer in its repudiation of One Nation, especially for the sake of those who receive this flyer in the mail who might be confused about how Christians stand with regards to that political party.

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The Greens are right: Easter is political

The Australian Greens have announced they won’t join a tradition as old as the World Wars  — joining a cease fire over the Easter weekend(ok, so it was Christmas in World War I, but there are modern conflicts where the combatants lay down arms for the Easter weekend) — but they will hold back their political cannons over ANZAC Day.

This is fascinating; one, because it reveals that in the ‘post-Christian’ landscape, the new national ‘holy day’, recognised by all parties, is one connected to our national mythology, ANZAC Day, not to our Christian heritage. Two, because the Greens point out that Easter has already been de-sacralised in our national calendar (even if our retailers keep a certain sort of liturgical year that marks out the period between Christmas and Easter as ‘hot cross bun’ season).

Greens Leader, Richard Di Natale, says:

“We’ll be campaigning hard through the Easter period and be doing everything we can to make this a climate change election.”

The major parties have agreed not to campaign over the Easter period as a mark of respect to its ‘sacred’ nature. There’ll no doubt be many Christian, or conservative, pundits who’ll cry foul at this sacrilege. But there’s something fundamentally real being recognised in the Green’s approach — it’s not that ‘nothing is sacred’ any more, in our secular age, it’s that everything is religious. Every day is sacred; which is something Christians can agree with — because every religious action is political. Every act of a religious person, every word, is an articulation and embodiment of a certain vision of a political kingdom. Christians, as we live in the world, as we speak and proclaim the lordship of Jesus and obey him as king, are living out a political vision; which means that rather than being ‘not political’, Easter is profoundly political — it’s the moment that Jesus, our king, was crowned and enthroned as king of the Kingdom of God.

It’s not that no day is ‘sacred’ — it’s that there’s a growing realisation, or revelation, that every day is sacred. That we live in a time where the soul of our nation is being contested and contended for, and where we’re trying to figure out how to live together with different holy days; different understandings of what is sacred and what is profane.For the Greens, digging up coal and destroying the environment is an act of sacrilege, of desecration, of destruction of their material ‘god’ — the natural world. It would be easy for Christians to see the Greens choosing to protest the Adani coal mine as an act of ‘sacrilege’ that cheapens the holiness of Easter, but many Christians will see their actions being in line with the Lordship of Jesus, the king appointed by the creator who called humanity to steward his good creation.

What’s changed in our culture that brings about political campaigning on Easter — brazenly campaigning for other gods — is a loss of consensus in our institutions and our calendar that Jesus is king; this is contested — political contests (religious contests) don’t just happen at election time; because every moment is sacred, every moment is also political. 

There’s a challenge here for Christians as we engage in the politics of our nation — to have our participation shaped by our primary political identity; our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, where the call is for us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, before working out how we love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We have a larger view of the sacred than our neighbours, one that might allow careful participation in their political institutions, but we need to be careful not to become polytheists. God’s people were, from even before the 10 Commandments — but specifically in them — called to live political lives that articulated a certain vision of a kingdom, and behind that, a vision of God. Their neighbours were doing the same — the first two commandments deal with this reality.

You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” — Exodus 20:3-6

Part of the nature of the prohibition in the second commandment is that we humans are meant to be the images of God — living, breathing, ones — and to make other images and then worship them distorts who we are, and how we understand God. The other part of the problem with worshipping created things is not that they aren’t sacred, the ‘heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19), it’s that their sacred purpose is being profaned and cheapened by false worship. Israel failed to live out this distinction; their commitment to God’s kingdom was undermined by their worship of foreign gods, and their buy in to the politics and way of life that came from that. Man made religions — the ones that replace God with things he made, or with other gods — always lead to damaging systems of power that ultimately, as they stop God being God, stop humans being seen fully as humans. Distorted politics ends up not just desacralising, but also dehumanising. When Paul talks about this in Romans 1 he argues that false religion — taking that which is sacred (created things), that which is made to ‘reveal the divine nature and character of God’ and worshipping those things, leads to broken humanity and, ultimately, death. The decision to worship ‘other than God’ in systemic terms, leads to politics and political kingdoms that reject God, and reshape humanity to different ends. This was the problem with the nations surrounding Israel in the Old Testament, but also in the New. Kings in the ancient world consistently set themselves up as ‘the image of God’ (using the same words the Bible prohibits, the claim of the Old Testament is a polemical claim against ancient political visions where other humans were plebs for the powerful to use and abuse as they saw fit). Nobody did this more than the Caesars — Augustus turned ’emperor worship’ into a new art form, and by the time Jesus was tried and killed, the Caesars, by then Tiberius, had mastered the art of promoting their divine image (Jesus’ statements about coins with Caesar’s image on them are particularly pointed and political against this backdrop — give Caesar what his image is on, and give God what his image is on — our ultimate ‘political’ allegiance belongs to the God who made us). When Jesus came he came making claims that put him specifically at odds with the Caesars; and with all other would be ‘images of God’ who were not worshipping the God of the Bible, the God of Israel. He came making political claims. He came calling people into a kingdom. He came announcing that attempts to divide the political from the sacred were nonsense… because the sacred has always, and will always, be political. The people who killed him, and the people who wrote about that, were very clear on this. Here’s the political Easter story, as told by John.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.

Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” — John 19:1-6 

This is political, not just religious.

Pilate has a chat with Jesus at this point, trying to figure out why the Israelites are so keen to kill Jesus. The same Israelites who are meant to be God’s representatives, his kingdom, turn on this king, and turn to another one…

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:13-16

Jesus was killed on the basis of political claims — he claimed to be king, and Rome — the leading political vision of this world — wasn’t interested in a ceasefire. Its politics was also religious… and so is ours.

So if there are political parties who are honest in their desire not to participate in that kingdom, but to work towards some other religious agenda, we should welcome that — rather than those who pay lip service to Easter and its essence, without political fidelity to the Lord Jesus. This isn’t to say there aren’t Christians in any of these parties, but that so long as these parties aren’t lining up their agenda with ‘the kingdom of God’ their ‘politics’ — especially when they want to distinguish ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ — are fundamentally religious, and are in competition with the Easter message — the coronation and enthronement of ‘the King of the Jews.’

I’m not ceasing fire this Easter. I’ll be proclaiming the very political message that Jesus is Lord, and that Easter isn’t just about his death bringing about some obscure spiritual transaction where my personal sins are forgiven (though it does do that), it’s about his resurrection and then the pouring out of the Spirit, being what launches a new kingdom in this world with a new politics that we get to be part of as his kingdom of priests, his ambassadors, his nation.

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Christian, is there room in your church for an ____ voter? Would they feel welcome?

Our desire to verbal process the world, and our almost frictionless ability to process the world verbally in front of crowds of people on social media is a funny modern novelty. My wise old dad, he’s 60 soon, once said to me that for the vast majority of his life in ministry he’d have had no idea how his friends and ministry colleagues voted; politics just weren’t a thing that mixed with the pulpit.

How quaint, I thought.

And then I decided I’d dearly love to not know how a preacher votes. In a great twist of ironic fate, an article might come out elsewhere in a couple of days where I explain not ‘who I vote for’ but ‘how I vote’ (I’ve covered this in depth here previously). You may think you can guess how I vote from what I write, and what sort of moral matrix or grid I appear to filter things through, and that would, I think, represent a failure on my part. My prior training as a journalist, my career in a not-for-profit ‘apolitical’ lobby group, and my current vocation all require, I believe, a certain sort of objective detachment from the cut and thrust of party politics; a detachment that means it would be inappropriate for me to hold my job and be a member of a political party, or obviously partisan.

I’m not saying I’d love preachers and Christians to not be engaged in political issues — I’m with sociologist/theologian James Davison Hunter on the criticism of a modern attitude that leaves complex social and political issues to politicians and lawmaking; I’d love the church to be modelling an alternative vision for life together as the kingdom of God in this world, and for us to speak winsomely on political issues in the public square as ambassadors for Christ, trying hard to persuade our neighbours of the truth, goodness, and beauty of life with Jesus as king. I’d love us to be participating in, or creating, institutions that seek ‘political change’ or to impact the public, or commons, in positive ways as a way of loving our neighbours and testifying to the lordship of Jesus. I’d love us to speak widely, beyond just the few issues that seem to be identity markers for ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ politics to model what ‘Christ centred’ politics looks like; where there is no inch of life in this world that Jesus does not declare ‘mine!’

But I’m concerned, with James Davison Hunter, about ‘the culture wars’ (he coined the phrase back in 1991 in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America). He described these wars as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” and emerging from opposing “assumptions about how to order or lives – our own lives and our lives together in this society.” It’s fine to morally disagree with people, across political, philosophical, and religious lines — the art is figuring out how to live in disagreement, and listen to the other, without adopting a winner takes all approach to wiping out those who disagree with you. Our desire to wipe out the other, the ‘culture war’ is a product of a polarisation that treats ‘other’ as enemy, and then justifies their extermination, or forced conversion via the threat of excommunication or exclusion from ‘society’.

Here’s what Hunter wrote in 1991:

But there is still another factor that contributes to the polarisation of public discourse and the eclipse of the middle. The polarisation of contemporary public discourse is in fact intensified by and institutionalised through the very media by which that discussion takes place. It is through these media that public discourse acquires a life of its own; not only do the categories of public rhetoric become detached from the intentions of the speaker, they also overpower the subtleties of perspective and opinion of the vast majority of citizens who position themselves “somewhere in the middle” of these debates…

“Middling positions and the nuances of moral commitment, then, get played into the grid of opposing rhetorical extremes.”

The problem with this last bit is that if this grid exists, and people place themselves in a position to listen to voices that reinforce their particular cultural convictions (including a position on ‘the other’), then nothing that is said, whether extreme or ‘middling’ is ever heard properly, it simply reinforces the polarisation. This is damaging for society at large, but it is even more deleterious to the project of unity in Christ within a church community. Is it possible for a church in this cultural climate to be a place where individuals from the left and right come together in fellowship, in a way that allows both left and right — all our politics — to be transformed by our union with Christ, through the Spirit, shaped by the ethics of Jesus’ kingdom as revealed at the cross?

What makes this vision for church community even trickier is when Christians leaders, or individuals, adopt combative positions in the culture war in ways that alienate the other, or worse turn the ‘other’ into an ideological enemy to be defeated rather than embraced.

What also makes this difficult is where the ‘culture wars’, politics, and the media have gone since 1991. Hunter describes the general tone of public discourse, in 1991, pre-social media as: “…elitist, sensational, ambivalent, suspicious of new voices, and intensified and further polarised by the very media by which such discourse takes place.”

This was before social media, which exists to serve up users more of what they want, which tends to be ‘more of what they have expressed an interest in’ that the algorithm can measure, which tends to be ‘more of what they already think but packaged in more sensationalist and titillating ways that retain attention by amplifying feelings (especially feelings of outrage)’… The mass media was bad for polarisation — targeted, algorithmically driven, social media that fragments right down to the individual level is worse. I wrote a series about social media, outrage culture, and virtue back here. Especially when the sort of positions that Hunter suggests represent the majority, de-escalate polarisation, and cultivate virtue and civility, the “middling positions’ that involve nuance take time and attention and space to think and process were hard enough in traditional media contexts, but are anathema to our infinite scrolling through social media newsfeeds.

Mark Zuckerberg once described the ‘self interest’ at the heart of Facebook’s newsfeed by saying:

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

This is also why you’re likely to see more online about New Zealand than about religious killings in Nigeria; this is the algorithmically perfected editorial policy of most major commercial news services — such services exist not for civic good, but for profit. Our media platforms serve up stories that appeal to their audiences. It’s now on us, the public, to cultivate the sort of consumption of media, and lives, that de-escalate the culture wars — especially those of us in churches where we’re first focusing on relationships in church.

In a 2018 interview about where these wars have gone since Hunter coined the term, he said the cultural conflicts in this war have amplified and intensified, and this is because ‘culture’ is actually profoundly important — it sits upstream from politics and law because it shapes our moral imagination.

“That’s because culture is not a marginal concern, as many educated people profess to believe—even as they often espouse their own dogmatic cultural positions. Rather, culture is “about systems of meaning that help make sense of the world,” Mr. Hunter says, “why things are good, true and beautiful, or why things are not. Why things are right and wrong.” Culture “provides the moral foundation of a political order.”

It’s not just Hunter who predicted the culture wars in ways that seem prophetic now, especially with the addition of social media.

Back in 2006, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a prescient piece about the polarised nature of two-party politics, and how the two parties rely on such polarisation fuelled from within, and by a war footing of sorts, to continue to exist. This leads to the destruction of public, political, conversation — and especially shapes how we see ‘the other’.

“The flamers in the established parties tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious too. They rationalise their behaviour by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country. They imagine that once they have achieved victory through pulverising rhetoric they will return to the moderate and nuanced sensibilities they think they still possess.”

Sadly, he predicted what might happen if his invented ‘moderate coalition,’ the ‘McCain—Lieberman Party’ (Republican senator John McCain and Democrat senator Joe Lieberman), did not get ‘absorbed’ into the policy platform of one of the major parties. This was pre-Obama, and certainly pre-Trump.

“The McCain-Lieberman Party … sees two parties that depend on the culture war for internal cohesion and that make abortion a litmus test. It sees two traditions immobilized to trench warfare.

The McCain-Lieberman Party is emerging because the war with Islamic extremism, which opened new fissures and exacerbated old ones, will dominate the next five years as much as it has dominated the last five. It is emerging because of deep trends that are polarising our politics. It is emerging because social conservatives continue to pull the GOP rightward (look at how Representative Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican, was defeated by a conservative rival in Michigan). It is emerging because highly educated secular liberals are pulling the Democrats upscale and to the left. (Lamont’s voters are rich, and 65 percent call themselves liberals, compared with 30 percent of Democrats nationwide.)

The history of third parties is that they get absorbed into one of the existing two, and that will probably happen here…

But amid the hurly-burly of the next few years… the old parties could become even more inflamed. Both could reject McCain-Liebermanism.

At that point things really get interesting.”

And, so, Brooks predicted Trump. The collapse of the political middle into a zero-sum culture war that sees the ‘other’ side as an enemy to be polarised, whoever or whatever the other side stands for. A politics filled with political actors who’ve lost touch with the ‘moderate and nuanced sensibilities’ that produce stability and a ‘commons’ of sorts between right and left, in exchange for an entrenched flame war.

And here we are 13 years on from Brook’s piece. And the flames are burning. And violent political language and battlelines being drawn begets violence in the real world. I highlight that link only because it was particularly pugilistic, and it appeared in my Facebook feed for no reason that I could fathom. You might say ‘that’s just hyperbole’ — but it’s hyperbole that fits a trend that has been recognised and described for some time, and while it’s the nature of the business of Aussie politics, with our two party system, for politics to involve a certain sort of adversarial ‘theatre’ and an ‘us v them’ mentality, in order to divide and conquer… that’s not the business of the Aussie church.

Political idealists, especially partisan ones, whether left, or right, are now turning on the centrists — those who try not to play the culture war, or who seek moderation in all things — idealists on the extremes are increasingly suggesting that to adopt a ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ stance on an issue — to not speak or act — is to adopt the status quo. This is not just a new type of ‘culture war’ against the middle, which was previously just eclipsed (Hunter) or encompassed (Brooks). It’s a deliberate move to exclude the middle in the name of the greater ideological conflict between the poles.  It’s an insistence that to be moral one must pick side, and that to be a moderate is to attempt to sit on the fence on all things. It is to insist that the ‘other’ is evil or complicit, and to stay on the fence makes one complicit too. This classically works better from the left, who tend towards systemic views of evil, and to annoy the right, who tend to see evil as an individual, personal, choice — where if you aren’t making it, you aren’t evil… but that’s changing the more the conflict ramps up, the more there’s an apparently clear ‘us’ and ‘them’… Quite apart from this turn towards resentment of the moderate position being a damaging move when it comes to individual conscience (you ‘must’ choose a system that tells you how to think), and our creatureliness (we must act on every injustice to be moral, if to not act is to participate in evil), and our limited ability to know and form thoughtful positions on many, often competing issues (ideology is a nice shortcut to deal with this), these idealists would say (and do say) that to listen to the concerns of the ‘other side’ is to legitimise those concerns (not simply to see the ‘other’ as a human worthy of love, attention, and understanding). This move is a move to dehumanise or dismiss every other who does not share your convictions. Christian idealists of any variety — those who ‘baptise’ a particular political stance as representative of the kingdom — would have us eradicate political difference as part of the kingdom of God; this makes Christian ‘how to vote’ cards, from the left, or the right, very simple to produce because voting as a Christian, and participating in the polis as a Christianis quite simply a matter of adopting the ideological platform, and fighting the opponent. I think this approach is wrong for a bunch of reasons alluded to above — but I think it also reinforces the culture war by amping up polarisation — the way to minimise the rapid run to the poles is to resist those forces that fling us there. It’s to engage in careful listening; to pursue understanding, and to arrive at conviction making sure you’ve charitably understood the position of the other. This is where the best sort of disagreement is possible, the sort that actually has the possibility to persuade the other, not just to re-convict them of their prior convictions (in other words, it’s not just a more virtuous, less vicious, strategy, it’s also more effective). Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, talks about the polarisation of left and right and how each group tends to assess morality using different categories and frameworks that mean we often use the same words to talk past one another. He talks about how we humans are less purely rational and in control of our decision making than we might think, and how ‘wars’ and ‘tribalism’ feed our decision making instincts, which are profoundly ’emotional’ — he talks about our emotions as a rampaging elephant in our decision making and our reason as the rider trying to tug on some reigns.

He says, in The Righteous Mind, “the persuader’s goal should be to convey respect, warmth, and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case,” he says our inability to understand another person’s point of view, to see the world their way, is at the heart of the polarising force of our political ‘culture war’ — suggesting we should seek this as a baseline for political and moral conversations, or arguments.

“It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.”

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across a moral divide.

It is very difficult. Imagine being called to not just ’empathy’ but to ‘having the same mind’ or ‘the one mind’ or the ‘mind of Christ’ with people where there’s a moral or political divide (ala Philippians 2:1-11). Imagine having to navigate that! Haidt even envisages the goodness that such a community might bring to this fracturing world, he’s not specifically describing the church, although he kinda, sorta, is.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

I think it’s very possible to be partisan and a Christian. I’ve often suggested one of the best things individual Christians can do to embrace James Davison Hunter’s motif of ‘faithful presence’ is join a, any, political party and then be part of policy discussions. I just don’t think the church — be it a denomination, institution, or local gathering — should be marked by a partisan approach to politics. And I fear, because I know how too many leaders of churches vote (both on the left, and on the right), that we are buying in to culture wars in a way that buys into the devil’s hands. The best form of Christian community is one where partisan Christians who are seeking to maintain a faithful presence in our political and cultural institutions shaped by convictions about Jesus and his kingdom, and personal convictions about how that plays out within and against these institutions, whether on the right or the left, can come together in fellowship in a way that models the way forward outside the community of believers — our ability to unite, to listen, to co-operate, and to disagree with one another with love and charity might be a beacon and a blessing to our neighbours. And yet, there seems to be no will to extricate ourselves from the culture wars — especially when it comes to the way Christian leaders (myself included) use social media. This is the sort of time when people say ‘you’re talking in generalities, prove it’ — and at this point I’d suggest that our denomination’s recent statement on abortion, while it adopts a position I agree with, had the unfortunate effect of equating a vote for or presence within the Labor Party as being a participant in evil, and I’d point to this cultural warrior, a Presbyterian minister, who wages the culture war in a media channel that is famously partisan, and I’d ask — could anyone outside the hard right comfortably attend a church where such views are linked inextricably to the pulpit?

Is this what we want?

I am certain that I’m perceived by many to be partisan when it comes to politics; I’ve been described by a dear Christian brother as ‘the left’s form of the ACL’. I felt misrepresented (if the interview I mentioned up top gets published you might see why), and like I was being interpreted through a particular grid, at that time, but I certainly do embrace issues and positions championed by the left (I’d like to think I also do that with the right). I’m distressed that taking a position, a political one, on an issue — even a moderate one — is seen as divisive and a reason for breaking fellowship. And I’ve experienced this as people exited our church community over my (and our) stance on the postal survey. Other friends who don’t buy in to the culture war have experienced a similar ‘exodus’ — these exoduses always end up creating little tribes within our church networks; little homogenous political communities, or demographics, that don’t have the opportunity to be the alternative polis modelling life across divides that we so desperately need. So I apologise and repent for those times when my rhetoric has fuelled partisan division, rather than calling us to a better conversation (note, I’m not apologising for convictions on issues, or for saying things people disagree with).

I fear that part of the alternative community that the church offers to the world is a community where people come together from different positions and backgrounds, with different convictions about political problems and solutions, and find unity in a king.

I fear that church is meant to be a community where people can belong and find their commitment to certain civic goods re-shaped, re-ordered, and transformed by the king — in ways that simultaneously affirm and invert good and not so good things about ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ solutions.

I fear that the church is meant to be a place of re-imagining and re-imaging life in ways that might re-animate our political right, political centre, and political left, and yet we are a place that too often has our imagination co-opted by a political ideology from the world, rather than by the life, death, resurrection and rule of Jesus.

I fear that our rhetoric and culture war fighting as ministers, preachers, or vocally partisan Christian punters fuels the division of our society into tribes even as we call people to follow the king of the universe.

I fear that whether a church leader is known for being partisan in any political direction, that the climate that creates is a drawing in of people who agree with that stance, at the exclusion of those who disagree.

And yet, I am also hopeful.

I hope that church communities can emerge that are the sort of communities Haidt describes — committed to truth, and to listening to the other.

I hope that our churches might be communities that are not ‘apolitical’ or defined by a particular partisan outlook — but rather be models of places where people can come together finding unity in Christ and his kingdom, to be sent as ambassadors into the institutions and political parties of our world.

I hope that we can lead the way for our wider community who so desperately need models of rich, loving, disagreement and co-operation around what we hold in common.

I hope that we can practice listening not just to one another, but to our neighbours who are not like us — that we can model ‘loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.’

I hope that we can steer clear of playing the culture war and power politics game that so defines our civic life now, in favour of patient listening and the pursuit of nuance and wisdom.

I hope that we can look to voices not just explaining the cost of extremes, from the other side — ie listening to those voices we most naturally exclude, but also that we might listen to those voices who are pushing back against the idea that understanding the other is evil, unnecessary, or to be complicit in some horrid status quo (the status quo that conservatives are inherently seeking to uphold and defend).

I hope that we Christians can affirm that there are good things in creation, and in this status quo, things that have been hard won through the influence of Christians in our politics (both on the left and the right, and for progressives and conservatives). I hope that we can also admit that there are areas where progress towards our vision of the good, true, and beautiful — towards the kingdom of God, or shalom, are still possible and that the way forward isn’t simply to shift to maintain some vision of political utopia that we achieved in the past.

I hope that as well as listening to the voices we might normally exclude from our thinking — the voice of ‘the other’ — we might listen more to voices like James Davison Hunter who diagnosed and predicted this cultural problem almost thirty years ago. Here’s something he wrote in his more recent To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World:

 “It isn’t just the Constantinian temptation the church must repudiate but, more significantly, the orientation toward power that underwrites it. The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicisation of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer.

A vision of the new city commons, rooted in a theology of faithful presence, certainly leads to a repudiation of ressentiment that defines so much of Christianity’s contemporary public witness.

Yet it also leads to a postpolitical view of power. It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilisation. This would not mean civic privatism but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Hope is found in a public faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only. There’s a problem.

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

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

Here’s the problem.

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

There’s another problem.

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

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

Is your backyard sacred space?

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

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

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

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

4. Hope is found in listening better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Hope is found in stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Hope is found in the rejection of cynicism.

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

9. Hope is found in prayer and through complexity.

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

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

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

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Yeah, the government doesn’t understand the secular/sacred divide or public faith… but that’s on us.

Did you hear the one about the government that didn’t build religious freedom legislation into its amendment to the Marriage Act?

I did. I can’t stop hearing about it.

If you follow the Christian blogosphere in Australia you’ll be seeing plenty of posts following the parliamentary debate in the senate overnight; a debate passing the changes to the Marriage Act that the Aussie people called for via the clunky mechanism of the postal survey. The conservative Liberal/National Coalition passing this legislation, rather than a progressive Labor/Greens alliance was a great silver lining for Christians who believe in traditional marriage; these guys, ‘our people,’ understand that religious freedoms are important…

Only…

There’s a problem. The government didn’t bring in religious freedom protections, via amendments, in the bill it put forward as a result of the postal survey.

Two problems.

One is that the government has always said it will deal with religious freedoms separate to the actual act so these rejected amendments were all political grandstanding from a section of the Coalition who are trying to undermine Turnbull’s leadership; and all these bloggers are adding fuel to that fire. We’re pawns in someone else’s political game, when, as I’ll argue, we should be playing our own.

There’s also a problem with how our government and our nation understand the phrase religious freedom.

Bizarrely the conversation around religious freedoms has largely been about the freedom of Christians to define terms for ourselves (and for other theists from classic organised religions), rather than it being a two way street figuring out how different communities built on different ideals can live together in a pluralist context. This has just come across as us wanting to protect our privilege to hate and discriminate; which isn’t what I necessarily want brand Christian to stand for. It’ll continue to do this the more we bang the ‘victim’ drum in this debate; especially when the Aussie populace (perhaps rightly in some of these cases) believe we’ve voted to end a form of systemic inequality or oppression; to strike a blow against the persecution of minority groups; and to confer full human rights (and thus human dignity) on a community within our nation.

More bizarrely the conversation around religious freedom has been around the freedom not to participate in free common space (like public education, and especially sex ed classes), and to protect Christians wanting to operate businesses catering to the public around the wedding industry (florists and bakers). I feel like we want to have our cake and eat it too on this front; Christians decried corporate Australia jumping on board the same sex marriage bandwagon and essentially discriminating against Christians in their hiring practices, which surely is an expression of the religious freedom of a society that worships sex to hire and participate in public life accordingly, though it costs us Christians; but at the same time want Christian business people to be able to act according to religious beliefs without it costing them. It seems we just want the laws of the land to revolve around what is good for us; not what works for all of us. If we want bakers to be free to sell cakes to whoever they want, and schools to be able to hire Christian janitors, then it seems to me we should be happy to allow Qantas to bring in special marriage equality rings, and tennis organisations to rename their arenas…

Perhaps most bizarrely though, the conversation around religious freedom has been around the rights of church celebrants to not marry people (a right we already have under the Marriage Act, where we can refuse to marry anybody we want, without reason, but also only marry according to the religious rites of our institution (it is the institution that is recognised, not us as individuals). What’s bizarre about this is that it is a thin view of the nature of religious belief; and one for which we, the church in the western world, must shoulder the blame.

We’ve got a thinned out vision of religious life; we ourselves operate as though there’s the sacred space of church on a Sunday; as though church’s are an embassy of heaven, and the secular space of the rest of the world; as though our sacred lives are caught up in religious pomp and ceremony, but our secular lives, our public lives, are not remarkably different from those around us; as though faith is a private (sub-)intellectual conviction that we shouldn’t bother anybody with, while our public lives are lived according to the shared values of reason and the pursuit of common ground. We’ve denied and played down the difference between Christian living and the lives of our neighbours, and now when we want to maintain some sort of distinction we’re creating the impression that this — same sex marriage — is the only point at which it matters for us to be different; as though this is where our nation is departing from God’s design.

This is our fault.

Our political lobbyists have talked up a Christian constituency for years based on census data, all the while knowing that active engagement in church life — a faith with flesh and bones — makes Christianity a significant minority in our country (with disproportionate influence in our civic institutions — like our politicians still praying the Lord’s Prayer). We’ve done this while talking down anything that looks like religious reasoning for our positions; preferring to make arguments from ‘nature’ or ‘logic’ as opposed to saying “we believe God says X, and that belief shapes our community”… we’ve overreached as a result, denying that other religious communities (or non religious communities) do not share our convictions about nature, or the character of God. At a conference I went to a couple of years ago an Aussie law professor, Joel Harrison, made the point that our judicial system cannot and does not accept religious arguments as legitimate motivation for behaviour because of the way our legal system operates and understands behaviours and motivations for behaviours; the spiritual is closed out, so it doesn’t get a look in.

Our (evangelical) churches have settled for a ‘faith alone’ approach to Christianity that emphasises a personal rational assent to particular truths about God and the Gospel as what ‘counts’ for Christians; a ‘tick a box’ Christianity (that matches our census approach) so that making disciples has largely been about winning arguments, not so much about forming people who imitate Jesus in rich communities that live lives of thick difference from the community around us; not just when it comes to sexual ethics. We see conversion as being pretty much exclusively about the head, which when our culture sees religion as, in the words of Manning Clark, ‘a shy hope in the heart’ — a private thing that doesn’t really motivate how we live outside our homes — means we avoid anything particularly radical.

The connection between what we believe and talk about on Sundays and how we live apart from Sundays such that religious freedom is about anything other than Sundays is not obvious to most Christians, let alone our secular politicians.

And our culture perpetuates this myth every time political correctness kicks in such that the behaviour of religious radicals is explained away as simply political; because we’ve decided the sacred is only what happens in the institutional practice and teaching of religious belief; not in the lives of believers as motivated by belief.

This is our fault… and the way to change it is to totally reverse our strategy.

To pursue thick community that is different to the world around us in that it reclaims every inch of life for a believer as sacred; such that it is unimaginable for us to participate in the public or political life of our country without doing so as people who first bend the knee and submit our lives (in every sphere, for example economically not just sexually) to Jesus.

We need to have an approach to education and formation that isn’t just about the head and what is taught, but about allegiance and practices (who we serve and what we do). We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves. So, for example, give away our wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples (especially if we suspect a court case is part of the intent) if we don’t want to profit from things we disagree with, as a sign of rich disagreement and love… and hire non-Christian janitors, and (continue to) accept non-Christian kids for our Christian schools as an act of inclusion — but make it clear why we are only hiring Christian teachers and how our approach to education is connected to our understanding of the good life — the Gospel — not just to getting a good education for our kids so they might prosper (the false Gospel). As an aside, every person on staff at a Christian or church run school should have to read Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.

We also need to be prepared to practice a particular sort of faithful presence in our community to model difference that isn’t disinterested or withdrawing difference; not withdraw our kids from classes that teach people stuff we disagree with (especially if we ever tell our kids to invite their friends along to hear about Jesus).

The sky isn’t falling in; it’s the same is it was yesterday. It’s the ‘sky’ Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age. He even describes the path to getting there; and as you skim this, just imagine how our Christian political strategy (think about the no campaign for an example) reinforces this way of seeing the world.

He starts by talking about our current political reality.

“The political organisation of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. Churches are now separate from political structures. Put in another way, in our “secular” societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”

Just imagine if we, churches, adopted a strategy that reinforced this status quo. Oh wait. We have.

But what this means, this shift, is that people in our world don’t have a real understanding of anything sacred, just this secular vision of reality where God has no place. Taylor calls this the ‘immanent frame’. Here’s the progression from the pre-modern to the modern western view.

At first, the social order is seen as offering us a blueprint for how things, in the human realm, can hang together to our mutual benefit, and this is identified with the plan of Providence, what God asks us to realize. But it is in the nature of a self-sufficient immanent order that it can be envisaged without reference to God; and very soon the proper blueprint is attributed to Nature. This change can, of course, involve nothing of importance, if we go on seeing God as the Author of Nature, just a notational variant on the first view. But following a path opened by Spinoza, we can also see Nature as identical with God, and then as independent from God. The Plan is without a planner. A further step can then be taken, where we see the Plan as what we come to share and adhere to in the process of civilization and Enlightenment; either because we are capable of rising to a universal view, to the outlook, for instance, of the “impartial spectator”; or because our innate sympathy extends to all human beings; or because our attachment to rational freedom in the end shows us how we ought to behave.”

Our modern world operates as though God is not in the picture; and if Christians are right that’s a terrible and deadly mistake. The problem is that we’ve helped. We Christians have adopted a strategy of political engagement that is formed in this secular millieu, by its assumptions about politics… the idea that lawmakers don’t need to understand religious belief to make laws, just ‘nature’… and then when we lose the ‘nature’ argument we’ve mounted we want to turn around and ask for religious exemptions?

Seriously.

This also means that our modern world is ill-equipped to understand why a symbolic cake matters to a baker, or why exemptions for clergy don’t really cut it.

We also have a politics to fix this.

We have our own political game that makes sure we see the secular consumed by the sacred when we bend our knee to King Jesus. Church isn’t an embassy; we don’t stand on sacred ground on Sundays. We are ambassadors. We are sacredpriestly, people wherever we go. This was part of the heart of the revolution of the Reformation; the same movement that brought us faith alone (and probably democracy) brought us the priesthood of all believers; the idea that everything we do in this world is a sacred act of priestly service to God. Luther wrote a letter to the Christian nobility — a political letter, to politicians — his purpose was to take the power to decide what was sacred and profane away from the corrupt institutional (and political) church, and put it in the hands of everybody (including the politicians of his day). The church was claiming that it had power over the state because the church was ‘sacred’ or spiritual while the state was ‘secular’ or temporal… Luther said:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

Farmers and people who make stuff… politicians… teachers… butchers, bakers, florists… if you’re a Christian you belong to the ‘spiritual estate’, your work is sacred. Our government doesn’t understand that, because for the most part, neither do we. Protections for clergy aren’t enough; especially not for protestant Christians who agree with Luther. Luther also said:

“There is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work… just as Those who are now called “spiritual” — priests, bishops or popes — are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities, — they bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

Every occupation held by a Christian is sacred so long as their work is for the bodily and spiritual (you can’t disconnect those in his though) welfare of the community. That the government doesn’t understand that we think this is our fault, because where else do they gain an understanding about the lives and beliefs of Christians apart from how we live, and what we say to our politicians? Or, what we allow to be said on our behalf by our lobby groups?

We have a very clear political mandate, especially in a world that lives life without God and believes that to be ‘good’… We have a mission to follow the one who broke through the ‘brass dome’ of the natural world as a super-natural emissary from the God of heaven; though he wasn’t just the ambassador; he was the visiting king of what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven. Our secular politics has been the result of allowing the church to box this king into a corner; a corner where he has almost no apparent relevance to the day to day life of Aussie believers so far as those looking on can tell (except when it comes to how we think about sex).

The Gospel is, itself, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is king; that God is the creator and through Jesus claims every inch of our lives and of the world; that he died, was raised, rules, and will return to renew the world for his resurrected people living as his kingdom. This proclamation has profound implications for how people who believe it live now; in other kingdoms, and how we live with one another as this kingdom.

Church properties aren’t sacred embassies, or sanctuaries (though they’ve been recognised that way in the past), clergy aren’t particularly extra-specially sacred or priestly… church communities are sacred ambassadors for this king.

This is our politics. And we’ve forgotten it. We’ve played the ‘secular game’ for too long… and it has come at a cost.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

We are sacred new creations. Sacred ambassadors. Serving a king crucified by the government he came to visit. Let’s start acting like it. Dying for it. Compelled by the love of Jesus, not by protecting our privilege (and even if that isn’t our motivation, the appearance that we’re doing that must push us to behave differently). Giving up commending ourselves in order to commend Jesus, and as Paul put it a chapter earlier ‘carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus might be made known’… whether we’re clergy or bakers, or candlestick makers.

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How I had my say while abstaining (or the letter I sent my MP, and our parliamentary leaders)

I’ve had quite a few people objecting to my expressed intent to abstain in the postal survey on same sex marriage on the basis that it is ‘deciding not to participate’ in the democratic process; I don’t believe participation in a democracy is reduced to simply casting one’s vote (as most of my posts on interacting with the government on social issues, and on elections should indicate). So here’s the letter I’ve sent to my local MP, and to the leaders of the government and opposition; I’m not convinced they’ll read it, but I am convinced it is every bit as democratic as ticking either box on a voluntary postal survey, or not ticking either (and I’m personally convinced it’s more democratic even if it isn’t read, or isn’t read in full, especially if other citizens read it and ponder its value).


To the Hon Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull MP;

CC the Opposition Leader, Hon Bill Shorten MP;

CC the Member for Bonner, Ross Vasta MP;

Re: The same sex marriage postal survey and my decision to abstain,

There are those who would interpret the participation rate in the voluntary same sex marriage postal survey as a sign that those who do not cast a vote for yes, or for no, have decided not to participate or to exercise their democratic rights in this discussion; that we do not care about the issue or the process.

I write to explain my own abstaining, and perhaps that of other citizens, to indicate that it is not a lack of participation in democracy that led me to abstain, but rather a desire to participate in a purer and nobler form of liberal democracy; one more consistent with our Westminster system.

I write to tell you that I did not vote because I believe that this decision should be made by those appointed to be lawmakers. I did not vote because I believe the best and noblest part of a liberal democracy is lawmakers who balance the interests of a broad constituency; who do not impose the will of a majority on a minority via a blunt instrument (like a popular vote), who don’t govern according to the polls, but who govern for all and seek compromises that allow communities to live together in difference. I believe something more than a yes/no binary, something with more imagination, might have been possible in this instance, but also that a truly secular democratic solution would enshrine the freedoms of different members of our civil society, who belong to communities of identity within that broad society, to disagree with one another and strive towards true tolerance. I did not vote because I do not believe ‘majority rules’ is the philosophy at the heart of democracy, but the nobler view that all people have dignity and should be treated with equality, whether the majority wills it or not. I imagined a plebiscite, or postal survey, deciding something about my freedom to live according to my beliefs in a secular, liberal, democracy and could not bring myself to participate because of Jesus’ teaching that I should ‘treat others how I would have them treat me.’

As a Christian, I believe that the flourishing life is found in the teachings of Jesus, and so I humbly submit to his definition of marriage, contained in the Gospels and taught by churches for almost 2,000 years (and practiced in Israel before that). I believe that marriage is a sacred, God-designed, relationship that reflects God’s great unifying love for humanity; and that there is a coherence to the Bible’s treatment of marriage and gender. Religious freedom is not simply about my ability to conduct marriages according to this view as a member of the ‘institutional church,’ but that church itself is an identity-forming community for many of its members; that those members also hold this view in their own lives and as they participate in our democracy; this is true also for members of other religions that have particular views on marriage. However, I recognise that my views are formed by my particular religious beliefs, and that in a secular state they should be accommodated alongside the views of my neighbours, including my LGBTIQA neighbours, and so the task of forging a way forward is one that requires wisdom and compromise; a task best left to those whose job it is to lead our nation, rather than thrust into the hands of uncompromising masses from either side. I’ve watched enough of the debate around the postal survey to have no doubt that this decision has had deleterious effects on the community at large.

I write in order for my voice to be heard and counted; and in a form of humble but prayerful rebuke, and a prayer that you will discharge your duties with more courage and conviction.

The Bible tells Christians that our governing authorities are placed in their position by God, and that we Christian citizens, though ‘citizens of heaven’ who follow Jesus as king, are to honour you and prayerfully petition you that we might live at peace in this world; free to live lives of love and sacrifice for our neighbours, especially those the powerful would marginalise. There is a long and rich tradition in western democracies of the church speaking up for the voiceless, and it is to our shame that often the voice of the church is indistinguishable from those who speak in self-interest, from positions of power. The best of this tradition sees your task as a noble and complicated one; a task requiring virtue and character, and a task caught up in the exercise of wisdom. It is this wisdom that seems to be the object of the prayers believers are urged to make for you and your fellow parliamentarians; in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul says of the Roman authorities that they are ‘God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.’ Governing is a noble task; a vocation; a call to be leaders of character who exercise wisdom for the sake of the good of all those whose lives are subject to your leadership and authority. Paul also says, in his letter to Timothy, that our submission to government must be coupled with us living good lives, and that somehow our prayerful petitions should be that we might freely live those good and different lives in this world. The three passages in the New Testament that speak of the church’s relationship to governing authorities see your task as one given by God, our task as being to live lives of goodness and love, and the result being a form of religious freedom (Romans 13, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Peter 2).

My prayer for you is that in the coming days, and years, you might live up to your noble task; that you might govern our country with wisdom, balancing the freedoms and desires of the different communities you govern for, and that we Christians might get back to the business of living good lives, and loving our neighbours so that they, and you, might see the goodness, beauty and love of Jesus in us. This is why I have abstained from voting in the plebiscite, in the hope that by failing to take hold of this power you offered me, you might take hold of the power given to you by God, and the nation of Australia.

In Jesus name,

Rev. Nathan Campbell

Ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia

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Why (with all due respect) adopting the rules of the ‘secular’ political game and pretending Jesus doesn’t profoundly matter to us is a dumb idea for Christians and we should stop

“I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to [talk about the Bible in parliament] today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.” — Australian Presbyterian, Autumn 2017, ‘Political Christians’

Legend has it that the game of Rugby emerged in the middle of a game of football (soccer) when a player from the Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, decided he was bored with the traditional rules of the game, so he took things into his own hands (literally), picking up the ball and running with it. He changed the rules; and started something new. Without his act of rebellion and imagination we wouldn’t have Rugby League (cause let’s face it, Rugby was an evolutionary step towards something less boring).

Sometimes it feels like our approach to politics in our secular liberal democracy is us refusing to change the game; and that’s our loss (and the world’s); because just like Webb-Ellis’ actions would create something new, our changing how we play ‘political football’ and not playing by the ‘rules’ could actually create something better than the political status quo, and especially our culture’s toxic definition of ‘secular’…

Australia is a beautifully secular country. We don’t have a state sanctioned religion; which gives implicit freedom to everyone those who believe in fairy tales, and those who don’t, to practice those beliefs alongside one another. We’re not just a secular country, we’re a pluralist country, a multi-faith, multi-cultural, country, and a liberal democracy where different communities and cultures live in relative harmony with each other, and share hospitality with each other across suburban fences and in our many restaurants. We do expect the government to step in when a religious practice threatens the safety or freedom of another, but this plurality is part of the beauty of Aussie life.

Our politicians are faced with the task of managing certain aspects of this shared life; they’re not, and can’t be, responsible for how we speak to one another over the back fence, in these local restaurants, at the supermarket, or be responsible for arbitrating how different religious groups dialogue about their differences, but they do have a role to play in listening to the voices of a diverse constituency and doing their best to represent and accommodate a wide range of views.

This is what true secularism is all about; unfortunately the label has lost some of its meaning in a process Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes in the introduction of A Secular Age. Taylor says we’ve, in the modern west, collapsed the way we see the world. He describes how things have moved so that where once everyone believed in the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent’ reality and that this reality overlapped with the natural, we now believe in the natural alone (or he says we want to believe in the natural alone, but have this nagging, haunted, sense that there might be more). This belief shapes how we understand and use the word ‘secular’, which it shapes the sort of data, or argument, people of our age will accept. He identifies three different understandings of ‘secular’ at play in our age:

  1. Our ‘common institutions and practices’ are separate from religion; where in the past ‘in pre-modern societies’ the ‘political organisation’ was underpinned by the idea of God, you can now “engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”
  2. People now no longer believe in God so we should ’empty our public spaces’ of God, or any reference to ultimate reality, and should instead make decisions on ‘rationality’ as defined in different spheres (economic gain in the economy, ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ in politics).
  3. The conditions of belief have changed so that the assumption that God is real, or that anything super-natural is real is now contested.

It’d be a real shame if in order to protect the goodness of definition 1 (that allows people from a variety of beliefs to ‘fully engage’ in shared life) we, the church, adopted practices that reinforced definitions 2 and 3… It’d be a shame if we assumed that the way to protect people who don’t agree with us is to agree with their understanding of how the public should be shaped (such that only ‘the rational’ or ‘the natural’ is important).

I think there’s a real risk that our practices will do exactly this if we assume the premises of the second definition and let those rules set the parameters for how we engage in public spaces as Christians. This belief (definition 2) sets the ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to our politics. Or at least it seems many Christians engaged with the political realm believe that it does — and this isn’t limited to the Australian Christian Lobby (though this has been my very longstanding criticism of them; as an aside, I quizzed Lyle Shelton on some of this recently and his answers were quite similar to a thing I’ll quote below from the Australian Presbyterian).

There are lots of voices in our political process who believe this is the field that the game of politics in secular Australia should be played on; that this is the ‘common ground’ that people from all these cultures and communities can get together on. But it’s not. It’s a profoundly different account of the world — even of mundane created things in the world — to the view of the world held by Christians, and shared by many other religious communities.

Christians don’t believe the world looks like this.

Christians don’t believe the natural is all there is, or that it is the exhaustive source of true knowledge about how to live (or even the best source).

Christians believe in the supernatural.

Christians believe that the whole universe is created by God to reveal things about him; and that he’s not some being within the universe, but rather ‘in him we live, and breathe, and have our being,’ and that he made people to seek him.

Christians believe real love and the real flourishing life are found in his love for us and his purposes; not just for us, but for the universe and things in it.

Christians believe, for example, that the significance of something like marriage is caught up in it being created by God to do something magical (unite male and female as one flesh, with the possible fruit of new life (children)) and point to something supernatural and significant (the relational, Triune nature of God, and the relationship between Jesus and the church). 

If all we do is make natural arguments that play by the secularist rules we think are established, we’re not being truly secular and we’re not giving lawmakers any reason to make laws that accommodate our views when they’re hearing compelling arguments that don’t play by those rules but are caught up in questions about what love is, and what the good human life looks like (and these are ultimately religious questions). If we argue that marriage is fundamentally a natural law thing, that is about being a building block of society where children are raised by their biological parents and that is good for them, then we don’t just run the risk of those arguments falling on deaf ears (as they appear to be), we actually only tell less than half the story when it comes to why we, as Christians, believe what we believe about marriage.

There are some Christians who seem prepared to try to play the political game according to the rules set down by the secularists (and let’s use this as the label for people who hold to definition 2 above, as opposed to people who want to create reasonably good rules for how we might do life together with people from different religious or cultural groups). These are the people who don’t believe God should have a place in public life (but ironically those who sometimes seem to want God to have a say in everyone’s lives through an argument from natural law, it’s a weird ‘all or nothing’ approach).

When we play the rules this way — assuming the secularist view of the world and so arguing from nature and using reason so excluding the supernatural and therefore the Gospel — we do politics in a way that is largely indistinguishable from the way our non-Christian neighbours do politics, we actually serve to reinforce the secularist assumption about the relationship between faith and politics, and we approach politics as Christians in a way that legitimises the question ‘should Christians be speaking about politics’ or the related question ‘does politics distract from the proclamation of the Gospel’?

The Gospel of Jesus is fundamentally political. Gospel is a political word; it’s the announcement — the good news — of a victorious emperor’s enthronement or victory. Jesus is a king who announces a kingdom and calls people to join it. The Gospel should create good, and at times radically different and beautiful solutions to political issues because Jesus is lord over every sphere of life, and because there is actually no divide between the natural and supernatural; or the secular and sacred, even if in a liberal ‘secular’ democracy there is rightly a divide between church and state. That divide only truly works if the state knows the core business of the religious, and if the religious know the core business (and limitations) of the state. We don’t need the state to create radically different solutions to issues for us; in some ways it is better for us if they don’t, if we’re displaying a ‘counter-politics’ in our own solutions to issues, but a democracy does afford us the opportunity to have the Gospel on the table… so why would we choose to table something quite different? Just today I read this paragraph in the Australian Presbyterian, in an issue titled Politics? Yes! (emphasis mine):

Question: If Christians choose to be involved in public life how should [having God in the picture] affect their discourse?

Answer: I think it partly depends on context. There are some contexts where it is acceptable to talk about the Bible when you’re in parliament, if there is a common assumption that the Bible is a legitimate source of political wisdom. I can understand Christians in Australia being hesitant to do that today because you’re probably likely to get laughed down, and it might not be seen as a legitimate source for political ideas. So, in a way, it’s a strategic rhetorical question. I think the category of natural law – where we argue from common sense and a received wisdom that is accessible to everyone – is a good way of putting your point of view.

I think this is profoundly bad advice (in the middle of a pretty interesting and compelling article). It rigs the deck against us, and not in a good ‘dying to self’ way where we refuse to play the ‘power’ game so caught up in how politics happens, but in the ‘undermining the truth that the Gospel’s power is displayed in weakness’ way; and in the ‘God’s power in the world is the Gospel’ way, and in the ‘any real change in people’s lives doesn’t happen via common sense but by the Spirit’ way.

People will laugh? Almost certainly (they did, for example, when Paul spoke to a bunch of politicians in Athens (Acts 17:32).

But why should politicians even consider why we find marriage so significant prior to mounting a natural law argument for it if we never tell people, and if the natural law argument is not compelling?

Why should they listen to us if we’re just playing their game, and playing it badly? And playing it in a way that actually undermines the things we believe about the world?

People will change their mind based on common sense and wisdom? Sometimes. Sure. Common sense and wisdom means we can all learn math, and how to write sentences, and a bunch of other stuff about the natural ordering of the world. The Australian Presbyterian article says some reasonable stuff about common grace and shared morality; it’s just… when Romans talks about the human mind and how idolatry corrupts it, it seems to be corrupted in a way that might make reasonable arguments less effective when it comes to areas of our life that are directly related to our idols (you know, like sex, sexual freedom, and the sense that a flourishing life comes apart from God) (Romans 1:21-32). Romans 1 seems to pit the ‘common grace’ idea built from our shared human nature still carrying the image of God, against the fruit of our rejection of God in favour of our own ‘images of god’ (idols), and God’s active judgment in response where he ‘gives us over’ to a wrong way of seeing the world that seems to be totally natural to us. It seems too, that the solution to this wrong way of seeing the world is God’s intervention and a ‘renewed mind’ that comes via the Spirit (Romans 8:5-11, Romans 12:2).

The miss-fire at the heart of idolatry in Romans 1 — replacing the creator with created things (Romans 1:25)  is the miss-fire at the heart of what Taylor describes in the Secular Age; it’s where we stop seeing reality as supernaturally given meaning by the transcendent God who made it, and start thinking only the ‘material world’ gives meaning. It’s where we stop believing God is necessary to explain the flourishing life in this world; that we can do that from nature using our own wisdom. That worked real well in Genesis 3. This miss-fire is one we repeat ourselves if we play the political game on secularist terms. We believe the world is part of how God makes his ‘invisible qualities’ visible; that it is not just ‘matter’ but the rules of our political system, as the secularists would have it, are that only matter matters.

Why would we play by their rules? Especially if they’re not actually the rules… No law says you can’t mention God in a submission to parliament that you make as the church; no law says politicians shouldn’t listen to religious people, or even act from religious convictions… our constitution protects definition one. Nothing enshrines secularist definition number 2 and so says law making is to be a totally rational exercise built on natural law arguments; that’s a choice. Our practices are leading to a particular sort of ‘secular’ outcome in terms of definition 3 where we’re going to make it harder and harder for people who don’t share our convictions to be convinced by us about their merit.

Why would we play by ‘rules’ that people have made specifically to neutralise an authentically Christian voice (or perhaps, rather, an inauthentic Christian voice, the voice that acts as a moral authority apart from the Gospel)?

To do that only reinforces our age’s wrong beliefs about the world, and it also enforces wrong beliefs about what we Christians are on about.

The answer to this question of how we participate in secular politics is not more nature; it’s not trying to play the game by these ‘rational’ rules; the answer is to promote a right, ‘enchanted,’ understanding of the natural world as the basis for making good decisions about life together.

It’s the Gospel. Even if people don’t buy it. Even if they laugh.

If ‘serving created things’ is the problem at the heart of idolatry and ‘secularism’, then why would we play by the rules of a game that says its those created things that determine truth and the common ground for good life together in our world? Isn’t it possible we achieve more for people by making the political case that we should see the world as it truly is (and as it has been seen for most of political history everywhere).

If the Gospel is what Paul says it is (the power of God that brings salvation — Romans 1:16), then why wouldn’t we include it in how we speak into a truly secular liberal democracy where all views are ideally held in tension.

If the Gospel is the thing that unlocks people’s ability to actually live rightly in the world, then why would we speak as though that is found anywhere else?

If the Gospel actually creates a compelling counter-politics to the politics of the world, and it is the way God makes himself known to us, and saves us, and creates his subversive kingdom, then why wouldn’t we take every opportunity afforded to us in political dialogues to make the case for its vision of love and human flourishing?

Why play by other people’s rules when it leads to us playing a totally different game?

Why settle for less? Why play a game that neutralises our home field advantage?

We can’t expect our law makers to make laws that accommodate our views if, at every turn, we speak into that process in a way that plays by rules of a totally different game to the one we play. And choosing to try to play a different game to the one we normally play doesn’t just take away our advantage by levelling the playing field, it makes us look like idiots and it destroys our ability to promote our ‘game’ as the one worth playing.

Why don’t we pick up the ball offered to us in a democracy that gives us the chance to speak (via submissions to enquiries, in conversations with our local members, and ministers, using whatever platforms we can find, including the floor of parliament) and speak the power of God? Why don’t we play our game on their field (because it’s actually God’s field, and our field, and letting them make the rules is odd)? Why don’t we pick up the ball and run with it until someone tackles us? While the crowd laughs and mocks? Which is presumably what happened to William Webb-Ellis. I bet he got pounded. But it seems to be worth it…

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Join a party, for God’s sake: An interview with Hilary, a Christian who’s a member of the ALP

I wrote recently about why one might consider joining a political party for the sake of being a faithful Christian presence in the world; even if the party platform involves compromising your Christian beliefs (so as to work towards better outcomes by ‘getting your hands dirty’). At the bottom of that post I mentioned that I’d reached out to some friends who I know are members of the major parties. My friend Hilary is an ALP member, and here are some of her thoughts about how the Gospel works in the political realm.

Like I said in that post, there are good Christian rationales for being involved in either the conservative or progressive sides of the political divide (depending on your picture of progress, or what you’re trying to conserve), or the left and the right (perhaps depending on whether you see responsibility for the ordering of society resting in the hands of the individual or in structural/systemic change). I’m not wanting this to be partisan, and have also asked a couple of Liberal/National Party friends to respond to the same questions. Back when I was living in Townsville, I interviewed the then perennial Greens candidate in North Queensland, Jenny Stirling, who is a Christian, about her membership of the Greens (and if you’re reading this and you’re a member of the Greens I’d love to hear from you on these questions too).

Why did you sign up/ why are you still a member.

I first joined the ALP when I was about 18 because I was very interested in current affairs and politics (no aspirations for myself, I just wanted to be involved in what was happening in our country, talking with other people who were keen about it too and helping support candidates when elections rolled around).

I’m still a member for the same reasons, plus a few more.  I was pretty idealistic and black and white about things back in my late teens/early twenties days, and as many have found out, it turns out things are a lot more grey than would be convenient.  While I think I was originally very firmly of the opinion that ALP equals the right policy and everyone else is wrong, that’s not my position anymore.

I find some of the party’s practices (when in government) and policies (in and out of office) problematic but my decision to remain a member is based on my belief that there is no perfect party; as a member I have the opportunity to be involved in pushing for better policies from within (and so much of that goes on); and I still feel feel a sense of responsibility/obligation/calling to participate, rather than sit on the sidelines.  Having said that, I’m a pretty inactive party member these days and haven’t been to a branch meeting for a very long time.

 How do politics and faith mix for you?

Growing up in a family with Christian parents heavily involved in politics, this question has always seemed strange to me, because there’s never been a separation.  Both have always been part of my life and I absorbed an attitude seeing political activity as one means of serving others.

I can try to analyse how it fits together and how to explain it to others who haven’t had that particular upbringing, but it really is hard for me to separate.

The world is a broken place.  I truly believe that the Bible provides the context and the answer to this, and I know that Jesus is my only way to have a right relationship with God.  Jesus has called me to repent and believe, and I have done that.

Christians having accepted Jesus’ salvation still live in a broken world.  We’re told to be in the world but not of the world.  We do not live in a Christian nation, despite what some would say, and we should not be trying to make Australia (or anywhere) into Christendom, which didn’t work out that great anyway.

I honestly feel that my involvement in politics (at its varying levels over the years) is an (not the only) outworking of my faith.  The purpose of my involvement in politics is to seek justice, good governance, equality and peace for all members of our communities, whether I agree with them on their politics or not, and certainly whether or not they are Christians.

There are some policies of the ALP that I will not ever agree with.  There are many that I do.  The same could be said for a Christian who is a member of another political party. I freely accept that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ do not share the same political opinions as I do.  In fact, they might list the same things I have above and see the best way of achieving them as being involved in a different party.   I respect that.  Jesus comes first, and we’re united in God’s family.  Political beliefs comes second and I can agree to disagree with other Christians.

What opportunities are there for Christians to work towards the common good via faithful presence in these institutions (the parties) that are part of life in Australia?

There is limitless opportunity.

Christians have a responsibility (and I do not believe that we all really grapple with this to the extent that we should) to think beyond abortion and same sex marriage as issues that require their attention.  These are the go to topics raised when politics comes up.  I think we do a disservice to the gospel by limiting our opinions and action to these issues.  If you join or vote for a party that has policies you like about those two issues, great.  What about everything else?

Christians have an enormous amount to offer in terms of shaping all sorts of policies, because if your conscience is informed by your salvation in Christ, you will be seeking justice and mercy for the weak and the strong in every area of their lives.  Every area of political leadership is a moral issue.  Christians involved in politics have the opportunity to have a say on all the issues that affect people – health, education, social housing, the economy, everything else.  Those issues are worthy of our attention, and we neglect them badly.

If you are a Christian involved in a party, or actually involved in elected office, you will come up against things that are very difficult to reconcile with the gospel and part of being part of a political party means you may have to accept policies from time to time that do not match up with your personal beliefs.  Non-Christians in political parties deal with this too (think refugee policy).  Smart and passionate people play the long game – there’s work to be done within the party.

Having said that, there may be some issues that you can never reconcile, and that is difficult.  But I come back to the fact that we are not entitled to impose the principles of a Christian life on everyone else, we are not living in a “Christian nation”, and whether or not you succeed in getting the majority of your party to agree with you on a particular issue, that does not negate the greater contribution that can be made by those who love and serve Jesus in loving and serving others in the way they engage with politics, in seeking to love and serve the greater population.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… Hands shaped by the cross of our King

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some words of caution from James Davison Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

writingtoapolitician

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

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

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

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

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

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

So be gracious and charitable.

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

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

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

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

So be wise and humble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So love with actions; not just words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bloody Hands: What our media and our politicians teach us about us

“People of Rome, we are once again free!” —Brutus, after the death of Caesar


Image: Carl Theodor Von Piloty, Caesar’s Death, via Wikicommons

I keep reading that the problem with Aussie politics is politicians keep turfing/knifing/assassinating one another without going to the people for a vote/voice. I keep hearing media pundits who are angry about leadership changes, but don’t acknowledge the blood on their own hands. Like Karl, in these two clips from the Today Show this morning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvnapHMSUiU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnMm7JFpZq0

I keep hearing politicians blaming the media. But I’m pretty sure this is a problem with the vox populi. The voice of the people. It’s too loud. It’s too selfish. It’s too powerful. And both the media and our politicians — people who should know better, and should have roles to uphold in public life — are too reactive to this voice. And not active enough in calling us, the public, to match our voice with actions. To do more than just sit on the couch and (loudly) express our discontent as we consume media, which exists, at least in part, to fuel our desire to consume our politicians. It’s a vicious cycle, and this viciousness is at least, in part, our fault.

I think the problem is that our voice is now too loud. It’s amplified by social media, by polling, by a media that increasingly makes us part of their coverage (check out the number of news stories featuring impromptu vox pops via Twitter, or report on discussions on social media as though they are substantial, or required for substantive coverage of a complex issue).

There’s a certain amount of the 5 Prime Ministers in 5 years story that is down to political opportunists within their parties — but most would be leaders want to lead, and have some sense of how that leadership should happen. Rudd and Abbott were both, in some measure, brought down because they concentrated too much power in the hands of an unelected few — their staffers — at the expense of their elected colleagues. Both parties appear to play a game predicated on holding on to government, rather than governing well. But they can be excused for doing this, because our political parties, and parliaments, are actually full of people who’ve put their hands up and said “we want to make a difference” and “we believe in something” and power in a democracy is fundamentally based, and held, on providing good government. Or so it should be. People who want power for power’s sake either already have billions of dollars, and treat parliament with contempt, or they get weeded out by the system. I’ve met quite a few politicians from local, state, and federal politics — as a trainee journalist, in my role with an economic development lobby group in North Queensland, and through various connections — and just about every one of them, from all sides of the political spectrum (including Bob Katter) have been more than decent. They’ve been people of character and virtue seeking the good of their neighbours according to their ideologies. You wouldn’t know it from our media, or from the public perception of politicians — but I think public perception drives the way politicians are portrayed in the media as much as the media drives public perception of politicians. Plus. We make it so difficult for politicians that they constantly walk on egg shells, we nail them for deviating from whatever script we think they should be following, and then complain that they’re ‘robotic’ or ‘inauthentic’… We also tend to believe that government, managing the competing priorities of individuals and community groups, and managing an economy, is simple. I’ve been guilty of this myself.

Why is it that making good decisions and making popular decisions seem to be at odds when they should be synonymous? It’s that we, the people, are typically driven by one agenda. Selfishness. It’s almost politically impossible to bring in unpopular policy that is good policy. And part of that impossibility is the 24 hour news cycle (and its in built cynicism about people who hold public office). This news cycle bombards us with story after story about policies that potentially come at our cost. And so, opinion turns. With social media we don’t just get the media we deserve, we create it. People share outrageous things, and express outrage, as a default.

But good government costs us, and it requires selflessness, rather than selfishness.

We’re facing a population that, on average, will be much older than populations of the past. We’re unhealthier than ever because we stuff our faces with convenient junk food. We are selfish with our money and don’t want to pay more tax in order to pay down spiralling debt. We want government spending on quick fix solutions, or entertainment precincts, where we see an immediate benefit rather than long term infrastructure projects. These problems require tough solutions that come at our cost. But try selling those to the electorate. As Ross Gittins says, we’ve become a nation of selfish contradiction.

People lay the blame for our political unrest at the feet of the media, there was a hint of that in Tony Abbott’s gracious concession speech, but the media is feeding a demand that we create. We buy more, watch more ads, and engage more when there’s a hint of blood than we do when things are business as usual. My Facebook feed last night is evidence of this.

Your voice has not been taken away. Sure, you might never have been polled personally, but polls work because they reflect the people who respond to them, and they get responses from enough people (though only around 6% of people who are asked, are prepared to respond) to give an accurate picture of public opinion. And if it’s not accurate, that’s probably as much the fault of the 94% of people who don’t care enough to respond when polled. Having your voice heard might start with never saying no to an opinion poll, even if the call comes at dinner time.

Even without polls. You have a voice all year around. It’s not just contained in the very small percentage of people who are polled, so that the media know who we want in office. You know what speaks louder than polls? Being active in public life. Writing letters. Calling talkback radio. Speaking out. Serving. Volunteering. Joining a party and becoming part of the process of forming policy. Working in the public service. Meeting your local member. Loving your local member, regardless of ideology. Thanking them for serving you even if the knife is never far from their back, and the electoral precipice that we’re so keen to tip them over, is never too many steps ahead.

Our say has never been taken away. It’s been amplified. Our political turmoil is a reflection of politicians who react too quickly to public sentiment, and a media that is getting really good at quickly gauging public sentiment, but also increasingly good at shaping it. Stop being shaped by the media and start shaping it. Read beyond your circle. Selflessly pursue truth, and share it. Share ideas you disagree with, with grace and charity, not just to show how engaged and superior you are to those who are governing. Be charitable to people on both sides of the political divide rather than immediately, and naively, adversarial. Converse. Find common ground. Try to understand why people hold ideologies other than your own. This stuff isn’t rocket science, but our public square, and the players in it (increasingly including us via social media) are actively working against these ends.

Until we make it clear that we don’t actually want to be governed by a popular politician we’re going to be increasingly subject to a media (and a social media) that is increasingly reactive, and increasingly able to quickly take the whimful pulse of an Australian public. We’re not just driven by whims, we have short attention spans, we love outrage and controversy. We’re fickle. We turn against people quickly on the basis of what we read in the media — be it traditional media, or social media — that has a vested interest in serving us up material that conforms with our ideology (whether we pick our media outlet, or a social media algorithm picks who is serving us up content), and wants to keep us outraged because outrage is sexy, and it sells.

We need to break this cycle which is, at every level, built on the selfishness of the public. Politicians can’t govern well for us because we are selfish. The media caters to our selfishness and self interest because it exists to sell products, and hold an audience. And we, the audience, keep coming back. If we want our voice to be heard in the public square, maybe its time we earned it by working for the good of the public, not our own good? Maybe it starts with a better public square. A better conversation. Maybe it starts with this idea the ABC’s Scott Stephens shared at a recent conference on Faith and Public Office.

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

This idea was caught up with giving the public voice its proper place, and including the excluded voices from that public voice. But Stephen’s vision for the public square went beyond this, it involved a move from the sort of public square that relies on people reflecting the public’s already entrenched (selfish) views back at itself to reinforce them. It involved stepping beyond cynicism into the realm of the imagination, fanning our ability to imagine and work towards something better than we have, rather than just trying to toss out stuff we don’t like. The problem with how things currently play out is that our media reflects our self interest. Stephens expanded his vision for this virtuous public broadcaster with the below, but social media might give us this opportunity. Instead of being an opportunity for more of the same, just without the code of ethics and the professionalism of the mainstream press, these aren’t direct quotes, they’re notes I belted out as Stephens spoke, but they do articulate a picture of something better that we might be a part of:

Is it the role of the broadcaster to give people a vision of what they already think on whatever device they want. The moral responsibility of a public broadcaster has to be something larger than that.

More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common.

All journalists want their watergate moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.

Maybe if we start modelling this our politicians will listen, and so too, will the media. Maybe we should, whether we’re part of the church or not, take on this picture of a virtuous contributor to the public square. We have an opportunity via social media to be a new kind of public broadcaster…

Maybe the first step is being comfortable with silence. Using it to contemplate, rather than looking to fill it with arguments and new information that we assess through the prism of our selfish, unimaginative, hearts. The things we tend to imagine, at least in my experience, tend to be caught up with our own self interest, and our idols, rather than the common good and what such a good will cost us (though the common good, itself, can be an idol).

It’s not just our politicians and our press that have blood on their hands. We do too.

23 stab wounds create a fair bit of blood, so you can imagine that as Brutus proclaimed a freedom the Roman people hadn’t asked for, in the aftermath of the assassination of Caesar, he had pretty bloodied hands. Unlike the people of Rome who locked themselves in their houses when Caesar was deposed, and disposed of, because they didn’t want responsibility for his death, we locked ourselves in our own houses last night to watch the execution of a leader. With popcorn. And pithy insights. The blood is on our hands because the assassination, in part, was of our making. A product of our selfish, fickle, hearts, and the self-interested, fickle, public square this creates via the media and political scene that sets itself up and operates according to our whims.

But let’s, for a moment, imagine a different way forward — a different path to freedom. A different sort of blood on our hands.

People of Australia, we won’t be free until we stop crying for blood, we won’t be free until we’re prepared to start spilling our own blood for others.

Those of us who follow the crucified king have a model for a contribution to public life that involves blood on his hands, and our own. And it’s not through the knifing of others. It does involve the death of a king though — and its in this death, and this story, that we see what it might actually cost us to break the hold of selfishness on our hearts, and our minds. It’s this model of open-handed, sacrificial, love that will undo our grasping, and get our hand off the knife. The great irony, of course, is that the execution of Jesus was an example of grasping human hands wanting to usurp the rule of God, and it was an expression of those grasping hands at the start of the Bible, in Eden, that reached out, again, to push God from the picture. Grasping like this is part of the human condition. It shouldn’t surprise us to find the blood of a leader on our hands because we don’t like tobe lead. Selfishly, we love our autnomy. We’ll kill for it — and we’ll end careers for it. It’s why we have blood on our hands. It’s why we grab for the knife. It’s why politics in our country is a fraught business. And it’s why something’s got to give. We’ll always have blood on our hands — the choice is whether its someone else’s, taken for our own good, or ours shed for the good of others, just as his blood was shed for us. The suffering servant, the one who gives of himself, and his comfort, for the sake of others, is a famous picture from Isaiah the prophet in the Old Testament that very clearly describes Jesus, is the real “shepherd of the public square” and keeper of the moral ecology.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. — Isaiah 53:5-6

It’s in Jesus that we see this play out. In his approach to power, in his failure to ‘grasp,’ in his being bloodied on our behalf. This is the pattern we might follow if we want to end the bloodshed, and change the public square for its good, at our cost. It is, too, how we might come close to solving some of the big political dilemmas of our time. Dilemmas created by human selfishness. Because its where we see love that brings freedom in all its bloody-handed fullness.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.— Philippians 2:5-8

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12 Great ideas on Faith and Public Office

The Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s worth learning how to wrap your tongue around the multiple syllables, or trying to remember the acronym (CSSRS). It’s based at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland (where Queensland Theological College also resides), and is headed up by Dr Leigh Trevaskis. A top bloke with PhDs in science and theology. It’s aiming to provide an interface between the academic world and the classical Christian faith, and has regular events and a website that will (hopefully) have increasingly valuable content as these conferences take place and fill the digital airwaves (pixelwaves?) with content.

The Centre just held a conference on Faith and Public Office, I tagged along in my capacity as a member of the Presbyterian Church’s committee that thinks about the intersection between faith and public office (and to write a news story about the day that will maybe one day feature in the Eternity newspaper). I don’t want to steal the thunder of that story too much, but a 650 word news story (I can still write in less than 6,000 words) is bound to miss some goodness from the stellar line up of panelists. It was a terrific conference, and I’ll be keeping an eye on upcoming CSSRS events.

galileotrial
Image: The Trial of Galileo, a picture of faith and public office coming together in a possibly not so helpful way, and the banner image of the CSSRS.

1. A beneficial public square is a public square that hears all voices. A public square that silences dissenting voices and views, or establishes a common denominator that excludes richness is a path to catastrophe.

This was a sort of universally agreed upon point. Former Deputy PM John Anderson gave the opening speech, kicking off a theme that carried through the day. The public square benefits from people of faith bringing their views to the table – not just ‘natural law’ arguments or arguments based upon an agreed upon set of common assumptions – because hearing all views is vital to a liberal, secular, democracy. The suggestion that views need to be evidence based and speak only of things that everyone agrees on, especially when it is used to silence faith based voices, is not secular but secularist.

If only voices that speak according to an already established general consensus are allowed to be heard, then that consensus will never be able to shift. Anderson gave the example of voices from outside agreed upon norms that have achieved great change, and present examples that should be heard in order to provoke thought. He suggested William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and secular ethicist Peter Singer would all be ruled out of contributions to public life on the basis of the assumption that conversation must start with common agreement, rather than seek it.

In speaking of the need for a better public square, many of the contributors acknowledged the challenges presented by social media, as well as the tendency for people to shout down views they’re opposed to with increasingly vitriolic methods. But more on that below.

2. Public life, and public office, based on reason, evidence, and the rule of law alone is not enough to stoke the fires of the imagination.

We need a more comprehensive narrative and a fuller view of humanity that speaks to the heart and soul, not just the mind. The conference was co-sponsored by UQ’s Law School, and the head of the Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington opened the festivities with the observation that public life becomes soulless if it just emphasises the bones and foundation of the rule of law and rationality. If that’s all we have, she said:

“The aching of the soul finds no relief in secular politics; civic life has become a farcical drama”

Others observed that the imagination will only be fired if people in the public square introduce counter-narratives that both have a place for the use of the imagination and the heart, and fire those parts of our humanity up in the process. These aren’t exclusively the domain of the Christian, but the Christian has a pretty good story that’ll do this.

3. We need virtuous heroes to speak into this public square to remind us of what has shaped the good parts of where we are today.

It’s not really enough to just be a good political strategist. A few of the panelists, especially those closest to the political scene, moved the discussion about the ideal politician from someone bound by duty to represent the will of the public, to someone elected on the basis of virtue. Fiona Simpson spoke about virtuous servant leadership using Kathleen Patterson’s model of servant leadership, which lists the virtues as:

  1. agape love
  2. humility
  3. altruism
  4. vision
  5. trust
  6. empowerment
  7. service

I’m all for virtue ethics. I found her presentation interesting when it was paired with Michael Cooney’s presentation on The Faithful Partisan in Public Office. Cooney is Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and former speechwriter for Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He’s a church going, card carrying, member of the Labor movement. He talked about a few things but his basic thesis was that the pursuit of political neutrality, or fence sitting, doesn’t really serve anybody all that well. There’s a bit about the implications of this when it comes to commentators trying to appear objective below, but he suggested there’s a real moral challenge for partisan stakeholders when they’re participating in a party that requires holding to a party platform you might disagree with. There’s some interesting ground to unpack here on the Catholic roots of the Labor Party and its approach to ‘excommunication’ versus the Coalition’s less strident position on floor crossing outside cabinet. But Cooney spoke about the challenge of being a faithful partisan – in being both faithful to God and the Party – he talked about political martyrs, those who disagree with a party’s position, and walk away. He said it’s easy to find your way out of politics, with integrity via martyrdom. What’s harder is finding your way still in. Staying in the party. He discussed this harder way using a political dilemma, the Dirty Hands metaphor. This is for cases where a political actor is forced to choose between two bad options. Cooney doesn’t think martyrdom in the face of dirty hands is the best way to serve the public, or a partisan ideology. It’s not enough to just wash your hands of situations like this to avoid being confronted by the mess of structuring messy lives via politics. He quoted this article by Michael Walzer which posits a “suffering servant” leader as the ideal actor through messy dirty hands scenarios, one who knows they are sacrificing themselves and the cleanliness of their hands, for the sake of others. For Cooney (and Walzer), the virtuous partisan political decision maker navigates the dirty hands that come from being involved in the system by being someone of virtue, conviction, and conscience, someone who we can be confident acts as rightly as they can because when they do the wrong thing, they know and believe its a wrong thing, not the best thing. Importantly, Cooney made the point that the partisan doesn’t just operate on behalf of the party, but also the partial. He said “the party is not your city” – partisan participation in politics isn’t just a question of “right politics” but the “good society” and the way to really achieve that, as a partisan, is via humility and repentance. Rather than opting for martyrdom, he suggested partisans should be penitents rather than saints. This is his picture of a political hero.

John Anderson’s vision of the virtuous political actor – the hero – is somewhat embodied by William Wilberforce (and the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury), but also drawn from a speech by Churchill. He loves the way Wilberforce approached politics seeking to bring about social good as the fruits of his faith, rather than detaching them in a secularist sense.

This is what it looks like to be remembered as a virtuous hero. Churchill’s hero, and Anderson’s, is mindful of history and speaks truth to people who are all too willing to forget history – in this context people who are wilfully ignorant of the fact that a liberal secular democracy – and all the things we love about the system – is, historically, the fruit of Christian principles about human dignity being applied to politics.

“One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. This culture is the embodiment of everything the people of that society hold dear: its religious faith, it’s heroes… when one generation no longer esteems it’s own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid. This leaves that generation without any sense of definition or direction, making them the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s dictum, ‘A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.’ What is required when this happens and the society has lost its way, is for leaders to arise who have. It forgotten the discarded legacy and who loves it with all their hearts. They can then become the voice of that lost generation, wooing an errant generation back to the faith of their fathers, back to the ancient foundations and bedrock values.” – Winston Churchill

What’s interesting, I think, is that all these models of talking about virtuous servant leadership talk a little around the example of Jesus, rather than self-consciously being shaped by the example of Jesus. As much as we need to keep acknowledging the gap between our leadership and Jesus’ perfect servant leadership, we are being transformed into his image, and we are united with him by the Spirit (this isn’t necessarily the lynchpin of Catholic theology, and Cooney, at least, was speaking as a Catholic). Jesus is the real virtuous suffering servant, who embodies the true forms of Patterson’s virtues and remembered human history perfectly, drawing on it in order to speak rightly. Anderson did make a bit of a deal about his political heroes consciously seeking to base their actions in the Gospel, and the imitation of Christ, but he turned to Churchill, rather than Jesus, to provide the framework.

In the panel at the end someone, I think the ABC’s Scott Stephens, made the comment that virtues are taught by example. By story. Not by rules and regulations. We need more people leading by example.

4. Winsome and thoughtful contributions that assume the validity of our faith based framework are necessary, because actions are shaped by ideology.

I think it’s interesting given point 2, above, and the desire expressed by the speakers for truth-speaking, virtuous political actors and a public sphere that accepts all voices, that so many Christian voices buy into secularist assumptions and speak into the public sphere using natural law arguments, or arguments devoid of soul, imagination, and an attempt to articulate the divine mind. We’ve accepted the secularist position as the secular position without challenging its assumptions. And now. It’s coming back to bite.

Dr Joel Harrison is a law lecturer at Macquarie University, he spoke about the problem this presents in the legal sphere, where jurists now reject any transcendent rationale for behaviour in the real world, the legal system is increasingly dismissive of reasons for behaviour that are not based on common assumptions, and (in a technical sense “more immanent”) evidence based (meaning empircal, science based or logic based) models, for human flourishing. Harrison cautioned that we need to find ways to speak into this world, but we also need to be modelling winsome alternative visions of the good that accommodate a sense of the transcendent. Part of the reason he gave for the legal system moving this way is how poorly such alternatives have been argued in the legal sphere, and in past cases. He suggested contributions that re-introduce, or assume, the validity of the Christian narrative might be a way forward. He suggested Nicholas Aroney’s presentation on The Role of Oaths in Public Office was a good example of what this might look like. It’ll be worth a read when it gets released or published.

5. We must match political arguments with an ‘eloquent life’ in public

Anderson quoted Wilberforce’s epitaph. Which I love.

“He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men.”

6. The media’s pursuit of ‘objectivity’ leaves the media commenting on and highlighting questions of political strategy rather than substance and issues (lest they be seen to take sides).

Cooney made this point as he spoke about the common belief that somehow fence-sitting or non-partisanship is somehow a greater good, or a more ethical and virtuous position. Cooney’s broader point was that rightness and wrongness can’t easily be assessed from a disinterested position or the centre. He suggested that in not actually digging to the bottom of issues (to avoid being accused of being partisan) the media has to comment on less substantial issues.

7. The media has a self interest in defining the public and reflecting the public’s views back at itself as a new orthodoxy. This process is dangerous.

Scott Stephens, from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal, gave a terrific presentation on the nature of the public, and the public press, and the public square. I hope it gets published somewhere because he crammed three hours worth of great content into 45 minutes. He outlined the process by which the press enlarged, empowered, hollowed out, and then dismembered the public. Here are a some of the questions he raised (and largely answered, though some of them remained questions, and a couple of the points he made that outline this story of the relationship between the media and the public. These are in quote marks to show they come from Scott, but they’re hastily typed notes, not verbatim.

The rise of the public happens alongside the rise of the media. The media never tires of repeating this story, because the media is the hero of the story. The heroic narrative is the story of the throwing off of the old order, the regime of monarchy and church. The press fuelled the revolution, then gradually took its modern form, where it became the medium by which common ideas were debated.

If the popular press is a plebiscite in permanence, then what happens is the press becomes the vehicle that extracts what people think, and turns around and tells people, “this is what you really think”… ?

The more people see themselves reflected in the public press, the more interested they become in the public press. In order for the popular press to be the popular press, the people need to become actors in the public square.

How does this help when it comes to issues that are extraordinarily complex? When you actually want expertise not populism?

This all led to opinion polling, which enshrines the plebiscite in permanence function. When polling started there was a rapid uptake by the public. People polled responded more than 80% of the time, but there was a slow uptake from the media. Now. 6-7% of people polled respond to polling requests, but the stories about opinion polls are the major drivers of stories.

8. Journalists have adopted cynicism as something intrinsic to the role of journalism, this is dangerous to the ‘public’

This is another part of the media story which explains why giving the press the role we have is a little dangerous to both those in public office, and those of us who make up their “public”…

Young journos who came of age during the cold war really wanted to get back into “muckraking” – not offering the sort of faith to public figures that they’d had in the past, but instead to view public officers with skepticism and distrust. Inspired by Watergate (and All The Presidents Men) the journalist became the modern hero. At the expense of the politicians. Keep tabs on how many ‘-gates’ we have these days as journalists hunt for their own version.

Cynicism became a journalistic virtue. Once you take cynicism and disrupt the big channels of communication, and begin to disaggregate the way people get their information, that’s the perfect storm. You’re supercharging it. It’s a climate of suspicion and doubt.

More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common. All journalists want their moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.

9. The church might have a role to play (along with an ethically minded public broadcaster) in shaping the public square in a way that is beneficial to society and especially for voices at the margins.

This was perhaps my favourite quote from my favourite presentation at the conference…

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

This is probably a good way of articulating a big question that I’ve been grappling with both in my own head, and in some recent posts. This is the virtuous and heroic thing for us to do, according to the views of public heroism outlined above, but it’s also the thing that will ensure we maintain a voice at the table even as the public shifts away from us.

10. Social media might be part of the solution. But it is dangerous.

A few speakers, both in their presentations and in the panel discussion at the end, expressed a sense of dismay about the state of the public square, and the way social media seems to be an amplified version of some of the problems with traditional media, where people angrily clamour at one another belting out screeds using keyboards that are sent to wide audiences via ubiquitous screens. There was a sense of optimism from some people that social media could be a game changer, and I believe it could be something the church (and the public broadcaster) use to play the role Stephens articulated above. But it’s a question of creating a platform that genuinely invites all voices to be heard, and that’s harder than it sounds. Cooney, who often belts out partisan opinion pieces in a couple of hours for the ABC’s The Drum, and a few others, acknowledged that there are heaps of online platforms that function just like Q&A, where people go hunting for an ideological champion. People on the panel generally agreed that The Conversation is a pretty good model of what this sort of platform looks like (even if it is a little high brow).

Michael Cooney reckoned the biggest game changer in social media is that it changes the way we receive content. It’s not the concentrated editorial policy of a publication with an agenda (and he, as a partisan, acknowledged there are commercial media outlets both sides expect favourable treatment from), but articles shared by friends and people you follow as trusted curators. I think this is certainly true if you can navigate the noise of Twitter. But Facebook is a little more pernicious. The “filter bubble” effect means you’re just as likely to become entrenched in your views on social media as you are in the mainstream (see this piece on coverage of the Israel v Palestine conflict in the newsfeed of various Facebook users), unless you deliberately give voice to people you disagree with, or who have a different perspective to you, and pay attention to them. This means combating the default settings of Facebook’s algorithm (and to an extent, Google’s search algorithms).

The question I wanted to ask the panel was:

Given that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says his social media platform functions with the underlying principle that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” and given online media is increasingly curated via algorithms that create this ‘filter bubble’ that are designed to give us what we want to see, how might we play the role Scott Stephens suggests as “keeper of the moral ecology” – the giving and protecting of voices, especially marginalized voices, in an age where new media exists in a ‘filter bubble’? What does this look like?

This, I think, is the question the church absolutely needs to grapple with if we want to play a significant role in the public square, and even, I think, if we want to have a voice in the public square into the future.

11. We need more silence. The Media (and social media) operate as Kierkegaardian “irresponsible speech”

Scott Stephens spoke about Kierkegaard’s (very negative) view of the press, and the sense that moral thought is something that comes through silence as a person considers what is right and true, not through simply speaking opinion without any responsibility or obligation being attached to your words. Both the media and social media function as noisy echo chambers that don’t give people the silence they need to consider moral questions, and worse, they simply entrench opinions people already hold (this is even more dangerous if the social media world is shaped by algorithms and filter bubbles, but Stephens didn’t get to speak much about that). He did speak about the problem with the media as typified by panel discussion shows…

The debate itself, the nature of the conversation, destroys the conversation. The way in which the conversation is had pulls down all sides. It’s about appealing to one’s constituents rather than persuading. All people do is appeal to their constituents so audiences now expect a champion to speak for their point of view well, not to be persuaded. WE don’t get the best versions of the arguments but cardboard cutouts. You already know what people are going to say. The point is that an already fractured audience can look at the panel and say “there’s my champion” and “there’s the person I love to hate”

12. Politics is a tricky business. And we need more people of character. More prayer. More understanding. And more politicians following the ‘golden rule’

In her opening address to the conference, the head of UQ’s Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington, talked about how people of faith in public office have come up with a common agreement about a golden rule that guides their contributions to public life. I tried to capture as much of this golden rule as I could, but I missed a couple of bits.

The Golden Rule involves always showing respect for the other, acknowledging the limits of one’s understanding, listening patiently, using precise language, trying to understand the experience that led to the other person’s views, looking for mutual agreement. Praying for leaders. Not using inflammatory words or derogatory names, not delighting in difficulties, not assaulting character or falsely assuming motives, not demonizing, not questioning the patriotism of others.

Derrington quoted a prayer from Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, as a prayer that is a model for how faithful office bearers might pray.

You who are over us,
You who are one of us,
You who are also within us,
May all see you-in me also.
May I prepare the way for you,
May I thank you for all
that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Give me a pure heart-that I may see you.
A humble heart-that I may hear you,
A heart of love-that I may serve you,
A heart of faith-that I may abide in you. Amen.

I like this. One thing I was reminded, hearing from various people engaged in public life, in various roles, in a most excellent conference, was that one way the church is meant to serve those who serve us — be they people of faith or otherwise — is through prayer. Faithful prayer because we have a virtuous suffering servant as our true king, who marks out our true citizenship, defines virtue by example, and calls us to live where we are as exiles who live good lives for the sake of our neighbours and enemies. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”